How I Lead When The World Is Uncertain
Supporting teams through turbulent times
With age comes some amount of experience which leads to reflection and perspective. I was in my mid-20s when the financial crisis of 2008 hit - I was fearless and indestructible. I had very little to lose financially at the time - no property, no responsibility to my family or children - the world’s events unfolding in front of me were a great adventure that I was able to have an intellectual conversation about with no real consequences.
Fast forward 15 years and the news of the Silicon Valley Bank collapsing (bread and butter for funding for many small and mid-size tech companies) - has a very different impact on me. Today, I work at a start-up, have a family, lead a team, and have a variety of responsibilities. Additionally, I am surrounded by people in various stages of their life - some of whom have little to lose and lots of excitement about the possibilities, and others are figuring out if they need to make a “plan B” because of all the worst-case scenarios running through their heads (real or imagined).
As the tech scene has been thrown into disarray over the last few months, I have been wrapping my head around what I can do to help my teams feel their ground shake a little less and what concrete steps I can take to be ready for the journey ahead.
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Taking a step back - if you are new to Mind the Beet, I’m Helen and I am a Product Manager leader at a late-stage start-up as well as a mom of two kids under 10. I live by Dare to Lead and Radical Candor, and pride myself on having a strong bias for action, a sense of ownership, and deep care for the people I work with.
So the question I have been mulling over is how do I show up as a leader and what do I say to those who rely on me for clarity when moments of deep uncertainty come. While product managers deal with ambiguity every day, the game changes when there are macro events happen such as mass layoffs, banks collapsing, etc. In these moments, the people we lead, need us (as their managers) to provide guidance and support
Here are the things I do to support my team when I have limited visibility or control over the situation at hand.
Keep calm and carry on
I remind myself that as a manager, I am in a fishbowl. People are watching me react and use that to inform their own actions and behaviors. So in difficult times, being intentional about how I show up to those who depend on me is critical.
Additionally, it’s important to weigh the context. Depending on the situation, it may be appropriate to give people time and space to step away and process their emotions in whatever way is needed (this is for example what my leadership team for on January 6, 2021, when the US Capitol was under attack). Or if the right message is to actually focus on the work and put one foot in front of the other.
What this means for me is that I need to watch my tone and body language when teammates bring me worrisome news and concerns.
So my goal is to do less of: “Oh my god, you are kidding me? Tell me more!”
And more of “I haven’t heard about this. Let me catch up, gather my thoughts and we can chat about this in a little bit. In the mean time, what worries you most?”
Connect using your past experience
As a manager, I often times have the gift of past events that I can pattern-match and use to help with perspective. I use this tactic carefully to make sure this doesn’t become a conversation about me, but rather about finding relevant examples to showcase perseverance through a similar issue.
Awhile ago, I was in a situation when half of my team was laid off and I told my mentor at the time that I didn’t know how to stay and be productive. She told me that the choice was mine to own - I could see what’s happening as an opportunity and a reset or leave the organization. But staying and complaining was not a good outcome for my mental health or the business. I stayed and referamed my approach. It was hard, but worth it.
Focus on what you can control
While I hold space and listen to people and do my best to reassure them, I find a lot of comfort in falling back on processes and routines that I have established. Continuing to add value to the business and not getting distracted is always appreciated by leadership teams so my mantra is to “keep on swimming” and to not give up.
Whether it’s showing up to recurring meetings, sending a regular status meeting, or prepping for a strategy review with my leadership team, my goal is to keep moving the ball forward.
Eat, sleep, exercise - plan your week
Perspective for me comes with a good night’s sleep, healthy eating, and daily movement. So especially in stressful periods, I make an extra point to calendar my life so that I can fit in self-care. Recently, I have been following Daniel Rosenthal on Twitter/Instagram for daily motivation to stay healthy.
Tactically before the week starts, I’m finding at least one meeting a day to do as a “walk and talk” and planning my meals for the week.
Limit doom scrolling to 15 minutes a day
Adam and I are watching Shrinking with Harrison Ford and Jason Segel - where a therapist recommends giving yourself 15 minutes a day to feel all the feels. I apply this approach when I am compelled to do worst-case-scenario thinking in times of uncertainty.
This week, I’m giving myself 15 consecutive minutes once a day to worry and read the news on what’s going on with the banking industry and how it will impact the tech industry. After that, I plan to move on with my day.
Stay positive - limit gossip and cynicism
When all the information is not available or shared, it is easy to start making up stories and discussing all the possibilities - letting our imagination run wild. I have also seen the ease with which we all fall into criticizing the organization for not providing more updates and more information.
Especially in difficult moments, I try not to engage in rumor-mongering or cynical talk. Instead I remind myself (and others as appropriate) that everyone is doing the best they can with the information they have. A helpful tactic has been to talk to my stressed out teammates about indisbutable facts and together arrive to the conclusion that a lot of felt anxiety is based on assumptions and fear and not real information.
If you’ve gotten this far in this post, you are likely in an organization that is going through a turbulent time. I hope you know that you are not alone and I hope you find a moment to catch your breath and be intentional about how you want to show up.
If you are a manager, here are some other resources from our past writing:
These are great insights and they all resonate. I especially like the "Stay positive" section. One of my mentors used this phrase to help the team stay focused on facts vs. cynicism: "... It is not my story to tell". I have used that frequently to check myself on whether my opinions will help the discussion, or take it further into rumor mill land.
Another lever I have come to really appreciate over time that helps me keep perspective in uncertain times is traveling. I'd put it in a similar bucket as 'meditation' or 'running' -- it does not have an immediate perceptible affect, but over the long term these investments tend to increase ones capacity to 'step away from it all' and see the bigger picture. Through traveling, one is able to really experience the full set of human condition, and our resilience to deal with them. It also gives us perspective on what really matters for long term happiness.