Twice in my career, I’ve had to answer the question of what to do when you get laid off.
In 1980, the psychiatric hospital where I worked half-time eliminated all the part-time jobs. I was laid off. I had just had my first child and we had just bought our first house. It was awful.
In 2009, when the economy was tanking, the consulting firm where I was working laid off one-third of its consultants in one day. It took me one week to realize that there were no jobs for someone in my field — no one was hiring. It was awful.
But in both cases, it didn’t stay awful.
Here’s a leadership case study: It’s May 29, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s four days after the murder of George Floyd. You’re the mayor of the city and you learn that a peaceful demonstration has been followed by widespread violence and looting.
What do you do?
Here in Illinois, the COVID restrictions are beginning to loosen. Personally, I had ten people at my home for dinner last Friday. I hope to have my hair cut soon. And on the professional front, employers are talking about when and how to have their teams begin returning to work.
In some ways, shutting down the office was easier. The rules were announced and companies sent their people home. Sure, there were a lot of technological and process issues that had to be solved fast, but at least it was clear. Unless you were an essential worker, everyone had to go home — period.
Now — it’s a lot murkier. When should an employer bring people back? What are the precautions that need to be in place? Maybe it would just be better to let people continue to work virtually? After all, many employers have found that the online work force was just as productive as they were in the office.
I like writing about Wendy Rhoades, the high-flying performance coach on the Showtime show Billions. Having said that, I want to make two things clear. First, Wendy Rhoades is a fictional character. She is not real. This is important in a world where fact and fiction are often very muddled. Second, Wendy is not a moral exemplar. She lives and works in a world whose moral code is highly problematic. She has already gotten in trouble for a lapse in her professional ethics, and my guess is that she’ll continue to make some very shady choices.
So why do I keep writing about her? She is an intriguing character, she’s a powerful female figure, and she demonstrates some of the tactics of successful performance coaching. It’s the last point that keeps me watching the show and writing about what I see.
The building project was a total disaster. It had been underway for decades and was nowhere near completion. In fact, it looked more like a ruin than a building under construction. A half-dozen architects had already worked on the project, and the multiple designs were incompatible and badly conceived.
I love it when I discover a great new word — a word I’ve never heard before that describes something in a useful and specific way. A few years ago my treasured new word was “sprezzatura,” an Italian word that means “the art of making things look easy.” What a great word — and what a great description of how to carry yourself in many difficult situations.
My newest word is “bricolage.” I came across it recently in an article about innovation. It’s a French word that means “the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available.”
Everyone is getting very tired of trying to dredge up inner strength. There are the big things — the constant fears of terrible disease and imminent economic collapse. And there are the relatively little things — boredom, loneliness, feeling constrained, Zoom fatigue, wearing masks and gloves, and constant handwashing.
Meanwhile the regular stresses of life haven’t gone away. Family relationships, work, lack of work, non-COVID health issues, political strife — they all continue to be demanding and draining.
The best thing about a crisis is that it often brings out the best in people. So many individuals step up with courage, creativity, and generosity. They help each other out, they find new solutions, and they stand firm in the face of adversity. In the business world, these people are your most important assets. But at the same time, there are others who make things worse. For a variety of reasons, they engage in behavior that is undermining, distracting, or disruptive.
My book, Curating Your Life, was published on April 8. News flash – the middle of a pandemic is not the best time to launch a book! But there’s also some good news. Although I wrote the book long before anyone had heard of COVID-19, it turns out that learning how to manage your energy for peak productivity is a highly relevant topic in this challenging time. As a result, I’m getting plenty of opportunities to write and speak about the book, including a recent “Coffee and Connect” session for the Executives’ Club of Chicago.
We talked about how the demands on our energy have changed. Some of the tasks that used to exhaust us – commuting, hosting big meetings, going to networking events – are no longer such a big part of our lives. At the same time, other demands have ramped up – learning new technologies, connecting through Zoom and other media, doing our own housework, cooking all the meals and spending much more time with family members. The specifics vary from person to person, but the challenge is the same – how do we manage our energy for peak productivity and joy during this strange time?
I started writing my newsletter, The Cautious Optimist, in the spring of 2009. Like today, that was a dark and scary time. The financial world was collapsing around us, unemployment was skyrocketing, and everything was very uncertain. I chose the title deliberately because it captured the attitude I was trying to cultivate – not a rose-colored “Little Mary Sunshine” perspective, but a realistic confidence that things would get better.
And here we are again. It’s a very different crisis from the 08-09 financial meltdown, but once again we are surrounded by collapse and uncertainty. It’s been 11 years, and I’m still writing The Cautious Optimist, and people are still reading and responding to it. No one knows what the future holds, but I’m confident that cautious optimism is still the best game in town.
We’ve been talking about a VUCA world for a long time. VUCA stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Ha! We didn’t have a clue what VUCA looks like. The business environment we’re in right now – this is VUCA, this is the real thing.
What are the qualities that will enable a business to survive and thrive in this VUCA world? A recent article in Consulting Psychology Journal provided a very interesting framework to answer this question.
I don’t know about you, but my inbox has been deluged with
well-meaning, useless Coronavirus advice. If one more person sends me
information on how to wash my hands or socially distance myself or engage with
my team, I’m going to say a bad word. As a result, I have been avoiding sending
out advice of my own.
And then amid all the noise I got a PowerPoint deck from my
colleague Nancy Picard, one of the smartest people I know. Her deck was full of
useful guidance about how to lead right now — useful enough that I was moved to
share it with you.
As I write this on March 10, I’m feeling helpless. I hate
that! So far, my daily life is pretty normal. I’m in my downtown Chicago
office, and I just got back from a large lunch meeting listening to some very
interesting panelists. My day, and the rest of my week, is heavily scheduled
with both in-person and phone meetings.
Meanwhile, I’m waiting for the tidal wave to hit: the day
when everything gets cancelled, when my clients suffer severe financial losses,
when my travel is curtailed, when people I care about start getting sick, when
I get sick. It’s really scary, and it feels as if there’s nothing I can do. As
I said, I hate that!