NextGen Know-How: The 3 Most Important Leadership Actions During a Crisis

gardener transplanting hyacinth bulb in colorful spring flower bed
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC Photo
Executive Coach/Consultant
Envision Excellence

7 minutes

Follow these tips to cultivate strong relationships and engagement with your employees.

I’m writing this article from my walk-in closet during the second week of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Right now it’s the quietest place in my house as we navigate this new normal. My regular office is being used by one of my three kids—who are being “homeschooled” while my husband and I balance running two businesses virtually. I’m not sure how much learning is happening right now, but we are doing our best to manage this challenging situation. This is real life. It’s messy and it’s difficult.

Each of your employees has their own challenges during this unprecedented time. Some may have elderly parents who are at higher risk, some find themselves teaching their children while they juggle work and others may have a spouse who is self-employed or was recently laid off. Each situation is different, yet many of us are experiencing the same emotions of fear, uncertainty and frustration.

Many of my credit union clients have been working overtime to get their employees set up remotely so they can continue to serve their members as effectively as possible. Some are strategizing how to handle the uncertain economic outlook. These are all important and urgent responsibilities that credit union leaders need to navigate. But leadership is not just about solving problems. There is another important responsibility that we should not forget while we work to ensure our operations run as smoothly as possible: caretaking the culture.

Now, more than ever, it is important for leaders to put their leadership skills into practice. Leadership is a verb—it requires action. Just like a garden requires water, soil and sun to thrive, relationships require cultivation to thrive. This means leaders need to show up, connect, support and provide clarity for their team members, especially during challenging times. Exceptional leaders will rise to the challenge and do what they do best: connect with each human being who is on their team and listen, support and encourage. But I fear mediocre managers will hide behind their laptops and focus on technical work rather than the critical actions required of great leaders.

Below are three areas to focus on to be an exceptional leader and manage your team in this uncertain time:

1. Acknowledge and address emotions.

This is so important during tough situations and cannot be overlooked. Employees aren’t looking for a cheerleader to tell them to think positive and everything will be fine. It is important to provide hope for our employees, but only after we have acknowledged their feelings. Each manager must connect individually with each employee (preferably through video, if you are working remotely) to understand the impact the pandemic has had on them personally. This means scheduling a one-on- video call with every one of your employees to ask them how they are doing. Not only will this allow your employee to express their fears and challenges so they can work through them, but knowing this information will allow you to support each individual better.

I led a virtual leadership session this morning where we spent 45 minutes allowing the twelve attendees to share how the coronavirus has impacted them personally and how they are navigating the changes. By the end of the 45 minutes, the leaders were noticeably more positive and were sharing tips with each other on how to work in a virtual environment more effectively. One of the worst things leaders can do in a crisis is to gloss over the hard part (emotions) and focus on plans of action. People need to feel heard and understood before they can move to problem solving. You simply cannot ignore human emotions and fears. Your employees will appreciate that you care about them and their families, and they will respond with more discretionary effort. The Kubler-Ross Model—Stages of Grief is a great resource to understand how humans process not only grief, but big changes such as mergers, layoffs and pandemics.

2. Create clarity.

Communication is always an important part of leadership, but during challenging times, clear and frequent communication is even more critical. In a virtual work environment, the best way to create clarity and keep the lines of communication open is to create structures to support dialogue.

  • Virtual meetings: I recommend holding at least one team meeting each week and regular check-in calls with your direct reports. One of my clients is holding a morning and end-of-day check in call with their teams every day. In the morning, they set the goals for the day (creating clarity for what needs to get done) and in the afternoon they check-in on progress. This has kept their projects moving along on schedule. Mediocre and poor managers tend to take the easy route by retreating to their virtual office while focusing on their own technical work. Exceptional leaders know that the effort they put into creating communication structures will keep everyone engaged and on track.
  • Office hours: Another great practice for supporting your employees is to create weekly virtual “office hours.” Much like a professor has office hours when students can drop in to get help or ask questions, leaders can offer specific times during their week where employees can schedule individual time or drop in to chat with you.

3. Take care of the culture.

It can be challenging to keep a team engaged when they aren’t interacting in person every day, but it is possible to create connection virtually. Here are five tips for ensuring a positive, engaged culture during this time of social distancing:

  • Connect with each employee individually, preferably through video, at least once a week.
  • At the start of each team meeting, take some time for a short team-building exercise. Some of my favorites:
    • One Word: Ask each person to share one word to describe his or her state of mind. This is a great exercise to gauge how your employees are feeling.
    • New or Good: What is something new or good that has happened in the last week?
    • Questions: Pick one question that each person answers. For example, “What is the best vacation you have ever been on?”
    • Positivity Exercise: Give everyone one minute to write down anything positive that has happened in the past week. Ask each person to share one before the start of the meeting.
    • Ask each person to share a strategy or tip for working successfully from home.
  • Hold a virtual coffee or “happy hour” at the end of the week where everyone can bring their favorite drink and catch up socially. It’s important to build in time for people to connect outside of the typical task-focused meetings.
  • Send a handwritten card or a small gift in the mail to each employee to let them know you are thinking of them. You can order a book, bookmark, coffee mug, journal or even a box of chocolates online. (If you search “gift for employee” on Amazon, you will see some great options).
  • Recognize such milestones as work anniversaries, birthdays, marriage anniversaries and baby milestones at the start of weekly team meetings. Encourage employees to share a picture with the milestone. For example, while “homeschooling” my three kids last week, they all (finally) learned how to ride their bikes. That’s a huge win, as it gets them outside more!
  • Communicate and encourage boundaries. Some leaders worry that their employees don’t work hard enough when working from home, but a two-year study from Stanford University showed that employees in the study were 13% more productive when working from home. It’s important to encourage employees to set healthy boundaries like taking breaks, stopping work at a certain time and not checking emails after hours. Model this behavior for your staff and share with them how you create healthy boundaries so you can take care of yourself mentally and physically.

Being human and transparent during this time will allow you to strengthen your relationships with each employee and keep them engaged in their work. Remember, it is your responsibility as a leader to provide support, remove obstacles and create connection within your team—and it takes even more effort to do this in a virtual environment. Leadership is a privilege and a responsibility, and even under more typical circumstances, it takes daily effort and consistent practices to show up as an exceptional leader each day for your team.

Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of Envision Excellence LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or


CUES Learning Portal