Eyal Gutentag: Leading Teams Through The Covid-19 Pandemic

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As a proven performance marketing leader, Eyal Gutentag is known for partnering with teams of creative professionals to solve hard problems and push rapid growth. He has spent over 20 years as a team leader and mentor guiding companies to success. Through these experiences, he has learned the importance of strong and steady leadership in the face of difficult problems. COVID-19 is a prime example of an obstacle that requires adaptability, patience, and empathy for companies to navigate.

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In this Q&A, Eyal applies philosophies he has developed during his time as a business leader to managers leading teams through the COVID-19 Pandemic.

How can managers ensure that they consider the emotional, psychological and physical well-being of their employees during this time?

An important question as unlike previous economic crises - in 2001 or 2008, this is a health crisis first and an economic crisis second. So, I think it begins with two things:

  1. Ask, and
  2. Share.

First, managers should initiate conversations with teams or individual colleagues by asking how they are feeling and coping at this time. Create a safe space for them to share anxieties or concerns - medical, economic or otherwise.

Second, managers should willingly share their own concerns and coping mechanisms to demonstrate that it’s OK to bring those experiences into this new work setting. It also serves to humanize managers further and build trust.

How should management approach addressing financial concerns during the COVID-19 crisis?

When addressing the financial concerns of the company, it’s critical to be aggressive. Liquidity and extending your cash runway are the top priority. I was the CFO of a 40 person company when the 2008 crisis hit. It was hard, and even the best options available were difficult choices to make. But cutting costs and pivoting the company to adapt to the crisis was critical to us surviving through to an eventual sale years later. My only regret was not acting more quickly or aggressively.

How do management roles change when adjusting to a work-from-home environment?

Good question - there are no easy answers. In a simpler model, some managers are naturally better or more experienced at managing remote colleagues. Truthfully, I am not one of those people. I always thrive off of the energy of conference rooms, white boards, and collaborative problem solving - so it’s an adjustment. Today’s challenge is clearly very different. It is a health crisis first, and a business and financial crisis second.

Employees are anxious about their own health and that of their loved ones. Those with school-age children likely have them at home to feed, manage through distance learning, and entertain. Some are unfortunately struggling with loved ones who are ill or at high risk from COVID-19. The management challenge is twofold - first, managers have to support employees through these difficult circumstances and second, they have to rally their teams to keep company initiatives moving forward.

 I believe the top priority is to enable maximum flexibility for how and when employees are available for work. Letting them manage their family and personal needs is critical, and I believe will be rewarded by appreciative employees in the months ahead. Once employees feel comfortable and supported, then using digital tools to create better access and connectivity seems critical to keeping employees motivated and engaged in their work. Messaging, video conferencing, shared documents, and shared task management tools can all help bridge these gaps.

How does one navigate the risks brought by the crisis in an intelligent way, in order to emerge after COVID19 with minimal damage to the company?

There are a few keys in my opinion - first, ensuring financial liquidity and sufficient resources to navigate through an extended economic downturn that may last a couple of years. This requires a combination of reducing expenses where possible often by rethinking what true “must haves” are and being willing to err on the side of conservatism. Another important piece is understanding the government and private sector funds that may be available - either in the form of grants or cheap loans - and maximizing those.

Finally, I believe that most companies must pivot their offerings and their communication with customers to be relevant to the current crisis realities. It is critical to be relevant - and there is one thing on everyone’s minds - so find a way to be relevant in this moment, because it may last a while.

What is management’s role in preparing your company for an economic downturn?

 This pandemic is obviously a unique and devastating economic event - because of the extreme measures required to reduce spread, the far-reaching global impacts, and the heightened uncertainty about what lies ahead. However, it is part of management’s responsibility to plan for recessions. Many of the leadership teams I have been a part of, often discussed - even in the best of times - what actions might be taken to mitigate the impacts when one arrives. This may not yield a plan comprehensive enough for this crisis, but it would certainly be a good place to start.

What is the importance of listening and open communication with employees throughout the crisis?

I think this is critical. Transparency and recognizing the emotional space of employees is important at all times, and far more so during a crisis. In person it is easier to see and understand the emotional state of employees. Remote communication makes that much harder, and requires proactive efforts by managers.

Hard choices are being forced on all of us. In a work setting - managers are forced to reprioritize as new information arrives and employees anxious about their own job security must navigate how to demonstrate value more than ever. Communication is key to building trust and even accepting difficult and painful decisions.

How can businesses and CEO’s verify new information coming in about the virus? What is the importance of supplying employees with safe and accurate information and working conditions?

I’m not sure that employees will rely on their employers significantly when it comes to new information about the virus. What is important however is that companies adapt to the realities forced upon us by the virus in a variety of ways. For example, companies must respect the new regulations imposed on them to reduce spread - enabling remote work, reconfiguring office layouts, reducing meetings and travel requirements and even requiring temperature readings where applicable.

It is optimal for employees to feel like their company is prioritizing their health as highly as anything else - and they will ultimately reward those looking out for them with loyalty and hard work.

Furthermore, if there are colleagues who are known to be sick with COVID-19 or exhibiting symptoms, companies must ensure this information is either shared or at risk individuals are notified and sent home immediately. There can be no tolerance for a lackadaisical approach to employee well-being. Again, it’s about making employees feel comfortable.

How can management maintain a long-term strategy in such uncertain times? How can one stay on track with their original goals while also being prepared for the post-crisis world?

The reality is all management teams must adapt to this new reality - both the current and future one. Some plans of yesterday will be scrapped, others delayed. At the same time, many trends which were already beginning to shape our economy - digitization of industries, remote and contact-less services, and distance education are accelerating.

Many years of adoption are being compressed into months during this pandemic. New goals, new plans are needed for leadership teams who aim not just to survive, but to thrive as we move past the crisis.

This means identifying new opportunities and accelerating trends and weaving them into your business plan. It means adapting roles and responsibilities of staff to ensure projects that are more relevant get attention while de-prioritizing those that are victims of current “shelter in place” realities.

The COVID-19 pandemic will require many teams to make extensive changes to their business practices. In hearing the answers provided by Eyal Gutentag, we understand if management considers employees first, prioritizes safety and health practices, and keeps the big picture in mind, they can steady the ship as we deal with these difficult times.