Leadership in a Time of Crisis: Lessons from Quarantine
By Lindsay Griffiths.
I’m a new leader in my organization.
While I’ve been in a leadership role for a number of years, and held leadership positions in other organizations, it wasn’t until my dad (our former Executive Director) stepped down in December that all eyes were on me to take the reins and steer the ship (forgive me the mixed metaphor).
And then a pandemic happened.
I had to laugh, really, at first, because it seemed so unbelievable. Until I remembered that my dad was scheduled to fly out for his first conference as the ILN’s Executive Director on September 11, 2001 from Newark Airport. I remember very vividly believing he was already on a flight that morning and being forever grateful that I managed to get through to him on the phone before the lines became too overwhelmed for calls. The conference proceeded, but he was grounded, along with fellow US delegates, a very small inconvenience considering the enormous price that others paid that day.
He also steered the organization through the economic downturn of 2008 & 2009, an exceptionally challenging period for the legal industry in particular, and one that it took tremendous skill to not only weather but recover from. My dad has been a phenomenal leader for our organization, one that the membership has always looked to for guidance (and me too!).
So one of the first lessons for leadership that I’ve learned in this time of pandemic is that I’m not unique – even if the situation facing us is one that is unprecedented, someone before us has been through something challenging and awful before, and we can learn from the way that they’ve handled it (or not handled it) to lead our organizations through. Whether you look inside your organization for this person, or to other leaders, you can always find a precedent to follow or avoid.
Of course, at this moment, time has yet to decide whether my leadership will guide the ILN through successfully – I can only work diligently, creatively, passionately, and with a tremendous amount of hope, to ensure that it does. With the incredible group of lawyers that I have behind me, I am sure that we will prevail. Over the last several months, I have seen so much strength, kindness, grit, and compassion from them, that I know we have what it takes as an organization to thrive.
But there are lessons that I have learned during this time that I feel are helpful to share with others who may be new to leadership or may be looking for something to hold onto in these turbulent times.
“Be more human”
This one comes from a keynote speech that Dan Pink gave a few years ago at a conference and it’s essential in the current moment. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of leading with our humanity first – most of us are uncertain, if not downright anxious, about what’s next, whether that’s sickness, the impact on our businesses, our employees, our families, the economy, you name it. That uncertainty and anxiety is causing friction at home, with our colleagues, out in the world (when we DO dare go out in the world) and definitely in our communications with each other and our colleagues, clients, and those we lead. It’s okay to admit that we’re anxious too. There’s a thin line between seeming hysterical and terrified about what’s going to happen (even if you are), and letting the people that you lead know that you share their anxieties about the future, but that no matter what happens, you’re in this together, and you will do everything in your power to guide them through this. Leading with empathy and humanity in the current environment is essential. Even a few months into this, anxiety is still fully present and leading with humanity is more important than ever.
Add a dose of grace and patience
For many of us (most of us?), the early weeks of the pandemic were marked with chaos. Some firms were figuring out how to work from home for the first time, some were figuring out which employees were essential, and which weren’t, and what equipment everyone needed, and where. Parents were juggling homeschooling for the first time, while also trying to navigate working full time AND parenting AND homeschooling. Even those of us who always worked from home were distracted by increasing virus cases, daily changes to orders to stay at home, wondering what qualified as an “essential” versus “non-essential” business, and worrying about our friends in healthcare, retail, and other essential careers. The likelihood of someone hosting a video call where a child, pet, or spouse popped into the background was extremely high. Truthfully, none of us were getting this 100% right – and while we’ve come to a certain type of “new normal,” the stress and anxiety may mean that distraction and interruptions are highly likely at any time – especially as we now navigate students returning to school or hybrid schooling, or we return to the office. Accepting that those you lead may need some leeway and flexibility is key. Understanding that not only will others make mistakes and not do this perfectly, but YOU also won’t, is an important lesson for all of us. Trust me – I didn’t (and don’t) get it perfectly right, and that’s okay! The more we approach this with grace and patience, the easier we make these ongoing transitions on everyone, and the more those that we lead will be willing to look to us for support and guidance.
This has become a bit of a catch-phrase lately, and I know a lot of people sort of roll their eyes about it, but I have learned over and over again through the time of the pandemic that this is truly important to me. I’m not talking about getting in a bubble bath and spending four hours reading for pleasure (though, if that’s your jam, get after it!). I’m talking about the importance of schedule and boundaries. As I mentioned, I’m a work-from-home veteran, and so I assumed that I had my routine down already, but I learned very quickly that because I wasn’t facing the week with enough intention, I ended up working extremely long days without enough focus, and they were leaving me too drained to do enough of what I needed to do. I now treat each week much differently – I start my day an hour earlier with meditation, take a break midday for a walk (as much as I can), drastically limit my social media, and commit to focusing only on one task at a time. It leaves me MUCH more focused, which helps me to get things done more efficiently than in the early days of the pandemic.
