Skip to main content

Leading through times of uncertainty and crisis

By Maureen Calabrese / May 28, 2020

As a leader, our first instinct when an employee is struggling or when the path forward seems unclear is to try to solve the problem by offering advice drawn from our experience. But in the case of true uncertainty and crisis, like the current COVID-19 pandemic, our experience often falls short. At these times, we have to draw on a different set of tools—some we’ve always had, but may not have known were in our possession. Others we’ve had to develop on the fly, all while leading those who look to us for answers.

Answers we don’t have.

Thinking back over my career as a senior leader in the HR field, there have certainly been times of great challenge. Some days, I felt over my skis as all of us in leadership do at some point or another. Sometimes, the situation itself was unprecedented or came at great cost. For example: making decisions to dramatically reduce benefits people relied upon during the 2008 recession in an attempt to save jobs. Or letting a room full of people know they no longer had the jobs some of them had been performing for years because technology changed the nature of how we work.

I like to think these prior experiences built up the patterns and the confidence I needed to quickly navigate my team through uncertainty. But nothing could have prepared me as a Chief People Officer—or any of my colleagues in a leadership position—for the changing landscape brought about by a global pandemic. As is often the case in an unprecedented situation, information—often confusing or conflicting—comes at you from multiple directions and with it, the pressure to make high stakes decisions quickly.

In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, Sprout–like all companies–was faced with questions about how to protect our employees while we were still in the office and when to pivot to working remotely. Were we acting too early? Not quickly enough? What steps did we need to put in place to make sure our employees were safe while also ensuring that our customers continue to receive the level of service that we are committed to providing?

It seems premature to talk about learnings when we still are searching for the right answers and are still very early in understanding what this uncertainty means for our world and our future.

However, there are some things that have become crystal clear to me over the last few months. There will be challenges in which we won’t be able to rely on our previous experiences to inform how we guide our teams. But the uncertainty of this magnitude accelerates learning, innovation and perspective.

By drawing on these three things, there are tools we as leaders can put into practice as part of how we lead through uncertainty going forward. Some new, and some just waiting to be drawn upon.

Embrace the power of reframing

In three short days, Sprout went from limiting in-office meetings, to restricting non-essential work travel, to closing all of our offices temporarily. To describe COVID-19 as a VUCA environment is an understatement, that’s for certain.

The concept of VUCA (Volatile, Uncertainty, Complex, and Ambiguous) as a way of describing a rapidly changing or charged situation dates back to the late 1980s, when it was popularized by the US Army War College to describe a post-Cold War world. Since then it has been used as a leadership and strategy tool to help businesses navigate volatile, often uncontrollable situations.

It’s easy to see how those concepts apply in a time of great uncertainty. But an even more powerful tool comes from Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former chair and CEO of Medtronic, who reframed the concept into VUCA 2.0: Vision, Understanding, Courage, and Adaptability. Same four letters yet a completely different way of framing the situation that provides real tools for how to lead our teams forward.

Sprout’s own SVP of Global Sales, Ryan Barretto, leveraged the power of VUCA 2.0 in his first Zoom call with our Sales and Success organization after the transition to working from home. Ryan drew from his own experience managing through prior downturns and highlighted organizations that emerged in a stronger position based on the actions they took in a time of crisis. He challenged his team to think forward six months from now and identify what they wish they would have done during this time and then, with a #NoRegrets hashtag, to actually do those things.

Implementing VUCA 2.0 doesn’t mean that you’re hand-waving away the hard truth of the situation, but rather that you’re providing a new lens to evaluate current circumstances. Ryan did just that when he openly acknowledged the difficulty ahead for our team members and our customers, and focused his team on harnessing their collective powers around grit, urgency, and empathy.

Take time to ruthlessly prioritize

The word triage, often used in a medical context, comes from the French word trier which translates to “sort, separate, select.” In times of uncertainty, leaders must quickly assess their priorities to identify what is critical now and hone in on those objectives to provide clarity to their teams. Here’s where an organization’s values—typically forged in a much calmer time–become essential triage tools.

At Sprout, one of our core values is to care deeply. There are four groups at the heart of this value: our customers, our people, our communities and our families. Throughout this crisis, our decision making has centered around those four groups. Within our product outreach, our top priority has been creating functional tools and solutions our customers need to connect with their stakeholders. On the customer outreach front, we’ve prioritized sending timely communications and providing customers with the support they need.

For our teams and our families, our priority is to help everyone stay connected and feel supported. To do that, we’ve prioritized our team’s mental health and wellbeing, and we’ve tripled down on communications and key Sprout rituals to keep our team engaged. And finally, we can’t forget about our community. Whether it’s through corporate donations or continuing acts of services through our Sprout Serves volunteer efforts, we are always looking for ways to give back.

Don’t go it alone

In her book, Rising Strong, Brené Brown writes “We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to.” This is true always but even more so when we find ourselves in situations that are truly unprecedented. It can be tempting in a time of crisis to hold our cards tight, to hunker down, and try to emerge with a plan. That’s an incredibly lonely position for a leader to be in and one that almost never yields the best answer.

One of the first things we did at Sprout is put together a crisis response team comprised of people representing our different office locations, office ops, IT, people ops, comms, and legal teams, resulting in very different perspectives. When I look back on this time of leading our organization through such incredible unknowns, I will forever be grateful for this group. Each member brought a level of expertise and a unique lens to the table that contributed to our decision and strategies.

They also helped create a safe place to say “this is really hard and I don’t know what to do here.” And to have this team say, “neither do we but we’re going to get through it anyway—together,” gave me the confidence and assurance I needed to know we were making the right decisions. As leaders leading through incredible circumstances, we must turn to, learn from and lean on each other.

Charting a way forward

Uncertainty by definition is scary. It also provides some of life’s great lessons and a chance to form new patterns and practices that will inform how we respond to the inevitable future uncertainties we will face as leaders. Resist the urge to see only the fear of the situation and try to refocus on the opportunity. Don’t hesitate to identify what matters most to your organization. When we approach uncertainty with agility and open ourselves up to connections with other leaders, the path forward becomes clear.

Maureen Calabrese

Maureen Calabrese

Maureen Calabrese is the Chief People Officer at Sprout Social where she is responsible for leading Sprout’s people function. Calabrese's primary mission is to work across all facets of the organization to foster a culture where great people are inspired to do great work–thereby delivering great results. When not at work, Calabrese spends her time finding elusive Lego pieces with her husband and three children.
Related Articles