For many small ad agency owners and principals, the abrupt shift in circumstances caused by the COVID-19 crisis is changing everything about how they manage their businesses and conduct daily operations. Perhaps nowhere in management are the effects greater than in how agency owners interact with and lead their people.
Before Coronavirus (or as some now call them, “the Before Times”), many leaders went through their workdays with minimal interactions with at least some of their teams. People knew their assignments and got on with the job, but leaders were seen or spoken to only in casual, brief chats in hallways or with a quick wave as employee and employer glimpsed one another across a room. As for agency culture, the workspace, processes, general vibe and agency managers contributed most of the heavy lifting.
Now principals are trying to maintain cultural bonds remotely, without team leaders driving the culture and mission. Direct communication among teams is intermittent at best. And agency owners and principals are having to think more about supporting remote, sometimes isolated employees while also juggling client needs, financial concerns, and their own and their families’ well-being.
This is forcing many agency principals to adjust their roles as leaders, and adopt more human (and humane) perspectives on managing people and teams. Your people are no longer just workers—they are valued individuals with needs and families of their own. Many principals are getting a look at employees’ lives up close and personal (if remotely) through web conferencing, Zoom meetings and check-in calls. What you are seeing and absorbing now will make how you view your people in the “After Times” very different.
Use This Crisis to Become a More Empathetic Leader
When we emerge from the virus crisis and achieve our new normality, the lessons we’re learning right now about building trust, inspiring teams and leadership will make ad agency principals better leaders for the long-term.
It’s not business, it’s personal. Personal interactions and connections have always been great business enhancers, both internally and with clients. Make notes about team members as you gain insights into their lives. Remember children’s names, birthdays, whether they have elderly parents, what pets they own, what their neighborhoods are like. Use that knowledge to reinforce employee/employer bonds when we restart in the New Normal.
Learn employee strengths. Even in lockdown, many employees will show you what they bring to the table every day that you many not have previously acknowledged. Think not only about how those talents, skills and abilities can boost the agency, but remember to say thanks to people whose work shone during the long shutdown.
Grow closer while working apart. Whenever possible, check in individually with your people and ask how they are doing. Share how you are doing, too. Intimacy is great way to build trust and improve retention. Knowing that the boss feels the same way you do about at their shared NetFlix binge-watching, or that they also have ailing relatives or far-flung family they are concerned about, makes the enforced separation from work life more bearable, and reminds us all to see one another as people, not just co-workers, managers and bosses. Empathy has become an essential leadership skill; now is a good time to develop your own empathetic traits.
It’s OK to show you are vulnerable. You may be uncomfortable getting closer to employees, and that’s OK. You are still the leader, not one of the infantry, and as such, maintaining mental as well as physical distance is important to some degree. But don’t be afraid to also share vulnerabilities. It’s not a bad thing to reveal your human frailties; it can cause employees to be more empathetic and supportive of your decisions and business responsibilities.
Above all, be transparent. Many agency owners will try to avoid having tough discussions with employees about pending decisions, possible including layoffs. Keep people informed, and trust them to recognize that uncertainty and the suddenly upended economy mean you may not be able to continue employing everyone. Reality is setting in, and employees deserve to know in advance what could happen in the coming weeks, so they can make plans and adjust their own finances.
Be real, and be you. If you’ve never been a touchy-feely type of leader, no one will expect you to become one overnight. But take the moments enabled by this crisis to express compassion and concern for your people. Show you value them, and are doing your best to avoid layoffs. Listen… really listen. Strive to reassure employees that whatever happens in the short-term, you believe they will be alright. Most of us will be.
Read more about people management during times of crisis: