When murmurs around lockdowns and slowdowns started doing the rounds in India around early March, I must admit I was in denial. Or perhaps it was the eternal optimist in me that believed that it could not get as bad as was being predicted. I still believed a complete lockdown was untenable for a country like India, and the COVID-19 pandemic was going to gradually disappear sooner rather than later. And yet, we had to be prepared.
It helped that the nonprofit community sprang into action and started nudging organisations and teams to start ‘scenario planning’, something we’ve all done in some measure in the past but not with so many unknowns and with absolutely no historical reference to go by. But ‘scenario plan’ we did. We had no choice but to rely on the many theories and predictions flying around on how bad it was going to get or how long this was going to last. But we knew we were bracing ourselves for a long winter.
Slowly, panic gave way to a sense of purpose and the team got down to pulling itself together and embracing the challenge and the reality that lay in front of us. Expectedly, as the CEO, the team looked to me – some for direction and others for messages of optimism. At no point during this testing phase did I ever feel that I was fighting for survival alone, and for this and more, I would always be grateful to this team. I have laid down here some actions and thought processes that helped us survive and thrive as a team, and hope that it helps others tide over this crisis.
Prepare for the worst, hope for the best
“When you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”. You may have to work with several unknown variables and anticipate many different likely and unlikely scenarios. But being prepared for the worst even when it sounds apocalyptic allows you and the team to brace for impact and prepare a contingency plan in the interim. Don’t be in denial about how bad it could potentially get even while you hang on to all the optimism you can muster. Balancing communication with the team around the worst and best-case scenario may be a hard task, but one that must be done. It helps to draw inspiration from other leaders in your industry on effectively displaying to the team your resolve, and on letting them know that as the leader, you have a plan.
Be unabashedly honest
The only thing worse than being in an anxious situation is being lied to by the leadership. Even while you want to put up a show of strength and confidence, strive to remain honest and transparent throughout. A team that appreciates this honestly and sticks it out, is the team you want on your side when the going gets tough. Whether it be a messy funding situation or the fact that you may not have all the answers just yet, lay out as much information as you think is healthy for your team to consume. Being conscious about not giving false hopes, even when you’re absolutely certain of things turning out a certain way, is a critical aspect of this transparent approach to scenario planning. Provide your team the entire spectrum of information on what might go well and how bad it can potentially get. The team has to see you upholding the organisation’s values even at a difficult time and the leadership’s approach has the potential to transform and model organisational culture around planning and communication.
Team before self
Remind yourself every so often that a time like this is not just about survival of the organisation but also of its core team. When all this is over, you will get a chance to start afresh and you will need your team to roll up their sleeves and stand with you as you fight back. As a leader, you must spend as much energy and emotion as is required to build an empathetic approach to sustainability and to make decisions that are in the best interest of the team.
Mental health and personal challenges can overwhelm us at some point, and it’s best to anticipate them and formulate organisational policies that balance accountability with empathy. We at Madhi thought about the team’s well being even before we started looking at programme pivots. From being one of the earliest organisations to mandate work from home in the early COVID days to allowing people to take time off during working days to run errands or attend to personal responsibilities at home, there was a paradigm shift in what we considered ‘professional’ and it yielded tremendous results. We were more productive than we had ever been and we scored a 90% satisfaction rate on an employee survey that asked the team if they were happy with the COVID response measures the organisation had taken.
Don’t fight it alone
It is perfectly all right for you not to have all the answers as long as you are willing to make an effort to learn from others, including your peers, mentors, advisors, and team. After all, this is the first time any of us is handling a pandemic! Don’t feel compelled to fight it alone and to put up a steely resolve to a point where a personal breakdown is imminent. Consult with your team often, quickly put together a core team that will act as your sounding board, and thought partner as you navigate something as chaotic as this year has been. Delegation is a valuable leadership skill, and you must use it to leverage the experience and capabilities of your core team. Take the time for an occasional mental health day off or plan to be unavailable after a certain time of the day to attend to personal chores. Just as you need to be empathetic to your team’s emotional well being needs, be gentle on yourself, surround yourself with people you trust and conserve as much mental energy as you can for the long haul.
There is nothing more unnerving than radio silence from the organisation’s leadership during times of uncertainty and stress. So even while you decide how much information is too much information, make sure the team hears from you often and feels cared for. It could be in the form of cheery emails or team calls where you do nothing but a round of virtual pictionary with some casual updates thrown in about when things may be getting back to normal. Make those interactions happen and provide a safe space for the team to share their anxieties and questions around what is next. The greater the touch points with your team the less you are going to be bombarded with anxious questions, which in turn can overwhelm you and your capacity to plan effectively.
Uncertainties can unravel the best of us. But with a little bit of bravado and lots of planning, even the worst can be overcome!
Merlia Shaukath is an alumna of Stella Maris College, London School of Economics and Political Science, and the University of Oxford. She comes with an experience of nearly 10 years in the development sector with leadership roles in organisations like Teach For India and Athena Infonomics. As the founder and CEO of Madhi Foundation, Merlia believes that access to quality early childhood education is the greatest leveler against social inequity and is committed to working towards eliminating the Foundational Learning Crisis in India.