March 1, 2020, was a Sunday. I was getting ready for a work trip to San Francisco. Just before heading to the Berlin airport, I checked my phone. There was a text from my boss:
Hey Lena, trying all channels. Don’t fly.
I didn’t fly that day and I haven’t flown since.
Two days later, as planned, I went from interim to permanent VP of Product Engineering at CircleCI. At the same time, Europe was going into lockdown, then the world went into lockdown. Life as we knew it changed instantly.
Suddenly, my new role took on a much greater meaning. I had to figure out how to effectively accomplish our business goals and support my team through incredible uncertainty.
This past year has been difficult, but it’s also taught me a lot about how to lead through change and help my team thrive.
Invest in your team
As leaders, we need to grow and invest in the people around us, in normal times but especially in times of uncertainty. This is one of our biggest tasks because it means building a team that can learn, adapt, evolve, and is resilient to change.
A major part of this work is building leaders: we need to identify aspiring leaders — team members with high potential — and give them context for growth, delegate growth opportunities to them, and set stretch assignments and goals. The successful leaders I’ve seen in my career are those who delegate and bring others with them as they rise in the ranks. Involve people in discussions without easy answers or clear paths so they can learn how to deal with ambiguity.
One way I do this is by frequently sharing notes from strategic meetings with my direct reports to give them context and exposure to these types of discussions. Another way is by regularly delegating strategic problems to them and working through the issues together.
Support your employees as humans
Maintaining strong connections and understanding the needs of the people you work with is even more important in the midst of the pandemic, as life is prone to changing frequently. But those connections need to be authentic.
Back in November, when it was unclear what the result of the U.S. election would be, many people on my team were feeling anxious. With a larger team size like mine, currently four direct and 10 skip-level reports, there is no “one size fits all,” approach — everyone copes in different ways, and everyone’s needs are different.
My approach was to share some tips on how to talk about what’s going on with your manager, colleagues, and direct reports. But I also made sure to share some cute animal videos for anyone who just needed a distraction. It’s important to offer a range of options to help your team cope with uncertainty and let them choose what works best for them.
Celebrate wins, large and small
In a fast-paced environment, it can be easy to just gloss over wins, but acknowledging them as a team ensures each person feels valued. Celebrate, even if it’s in a small way, and show your gratitude to people who show up for the whole team.
There are many ways to express gratitude. I like to send notes to my teammates when they do something well or I see that they’re progressing in their career growth. I occasionally give public praise for my direct reports, but this is pretty rare. I’m aware of the power dynamics involved, and some people find public praise uncomfortable. Again, everyone is different and it’s crucial to adjust your leadership style with each person’s individual needs.
Stick to your values
As managers, we’re constantly put into new situations and we’re often the first person that people turn to in times of crisis. Many times in my career, I’ve asked myself what kind of leader I want to be. This has come up in discussions with my own managers about how employees should be treated, how the company should operate, or how we live our company values.
One way I make decisions about how I want to lead is by sitting down at the start of every workday for 10 to 15 minutes to think about strategic topics and questions, and how they relate to the present work at CircleCI. I also check in with my staff regularly to understand where we’re going as a team and how we’re doing against our mutual expectations. This may seem really simple and small, but it’s very effective.
As leaders, we need to ensure the present is being managed effectively. At the same time, we must anticipate what will happen next week, next month, and next year to prepare our team for the changes that lie ahead. But you can’t lose sight of yourself and your values in that work. One of the best things you can do as a leader, especially in times of uncertainty, is to use your values to guide your team through those challenging periods.
This post was originally published in We Are Tech Women