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Reflections on Leading a Team During a Crisis

Some of my earliest memories include running on the beach with my sister and my dad. These weren’t just jogs along the water, they were long runs or sprints in the soft sand between Marina del Rey and Venice Beach where I grew up. I remember learning how to focus on the goal, developing strategies for these workouts, and, ultimately, recognizing that when I won races or improved my time, this was the kind of work that got me there.

Leading through this time has made me think more than once about those workouts. The pandemic hit the PR and marketing industry hard and businesses the size of Kane, regardless of industry, were among those hurt most in the U.S. Prepared or not, we had to find grit and respond with strategies we didn’t know we had. Our company actually grew through the pandemic - we brought on new clients and we added team members. But, I believe the most important growth will come from what we’ve learned. About ourselves. About leadership. About what winning means today. 

Know your metrics and be nimble

Like many entrepreneurs, I founded Kane because of my passion for communication. I had years of successful experience as a journalist and in corporate communication but I knew that to grow a company, I had to understand and run the business with metrics that gave me both an immediate snapshot into our health and a window into what’s ahead. I worked with a consultant early in the company’s growth to develop the basics and then spent seven months in the Small Business Association’s Emerging Leaders Program where I learned how to customize a system for our business. 

When the pandemic hit and clients started putting projects on hold, this system gave us the insight and data we needed to make rapid decisions. Yes, we cut expenses, but we also innovated. As a strategic marketing and PR firm, our team leads with research. We quickly surveyed clients about their greatest needs, evaluated market research from sources we trust and launched a marketing campaign to educate our audience about Kane’s reputation management and crisis communications services. While we lost clients in the short term, we kept every employee, maintained salaries and brought in new business before we felt the impact of those losses. 

Running a business must be about more than making a profit

The pandemic revealed enormous gaps in our communities - gaps that have existed for generations and have persisted for so many reasons including the belief that closing them is someone else’s responsibility. The disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on our communities of color and on our disadvantaged communities is not a problem for someone else to solve, we all own this. It’s encouraging to see businesses begin to recognize the role we can play by investing in solutions that create both business value and real opportunity for people. One example: OneTen, a group founded and led by CEOs with the goal of upskilling, hiring and promoting one million Black Americans over the next 10 years who do not yet have a four-year degree into family-sustaining jobs with opportunities for advancement. 

At Kane, we’ve long had a commitment to hiring diverse talent and this year, we expanded our commitment with a long-term view. We brought interns onto our team from Historically Black Colleges and Universities across the country and in 2021 Kane will partner with Greater Together Milwaukee to develop an apprenticeship program to introduce diverse high school and community college students along with adults reorienting their careers to jobs in marketing and public relations. By partnering with others in our industry, investing in education, skills development and supplier diversity, mentoring future generations, and measuring impact the way we measure key metrics for our companies, businesses can do a tremendous amount to close gaps and uplift generations of individuals. These investments are good for business and vital for our future as employees, customers and stakeholders evaluate us against more than our products, services and profits. What we stand for and how we live this are becoming among our most important assets.

Lead with Purpose. Always. 

This brings me to Purpose. COVID-19 transformed the way I think about Kane and what leaders and their companies need to be successful today. Early in the pandemic, we noticed that consumers’ priorities and how they evaluated brands changed. Surveys like one from Social Media Link found that companies who showed empathy and acted in the best interest of their stakeholders first (employees included) got a boost, while companies that behaved opportunistically lost brand value. 

Our team at Kane is often called in to work with leaders during a crisis. This includes delivering critical information to key audiences while protecting our clients’ reputations. It can be a tall order when these leaders haven’t built meaningful connections with their stakeholders and have little visible track record of purpose beyond the work they do.  In a world where reputations rise and fall in a single tweet, what people think and say about you before a crisis is vital to your ability to recover without too much damage to your reputation and your bottom line. 

Those of us who specialize in reputation management aren’t the only ones saying this. In 2019, BlackRock’s CEO Larry Fink wrote a letter to the CEOs of companies that BlackRock invests in, tying purpose directly to a company’s value. He wrote, “Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits but the animating force for achieving them. Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose – in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked.” 

And late in 2020, the global consultancy Accenture launched its new brand with purpose at the center. A report the company developed about its new brand describes why. “Purpose was already rising in importance. Now it matters more than ever. The pandemic is testing our humanity and values. COVID-19 has given us all a common purpose and thereby elevated the very idea of a company’s "purpose." While BlackRock and Accenture are massive, global companies, small businesses, nonprofits and governments must operate with purpose and authenticity, too. 

How do you clarify your purpose and operationalize it to root your business practices in your truth? In Q4 of 2020, our leadership team spent a morning with experts in purpose from around the world including Accenture, Business for Social Responsibility and FSG.  Kane is applying what we’ve learned to our business now. In 2021, we’ll be ready to launch our new brand and purpose statement and roll out a Corporate Citizenship and Sustainability program that connects with our business strategy to create shared value for Kane and all of our stakeholders.

Meet people where they’re at 

In the early months of the pandemic, we received a lot of requests from leaders and organizations who needed help with crisis communications. This didn’t surprise me. What I didn’t expect was how many did not regularly communicate with their stakeholders. In fact, some had no strategies for employee engagement or communication, websites so old that we had to develop workarounds to get real-time information out, no social media and no experience keeping stakeholders (clients, community members, etc.) informed other than in-person meetings, phone calls or direct mail! Leaders focused on their business and operations but had not made it a priority to know their people or keep them informed. I’m in the Midwest, and some of this may be chalked up to that great Midwest humility, i.e.; “If I’m doing good work, that’s all that matters, right?” 

Communication today is a two-way street where people expect to receive information and engage with it. If you don’t know what’s important to your employees, find out. If you don’t know how your customers want to receive information from you, find out. And then develop strategies to meaningfully stay connected. As Forbes points out, leaders need to rethink the way we communicate. Before the pandemic, our leadership team had considered turning weekly team meetings into monthly meetings to put time back on people’s calendars. Thankfully, that change didn’t happen! We now find our weekly meetings to be among the best ways to connect. We share updates about the business and give employees the chance to recognize each other for contributions that tie to our core values. We’ve also developed a newsletter, Leading Insights, to consistently share information with our external stakeholders and clients. (You’re welcome to sign up for this!)

One other thing, as CEO, I make sure to bring empathy into the workplace. It has been a stressful time for everyone, and I try to keep in mind how my employees’ personal lives are impacting their work lives. As leaders, we need to walk in their shoes a little bit.

The Bottom Line

We’re all just beginning to tabulate the lessons learned from the past year and I’m so thankful to have had a team that’s all in. These have been among the toughest months yet for our young company. As with any challenging workout, though, we’ve gained clarity and stamina and I look forward to applying our new insights to the work ahead. 

Kimberly Kane is the president and founder of Kane Communications GroupShe is an award-winning journalist and public relations practitioner. Her firm works with executives to align communications with business strategy, defining brands, building reputations and inspiring business results.

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1 comment
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10 months ago

Hi Kimberly,

I really enjoyed this piece. I too, did many of the things you did to retool my business in 2020. Ironically, we leaned on metrics, invested in rebranding, implemented a DEI program very much aligned with your program. You told your story better than I could have and I enjoyed learning about you and your agency. Thank you for sharing.

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