I’m a new leader in my organization.
It’s true that I’ve been in a leadership role for a number of years, and held leadership positions in other organizations, but when my dad (our former Executive Director) stepped down in December, 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’s 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, an exceptionally challenging year 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 have 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.
Of course, at this moment, time has yet to decide whether my leadership will lead 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. In the last two weeks, 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 over those two weeks 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 I attended, and it’s so important right now. 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.
- Add a dose of grace and patience. For many of us (most of us?), last week was full of 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 work 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’ll figure it out eventually, the stress and anxiety may mean that another week of distraction and interruptions is highly likely. 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 get it perfectly right, and that’s okay! The more we approach this with grace and patience, the easier we make this transition on everyone, and the more those that we lead will be willing to look to us for support and guidance.
- Hey, self-care! 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 learned last week that this is truly important to me. I’m not talking about getting in a bubble bath and spending four hours reading for pleasure. 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 last week that because I wasn’t facing my week with enough intention, I was ending 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’ve treated this week much differently – I’m starting my day an hour earlier, with meditation and yoga, taking a break midday for a short walk with my dog and a longer walk for myself (I’m still recovering from hip surgery, or it would be a run), and a second meditation in the afternoon. It leaves me MUCH more focused, which helps me to get things done more efficiently than last week.
- Communicate More. 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, so I was giving it a few days – 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 this excellent piece 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.
- 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 this week, but like many organizations, have postponed our in-person events for several months. 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 and maybe even a virtual conference, 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 can replicate 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 offer 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.
Although it’s a challenging and unprecedented situation, there’s always an opportunity to learn, and I’m grateful to work with such an incredible organization. I’m sure there will be a great deal more to learn in the coming months, and I’d love to hear lessons that others have learned over recent weeks!