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The Choice to Lead

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These are strange times. A few weeks ago, I was working on efforts to redefine “hazard” pay so it covered positions in retail and restaurants. We opened a drive-through service for our employees who desperately needed toilet paper and sanitized wipes. We hired and onboarded a lot of new staff members without one face-to-face interaction. And I delivered speeches and news interviews from my living room which I can now turn into a small production studio within 12 minutes. And this week, I sat down with Brooke Shields and had a virtual chat about life. 

While the interview with Shields was shown at WorldatWork’s “Total Resilience Virtual Conference & Exhibition,” I also liked the moments with her that were not caught on camera. We talked about how many things she was doing at home now, including her hair and makeup, which she had delegated to her two daughters for our interview. Her sense of realness was backed up by her long list of credentials that spanned modeling, movies, books, plays, mental health advocacy, and motherhood. She brought her full self to the interview and was authentic and gracious as we chatted about all sorts of things; her from her living room in New York and me from Arizona. 

Shields took her first employment gig at 11 months old and is currently a regular on Law and Order: SVU which means she has had a career that spans over 50 years. I was eager to learn more about how she had managed it, as well as how she was coping during the pandemic.   

Using a score range between 1 (excellent) and 10 (awful), I asked her how challenging COVID-19 quarantining has been. She surprised me with a 3 rating.   

Shields went on to explain that there has been fear. After all, her industry was one that came to a screeching stop several months ago and all the ways she earned income had stopped. Yet, she had made the personal choice to battle COVID fatigue and not let it push her to a 10. She allowed herself to spend more time with her daughters, to be present in each thing she did, to contemplate her next steps in life, and to create the space to redefine herself for whatever the future holds. Her strategy was to make conscious choices, targeting the things she can control, like exercise and well-being, and use that momentum to keep going when much of the world seemed stuck.  

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On the Other Side of COVID-19

It has been nine months since we first started hearing about the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) or what we now just refer to as COVID-19. There has yet to be any real certainty when the pandemic may end. And when it does, what happens then?  Like Shields, the decisions and choices we make today will define our future and sitting idle while this blows over isn’t a recommended course of action.   

Most companies across the United States and the world reacted quickly to COVID-19 and transitioned operations to remote work. In this process, well-being became a very valuable currency for workers. Items like performance conversations quickly became obsolete as dialogue and discussions frantically centered around our physical, mental and financial well-being. While fewer of us are still remote working, the agenda of well-being and putting your people first remains firmly intact.  

The next phase of work will be more employee centered. The need and expectation from workers are for leaders to come back to work with much better listening capabilities, being empathetic, offering flexibility, and showing you understand that life and work have a lot of intersections, but both can be successfully managed. Jumping back to business as usual too soon will not help your people or your business. This doesn’t mean leaders need to take their focus off business revival and growth, it just means the path you are taking to get there will be different.   

For the foreseeable future, performance conversations should consist of two parts: a thank you from your boss and an authentic inquiry about how you are doing. Then repeat that about 15 times as we continue to learn, react, adapt, and work through the gigantic implications of this pandemic on our financial, emotional and physical well-being.   

If we want success on the other side of COVID-19, then we need to take the time now to plan what we want to happen despite the fact we may have to alter that plan daily. The urgency with which we first responded to the pandemic was helpful then and now we need to step back and look out a bit further. Even though we don’t know what will happen, we do know empathy, agility, and a willingness to listen and lead differently will need to happen. Each person you work with faces similar hurdles even though they may be reacting in different ways and need different things. Leaders can best meet employees needs by incorporating their well-being much further into work than we have ever before.   

Part of this need is driven by COVID-19 fatigue, which is an overall tiredness people are experiencing due to being isolated and secluded, overcleaning every package that arrives and always being on guard for germs. Just existing today is a lot more work than it was in 2019 and that has enormous implications for how we work and how you need to lead to help your organization rebound.  

"If we want success on the other side of COVID-19, then we need to take the time now to plan what we want to happen despite the fact we may have to alter that plan daily." – Scott Cawood, CEO of WorldatWork

 

Well-Being as a Way Forward

People all over the world are experiencing significant challenges and very few of us, if anyone, is truly “fine.” The world as we knew it changed dramatically overnight. At the core, COVID-19 has been destructive on our well-being. Just looking at any news report is enough to send you into a spiral of doom. And our well-being is what will ultimately be the difference in how well we get through it.  

When Dr Kathleen O’Connor from the London School of Business spoke at our conference two weeks ago, she shared the importance of accepting our reality and focusing on the things that matter and we can control as important next steps. She made it a point to stop and make sure we all understood the need to “accept the reality” so we can use that as a point from which to move forward. This acceptance is especially critical as we navigate through this climate of economic, social, political and human uncertainty.    

As leaders, we have an obligation to lead to the best of our abilities, which now includes, leading how each employee needs it. Keeping the world at work not only means keeping people employed but also keeping them healthy and working on their own well-being. Employees need access to mental health options now more than ever and they need leaders who understand what they are going through so we can balance the intersections of our people and our business in meaningful ways.   

As the CEO of the global leader in total rewards, I am ecstatic to see so many organizations beginning to support well-being, such as Ernst & Young, which has included free mobile apps for emotional resilience and mindfulness to their well-being benefits. Others, like Starbucks, now offer eligible staff and their families 20 hours of mental health sessions with a therapist or coach each year.   

Brooke Shields was right about many things and her insights into our need to make good choices now and meet people where they are (including our children and coworkers) was sage advice. Perhaps her 54-year career has taught her many things about the role resilience plays in our ability to sustain and keep going no matter what happens.   

Leaders who are acutely aware of what their people are going through and infuse that into how they lead and what they focus on could be a defining moment for their organization and a predictor of their future success. As we work to eradicate COVID-19 and build this next chapter of work, fixate on how to facilitate the well-being of your people as one of the best ways you can to help revive the economy and sustain your organization.

About the Author 

Scott Cawood Bio Image

Scott Cawood, Ed.D, CCP, CBP, GRP, CSCP, WLCP is the CEO of WorldatWork.


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