The sound of her watch alarm abruptly awakened Carol from a deep sleep. It was Jan. 2, and she was already focused on how she would address her leadership team when they returned to work in a few days. Thoughts had been swirling in her mind over the two-week holiday break.
Everyone had worked so hard over the past nine months during the pandemic. As CEO of her mid-sized company, the past year was unlike anything she had ever seen. Their industry had endured its unanticipated ups and downs in the past, but the unprecedented inability to forecast any sense of normalcy over the past year was worrisome.
Many of the plans originally in place for 2020 had to be put aside as they made rapid adjustments to meet current customer needs and forecast the future. A key product rollout had to be postponed because the market for it no longer existed, temporarily at least. Another product that they were about to phase out was suddenly in great demand, but this required almost superhuman effort on the part of her team to ramp up the manufacturing volume requirements and arrange shipping logistics.
And with many staff suddenly working remotely, the normal communication cues were missing, and she felt unsettled about how her employees were coping. Yes, everyone was hopeful that the new vaccine would bring some relief, but the reality was that no one was sure how and when shots would be available for employees or customers, and more importantly, how the pandemic would evolve.
But as CEO, everyone was looking to her to figure out the way forward in the midst of massive uncertainty. By the end of the year, she was exhausted emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually. Carol had hoped that two weeks off… well, not working as hard at least…would help her to refocus into the new year, but she wasn’t too sure if that was working now.
She dragged herself out of the bed and forced herself to take time to exercise and meditate, two rituals that she found calming. Sitting down at her home office desk, she started to go through some piles of paper, trying to clear away some of the clutter that had developed over the past year. This too was part of her new year’s ritual, “out with the old and in with the new.”
About halfway through a pile of paper, she stopped as an image grabbed her. It was an illustration, given to her by her business coach a few years ago, of several men laying bricks on a building. A person asked the first bricklayer what he was doing. He said he was building a wall. The same person asked the second bricklayer what he was doing. This gentleman said he was helping to educate children. You see, the bricklayers were building a school in a community that didn’t have one nearby. The presence of that new schoolhouse would provide easier access to the education that would propel them forward in their lives. This was an example of vision. The second bricklayer knew that his role was an important one of many in the process of preparing to educate the children.
Carol thought for a moment. She recognized that she had been so busy responding to crises over the past year that she had lost focus on the company’s vision. A vision her predecessor had set forth before she assumed the role of CEO just after the 2008 recession. It was a statement of where the company wanted to be and how to embody its enduring values. She almost teared up when she remembered the initial reaction of the employees. When they first heard former CEO Mark talk about it, they gave him a standing ovation. They felt that he understood their effort, and it gave meaning to their work.
In the initial years of her leadership, she tried to carry it forward but admittedly didn’t fully appreciate the importance of it. She discussed it with her business coach but still hadn’t given the vision the priority that it was due. But now she understood. And she knew what she needed to do. She needed to lead with clarity about the company’s purpose for the future. She needed to lead her team in making decisions based on an understanding of their core strengths and to leverage the value they provide to stakeholders. She needed to connect the company’s purpose to the employees’ own purpose in life.
Carol already had a meeting scheduled with her leadership team in two days. She scrapped her original agenda and instead made the vision the first item of discussion. She began by asking each of them what their vision meant to them and how it influenced their leadership decisions. She then reviewed the organizational values and engaged them in discussion on how they support the vision and purpose for the organization. Their discussion on the core value of respect gave greater clarity to their renewed focus on becoming more inclusive and equitable as a team.
Carol shared with them the new year’s message that she was going to deliver at the all-employee meeting the following week. She challenged each leader to develop their own follow up inspirational message to their teams to be delivered thereafter. She emphasized the importance of clear communication that would link the company’s vision and purpose to employees’ own roles and emphasize the core values. She knew that inspiration could lead to innovation and encouraged them to identify examples that would reinforce the importance of finding new and different ways to approach problems, provide new products, services or business processes.
Finally, Carol acknowledged that while there were many unknowns about the coming year, they could focus with certainty on their vision and why they existed as an organization. That why should connect emotionally with, and drive meaning for, employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders, and provide a basis for engaging and enabling everyone to make the right supporting decisions. She knew it wouldn’t be easy, but with clarity and the right focus, they could emerge from the crisis stronger as a team and a business.