COVID Lessons

5 Things COVID-19 Has Taught Talent Leaders About Crisis Management

Real organizations reveal how to stay resilient amid unprecedented change. Steal their strategies to emerge stronger than ever.

By Aaron Sorensen 

One of the silver linings of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has been the opportunity to reconnect with former clients and colleagues to learn about how their businesses are adapting, and how the talent function is having an impact.

The spotlight on the talent function (and HR more broadly) to rapidly develop and deploy agile workforce strategies has been intense, to say the least.

The stories of how organizations are responding to the crisis with creativity, agility, and resilience are inspiring. And the learnings from these discussions are too helpful not to share. So here are my five takeaways.

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Takeaway #1: Executives Must Lead from the Front and Drop the Corporate Veneer

One of the clearest signals coming from these discussions is that executive teams who “lead from the front,” especially in this crisis where so much is still unknown, are earning huge “trust points” that can’t be achieved through other means. Specifically, executives need to be highly visible, vulnerable, transparent, and unscripted.

“Talk is cheap,” one talent leader said, “but it’s the visible actions that really matter, and that’s what we’re nudging our execs to do.”

One logistics company that just went through a tough series of furloughs experienced week-over-week jumps in the “trust” dimension of their employee pulse survey, which they attributed to the openness and transparency of their leaders. 

Given the challenges of virtual interactions with a 10,000-plus-person workforce, the talent team (which included change management) used audience interaction technology known as Slido to facilitate massive town halls with the entire workforce in a virtual format. Executives were put on a virtual stage while the workforce submitted questions for them to openly address.

Similarly, a progressive wellness company in California decided the best way to remain connected to its largely millennial workforce was to initiate virtual town halls with the CEO on a weekly basis, fittingly labeled Ask Me Anything. Here again, the unscripted format and more organic crowdsourced dialogue fostered a better sense of authenticity, accessibility, and trust compared to nicely polished corporate communications. 

In fact, the moments when the CEO didn’t have the perfect answer were those where trust and authenticity were more engendered as measured by the “like” emoji buttons on the video stream. This company also experienced increases in its employee pulse measures.

Sure, lots of virtual meetings are happening, but here’s the key point: If you want to build trust—a precious asset in times of uncertainty—you can’t script leadership visibility, vulnerability, and transparency, all of which are at a premium now. 

Talent leaders, especially those with change management in their portfolios, should continue to encourage executives to drop the slides, ditch the scripted communications, and connect in a more humanistic manner with the workforce.  

Takeaway #2: Learning Must Be Deliberate as Other Talent Programs Are Paused

With some variations across industries, talent programs and processes like performance management, talent reviews, employee census surveys, and leadership programs are being put on hold until we’re on the other side of the curve. Few have the mental space right now while organizations try to protect resources and leaders fight to stabilize the value chain and retain revenue.

Several companies with whom I spoke have accordingly shifted the focus of their talent management teams toward upskilling the workforce in key technical areas and strengthening core organizational capabilities. To scale this effort, they’re utilizing various forms of learning cohorts focused on building new skills, but they’ve also found benefits in the new social connections these cohorts create within their companies. 

This shift, in many ways, has accelerated the transformation of talent management toward a more agile and business-oriented model enabled by technology, as I describe here.

In terms of upskilling, the energy seems to be around building technical skills in areas that continue to remain in demand, such as coding skills like Java, Python, Git, and AI. Much of this learning is through platforms like LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, and Udemy, which offer a blend of micro-learning (I need help now) and macro-learning (I want to learn something new).

One creative company identified three high-priority initiatives involving a technology stack for which they have limited depth. Recognizing that they were thin in certain skills, the Head of Talent (to whom learning reported) launched several cohorts of learners (about a dozen per group) and partnered with several full stack engineers to curate the most relevant online courses and lead these cohorts as they applied learning to the project.

Another talent leader, whose company’s capabilities in the area of innovation and digital omnichannel retailing have been significantly exposed by this crisis, is using the opportunity to bring in outside experts to create their own virtual academy for senior leaders and high potentials.

“Some of the leadership fundamentals that you’d typically see in leadership programs are taking a back seat to building specific capabilities that are our business needs now to emerge from this crisis in a stronger position,” she said.

To maintain social connections and continued development with recently furloughed staff, more than several leaders cited battles they won with corporate counsel to maintain access to learning platforms in addition to email and collaboration tools. Legality aside, extending the opportunity for employees to build skills at their own pace while collecting unemployment and employer-provided benefits has been very well received.

A few of these companies are also encouraging furloughed staff to focus on emerging skill development, outlining several learning “tracks” based on job families for furloughed employees. Many anticipate these strategies to pay dividends in time.

HR needs to be deliberate and strategic in how it pivots around business needs. Simply handing out logins to LinkedIn Learning isn’t a recipe for success. Build learning paths aligned with the company’s capabilities and in skill domains that will be required to emerge stronger from the crisis.  

Takeaway #3: Employee Resource Groups Are Key to Maintaining Social Connections

Companies forced to furlough are using employee resource groups (ERG) to maintain (and in some cases build) social connections with the workforce. ERGs have really taken off in the past few years as technology has made it easier to connect around shared interests, and for an increasing number of employees, ERGs embody the primary mode of cultural affinity with their company. 

Because most ERGs are managed out of the talent function, talent teams have been redeployed to find novel ways to build and leverage these groups to maintain affiliation, especially with populations of employees who have been furloughed. Recently, this has included Zoom and Teams ERG hangouts and impromptu appearances from CEOs and division presidents to rally the troops and share information about the condition of the business.