I also fully disconnect on the weekends, checking email only intermittently to answer those messages that are urgent and relegating all others to my in-office to-do list. This has been a big shift for me, since we’re an international, 24-7 business. But when I make myself available and responsive without any breaks, that’s what’s expected of me – and I can add value to my clients without burning myself out in the process. In fact, I add MORE value to my clients when I set boundaries that ensure I’m showing up to work fully engaged in the process, feeling fresh enough to be creative and passionate about solutions, and not distracted and exhausted.
This was a new one for me! I knew my lawyers were overwhelmed with work, because they had clients reaching out to them from a variety of areas as businesses were being asked to shut down and questions were being asked and force majeure clauses were being invoked. I always aim to be of value and not a bother (my lawyers who receive many emails from me will laugh at this), so initially, I wanted to give it some time – and then a lawyer reached out to me with a couple of questions, and it made me realize that they needed to hear from me too. My communications still needed to be of value, but I could be providing them with resources that they could avail themselves of or not and reaching out on a continuous basis. After sending out my initial communication, one of my members and the managing partner of his firm, sent me an excellent article on “Leading through COVID-19: An Organizational Psychologist’s Perspective,” which reinforces this point, and makes several other excellent ones. Particularly at the moment when we are, in many cases, working virtually, regular communications with your team are absolutely essential – they must be valuable to your team, but they need to know that you’re there, that you are willing to listen and help them, and what resources you have available to them.
As I connect with more and more leaders within my organization (and outside), the one lesson that we’ve all learned during the pandemic is the importance of good (and regular!) communication with our teams. This shouldn’t be limited to work-related communication either. Many people may only just be realizing the impacts of low-grade constant anxiety from the last several months, or may have been suffering over time, while others are thriving in this environment (if it’s you, please tell us your secrets!). Having touch points with these people to ensure that everyone is okay shows care and concern and can avoid a larger problem down the line.
Build in community
This is an idea I wish I’d come up with myself, but one of my lawyers approached me with it – we were supposed to have our Annual Conference in March, but like many organizations, have postponed our in-person events for this year. Instead, he suggested, why not at least have our welcome reception online using Zoom? I had always planned to connect everyone virtually at some point through virtual learning opportunities, which indeed we have done, but his idea was spot on, and even better – one of the things that we immediately lose out on when we have to cancel everything and quarantine is that sense of community. While it’s not entirely replaced by virtual options, we can make the most of what we have using technology. What are some of the ways you have replicated your firm’s culture virtually?
It may not need to involve the entire firm at once, but maybe a practice group hosts a virtual happy hour one Friday, or the managing partner volunteers some “office hours” over coffee a couple of days a week. Yes, it’s challenging to keep offering up what seems like “free” time when we’re all swamped with other concerns but building community when we’re so far apart geographically at the moment is so necessary to preserving the firm’s culture.
One of the lessons I’ve learned in creating and preserving our digital culture is to not “set and forget it.” When we have one idea and it’s successful, we always need to be working on what the next idea will be. So, while we have now hosted our virtual welcome reception, coffee breaks, educational opportunities, we do need to constantly be “reinventing the wheel,” to identify what the next best idea for connecting with our organization’s members is to continue to preserve our digital culture. Maybe that’s a break from Zoom calls to have phone calls for a month with your team, or a digital game night. Maybe you arrange for everyone on your team to receive the same wines and invite a sommelier to do a virtual wine tasting. I’ve heard from a number of firms that were previously operating multi-office settings that they’re now closer than ever before, because they’re able to engage with people that they weren’t used to seeing on a regular basis. So while I’m sure we will get back to being in an office at some point, there are certainly benefits to having, and maintaining, a digital culture as well.
It’s a challenging and unprecedented situation, but there is always an opportunity to learn. It may be difficult to find the silver lining in a quarantine, but these leadership lessons will serve us well in the long term in creating a cohesive and connected culture among our organizations.
About the Author
Lindsay Griffiths is the International Lawyers Network’s Executive Director, where she served as the Director of Global Relationship Management since 2004. As Executive Director, Ms. Griffiths is responsible for the oversight and management of day-to-day operations of the International Lawyers Network (ILN). She develops strategies and implementation plans to achieve the ILN’s goals, and handles recruitment, member retention, and a high level of service to members. She is engaged in the legal industry to stay on top of trends, both in law firms and law firm networks.
The ILN has been ranked as a Chambers & Partners Leading Law Firm Network since 2011, under Ms. Griffiths' tenure. She was awarded “Thought Leader of the Year” by the Legal Marketing Association’s New York chapter in 2014 for her substantive contributions to the industry. Her blog, Zen & the Art of Legal Networking was chosen for the American Bar Association Journal’s inaugural Web 100‘s Best Law Blogs in 2019, where judge Ivy Grey said “This blog is outstanding, thoughtful and useful.” Ms. Griffiths was recently chosen as a Top Author by JD Supra in their 2019 Readers’ Choice Awards, for the level of engagement and visibility she attained with readers on the topic of marketing & business development.