It has always been a privilege to be an executive coach. But the last twelve months have been especially remarkable. What follows is a summary of what I have observed and what I predict is on the horizon for leaders.
We are now a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Our nation has been navigating deep social and political unrest. The leaders I work with have been concerned, action-oriented, and resilient. Their leadership muscle has been stretched like never before. While it has been painful for them much of the time, they have all leveraged these experiences for their growth and learning.
A first-time CEO stepped into her role during a time of global crisis. Her organization doubled in size this year. The entire leadership team was promoted to executive roles. Her board is eager for growth. Their clients are in need of deeper services. I know she’s tired. I know her heart breaks for her clients’ and employees’ stories. She’s found her stride in letting go of perfection. Her emotional shoulders are broad. She has missed out on having a gentler onboarding into arguably the most important role of her career. Yet she has managed to become three times the executive she was twelve months ago. Her resilience is unmatchable.
A CEO whose company was poised for continued hyper-growth prior to the pandemic. Due to these unpredictable market conditions, their clients’ needs completely changed and they had to pivot their delivery and support teams (literally overnight) to help make sure that hospitals had what they needed. He’s tended to his employees’ spirits and financial needs and inspired them to stay true to their values and remain connected to a cause that is way bigger than their company. They will exceed their growth target because of his leadership (to the tune of 135% of their revenue target and earnings over 3x!) He told me, “I think leadership is getting people to focus on the essence of what and who they are, especially in turbulent times.”
A CEO who said, “I’m ready to start thinking about retiring.” And when he got his performance feedback report from his team he said, “You mean to tell me that all my leaders want is for me to mentor them and tell them that I’m proud of them? That they’re doing a great job? That I love them?” (Said with relief.) Now, that’s how you spend your last few years in your station. It is brave to decide to intentionally lead with your heart when your business is highly, highly intellectual and scientific. It is brave for his leaders to make the ask.
A CMO who was blindsided by the layoff she didn’t see coming. The CEO had her lay off most of her own team, then she was unexpectedly called in and laid off at the end of that same day. This is a leader who gave ten years of her life to a tech company in hyper-growth. Gave ALL of herself. She took a little bit of time to regroup. Lick her wounds. Then found her higher knowing that this was a gift. She had been set free to pursue the CEO role she knew she was ready for. Another company snatched her right up. How many years would she have delayed this move without that layoff?
There is so much that is notable to me about these leaders. Most of them have children who need guidance for their homeschooling through the day (while they work). They all report to boards and private equity firms who poured gasoline on their expectations rather than letting their foot off the gas to honor the extreme work and home conditions of the employees they are responsible for. Overnight, they all had to figure out how to provide resources and cultural support to employees who had to leave the brick and mortar offices to go work from home. Many of them worked hard to craft and relay their organization’s stances on violence, racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion. None of them ignored the deeply personal challenges of their own circumstances, but they prioritized their families and employees.
They were all open to change so that they could be the quality of leader this moment calls for. While arguably, an executive’s work is more heroic than ever, the feather-in-the-cap wins have fallen by the wayside and they are instead being watched more closely and with more scrutiny than ever before. The amount of pressure they are managing is unreal.
They are (yet unwittingly) part of a cohort of very special executives who are leading through circumstances we have never experienced. As of now, they are so busy leading the charge that they haven’t had that moment of realization yet where they say “Wow. What did I just accomplish here?” They have uncovered truths about leadership that are white paper worthy. They have discovered the importance of emotional availability, empathy and compassion as leadership practices. They are tapped into the human needs of their employees like never before.
If you’re reading this, you probably identify with these leaders. There is something I want you to know. Something bigger is afoot. You are in the process of shifting the entire leadership landscape.
I know you are tired. Deep in your bones; exhausted. You may even be questioning your role or your worth or your capabilities (as insane circumstances tend to make us do). Stay the course. The end is almost in sight. Then another sacred chapter opens, as a leader; deciding what you will have your organization revert back to doing and being, and what new things you will keep doing and being that are in service to your people. You are in the process of building a brilliant case study. Find every small moment you can to come up for air. You’ve got this. Oh, the stories you will tell later.