Depending on the company size, it isn’t uncommon to have two to three individuals from the talent function dedicated to supporting the success of these groups. Given the economic uncertainty and important connections that an ERG can provide to employers, ERGs can also partner closely with employee relations and field HR to clarify policies and assist with benefits and unemployment assistance questions.

The popularity of ERGs clearly seems to be increasing, but more than one talent leader encouraged caution as issues related to funding, agendas, external affiliations, and governance can become a chronic headache if expectations and guidelines aren’t clear up front. 

What’s important now, though, is to recognize that social networks, communities, and affiliations are essential aspects of our world at work. Cutting the social and cultural connection to an organization can cause irrevocable damage to trust and morale. Don’t go there if you don’t have to.

Takeaway #4: A Crisis Is a Huge Opportunity for Leadership Development

Ironically, while many formal leadership development programs are on pause, the demand for leadership during the acute phase of this crisis—and in the upcoming months—will never be greater. But if we agree that experiences develop leaders, there will certainly be more than enough opportunities to fuel leadership growth without relying on formal programs.

The literature on charismatic and transformational leadership highlights the importance of the situations that give rise to characteristic leaders. This can be thought of as the “right person, right place, right time” phenomenon, where individual contributors emerge as leaders by stepping into the breach and bringing order from chaos. 

The key is making sure individuals with the raw leadership skills (emerging leaders and high potentials) are getting the right opportunities to emerge and build new leadership muscles as this situation continues to unfold in the coming months and years.

Many talent leaders are already putting these concepts into action. Unsurprisingly, several leaders have started redeploying high-potential and emerging leaders onto teams where they’re tasked with aggregating perspectives from business units and functions to make critical business decisions related to continuity and pivoting to the new normal. A couple of these organizations were particularly creative in how they deployed high-potential talent that reported directly into the top team and board.

Knowing the usual suspects would naturally get tapped for areas in their domain of expertise—the VP of Customer Solutions to the customer taskforce, and the Controller to the finance taskforce—the Head of Talent and CHRO proactively bent the CEO’s ear with alternative solutions. High potentials were also given a secondary (and just as meaningful) assignment, in an area of the business or domain where they had less exposure. The work on the primary and secondary task force became their new day job for the foreseeable future.

One talent leader described this as a 60/40 split between their primary and secondary taskforce with the aim of developing “enterprise leaders” who could see the entire battlefield, connect the dots, and make decisions in the best interest of customers, employees, and the business (in that order). 

The deployment onto these task forces also had a positive unintended consequence of empowering the direct reports of these leaders to take on greater responsibility and visibility. 

Takeaway #5: Connectivity Matters More Than Productivity

Over the past few weeks, the focus on workforce connectivity seems to be far more important than productivity. Discussions about connectivity have three general dimensions: digital, social and emotional. Digital connectivity refers to whether an employee has the right tools, resources, and environment to do the job at home. 

While IT has primarily led digital connectivity, HR and talent leaders have more recently been pulled into planning sessions, and more expect to get involved as the novelty of virtual work wears and workplaces prepare to open, which presents a whole other set of connectivity challenges.

Social connectivity refers to the strength and health of the bonds within and between the networks of teams throughout an organization. Maintaining social connections has been challenging in an entirely virtual world, even with tools like Slack and Teams. 

Using data exhaust from enterprise systems like Microsoft 365 or Slack, some talent leaders are identifying the teams that are particularly challenged by new ways of working through analytics that highlight where social connectivity may be breaking down within and between teams. 

This isn’t in a punitive sense to flag where productivity may be sagging, but so they can quickly spot the teams that need intervention and work with team leaders to realign and reestablish social connectivity.

Emotional connectivity refers to showing and understanding empathy for employees, their families, and the community as we navigate through this crisis. One Chicago-based company with a strong faith-based culture exemplifies how to build and maintain emotional connectivity. The organization increased the use of “care partners,” which are like military chaplains or onsite school counselors in that they’re there to talk, support, guide people to relief support, and will pray with you if desired. 

The company also moved this support online in an app so entire families can utilize the service (not just the employees). Even though the firm has a standard employee assistance program, it’s found the “marketplace chaplain” service to be a real differentiator.

Two businesses with call center workforces in the thousands—one insurance firm and another media and communications company—noted both their customer satisfaction scores and call-handling productivity metrics improved significantly in April while the entire workforce was working from home. 

While they don’t anticipate the gains will last, the actions they took to build technological, social, and emotional connections with their workforces have seemed to pay off. As workplaces begin to reopen, the looming threat of the virus and social distancing will undoubtedly continue to challenge how we connect at work.

It’s likely that things will get tougher before they get easier as cracks in the foundation of our economy show. But as we position to pivot out of this crisis with momentum, it will present an opportunity for talent leaders to “show up” more boldly as advisors to the c-suite on how to lead through a crisis and invest in people in a way that makes the organization and culture even stronger post-recovery. 

And here’s one more silver lining: This crisis has injected a few years of innovation into the talent function, as we no longer have any choice but to be agile and respond to the needs of the business. So where will we go next?

Aaron Sorensen is a partner at Axiom Consulting Partners. As a psychologist with a background in organization transformation and talent management, he is known for developing innovative, yet pragmatic solutions that blend behavioral science, analytics, and practical business savvy.