Project Management

5 Leadership Lessons From the COVID-19 Crisis

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By Jen L. Skrabak, PfMP, PMP


“It is not the strongest that survive, but those most adaptable to change.” —Charles Darwin

It seemed as if everything changed overnight when the news of the COVID-19 pandemic broke. In California, where I am located, we went from the hustle and bustle of going to work every day and an abundance of options in travel, restaurants, entertainment and events to self-isolation, mandatory family time and the shuttering of many businesses.

We adapted quickly to schools and workplaces being closed. And most project managers, who are fortunate to fit into the small percentage of the workforce able to work remotely, are working from home.

So, what can we learn from all this change? It’s important to reflect on the leadership lessons that will carry us through this crisis—and beyond:

1. Welcome change.

I think the area that reflects the greatest change to everyday life is the grocery store. As essential businesses, grocery retailers were forced to change their business model and how they operate while staying open and serving customers. Each day, stores implemented new procedures to adapt to rapidly shifting federal, state and local requirements.

I was at a grocery store recently and noticed how, in a span of days, the business had changed its hours, hired thousands of new workers to stock shelves, implemented hourly cleaning procedures, installed new systems for checkout, managed a surge in online orders and even adjusted how groceries were bagged. California typically charges a fee for plastic bags to encourage shoppers to bring their own. That’s changed. Many stores no longer want you to bring your own bags, and now they are giving away bags for free. During a recent visit to my local grocer, the cashier told me they were running out of bags, and I said I could just take the larger items without having them bagged. I commented on the shifting dynamic I witnessed. 

The cashier replied: “It will change again.”

It’s a great sentiment and true demonstration of leadership from someone who is experiencing a great amount of change every day at work. It’s not just the changes that are forced upon us, but more importantly, how we adapt to those changes with agility. It starts with us.

2. Master agility.

When this crisis is over (and it will be), take the time to understand what distinct behaviors work well rather than just going back to the way things were. I have found that turning on the video in conference calls is a more effective way to engage with teams vs. just having audio. In fact, research shows that 80 percent of people on audio-only conference calls are multi-tasking. And people rely on body language to help understand the message. The most important takeaway is to approach new things with curiosity and a desire to learn. Don’t just return to your comfort zone.

3. Work with what you’ve got

It seems that every day, we hear new information that conflicts with the old information. First, the experts told us not to wear masks. Or that only N95 masks are effective. Then, we were told to wear masks when we went outside and that any cloth or scarf would be fine.

When dealing with complex issues, there is a constant stream of new information that we must digest and react to. The ability to keep working well and moving forward, despite the ambiguity, means that we don’t wait for the perfect information in order to start developing and executing plans.

4. Embrace the now.

If you took it for granted that you could get a haircut, go to that restaurant you’ve always wanted to try or travel to a dream destination anytime, we now know that things can change in an instant. Procrastination may result in objectives not getting met at all or a delay that may last months or years.

The lesson here is to prioritize what’s important—and do it now. Good time management practices show that handling something (like an email) once and making a decision on it right away is more effective than putting it aside or making a task list to deal with it later.

5. Be thankful.

While this is a stressful and difficult time, there’s also a lot to be grateful for, such as more time with family, no commute, less pollution and a focus on simplicity. Take a moment at the start of each day to remind yourself of three things that you’re thankful for—and why they are really important to you. It will make you happier and more focused for the day ahead. 

What leadership lessons has the pandemic taught you? Sound off in the comments below.

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: May 06, 2020 01:56 PM | Permalink

Comments (30)

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Innocent Nkuyahaga Project Development Manager| Pearl Marina Estates Kampala, Uganda
Distance is not a barrier to work as this challenge can be overcome with the technological developments around us and a change in our attitudes to adopt to the new norm

Eduin Fernando Valdes Alvarado Project Manager| F y F Fabricamos Futuro Villavicencio, Meta, Colombia
Very interesting article, thanks for sharing

Ramadevi Lanka Consultant - Software Services| Ancla Tech Services Little Elm, Tx, USA
Stay positive even when everything is failing:
During these tough times, everywhere we are seeing depressing news about people dying, effects of freedom being curtailed to go out/dine/shop, job losses etc., However there are also positive things happening like able to spend more time with family, less environmental pollution, efficiencies learned while working from home and so on. For people to survive through this pandemic, it is very important to stay positive, smile, celebrate small things in life and feel happy for every day spent in a good way. Now convert this to a hypothetical project scenario.
On the negative side: Lot of issues found during system testing, customer escalations raising by the day, team not able to catch up. If we start seeing the positive aspects: All the team members are available for working, testing environment is up and running , deployment from dev to QA to staging is automated, issues are getting isolated to couple of modules of code so entire code is not an issue.
In the above said scenario, it becomes very important for the project manager to stay focused and plan the work and prioritize tasks to pull this along. Instead if the project manager also starts feeling hopeless, confused and not able to steer the team, then the project is definitely going to sink.

Jen Skrabak Portfolio Management Office (PMO) Executive| Strategy+PM, LLC Calabasas, Ca, USA
All, thanks so much for your comments. Ramadevi, excellent Lesson #6 with a great example of the PM having a positive attitude as well as do the planning, prioritization and execution of the work.

Gennadii Miroshnikov Technology Manager| London Business School London, United Kingdom
Great post! This week, our team discussed what lessons we have learned during almost three months of work in the new reality. We discussed to what extent we rate ourselves as a pandemic resilient team and what helped us achieve this. We agreed that this is flexibility, empathy, appreciation of available resources and a craving for learning.

Joshua Yoak Evanston, Il, USA
Great article. Helps navigate current challenges.

Kelly Zimmerman Kennesaw, Ga, USA
Thank you for the well written article.
During this pandemic experience, I am reminded the importance of critical thinking. There is so much information, we must use our reasoning skills to determine what makes the most sense and manage the risk for ourselves and our families!
Also, learn when to turn off the barrage of information.

Jen Skrabak Portfolio Management Office (PMO) Executive| Strategy+PM, LLC Calabasas, Ca, USA
@Kelly, good point - critical thinking and knowing when to stop getting more information can go hand in hand. Sometimes TMI ("Too Much Information") can be unproductive.

Rajakumar Ramakrishnan Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
Nice and interesting read. Thanks for sharing. In these situations we face many challenges. Looking at how other leaders are coming out and converting these crisis as an opportunities will help us think in similar directions and motivates us.

Purnima Senwal Mentor, Oh, USA
Take one day at a time, this is what I have learnt thru my personal experience and applies wonderfully to current situation around the world.

Jen Skrabak Portfolio Management Office (PMO) Executive| Strategy+PM, LLC Calabasas, Ca, USA
@Rajakumar, good point. The Chinese word for Crisis consists of Danger and Opportunity. It's about how to minimize the danger and maximize the opportunity.

Jen Skrabak Portfolio Management Office (PMO) Executive| Strategy+PM, LLC Calabasas, Ca, USA
@Purnima, focus on the present and what you can control is a good strategy.

Muse Ahmed Project Manager| Action in Semi-arid Lands, ASAL Somalia
very interesting article, thanks for sharing

Wasela Syeda West Chicago, Il, USA
Very informative article. In my opinion keeping team engaged, communicating and proactive management stratergy will be helpful rather than being reactive. Also daily updates and checking with team and having shared expectations will definetly help too.

Oscar Vega General Program Manager| Thales Spain (now retired) Collado Villalba, Madrid, Spain
For me "work with what you`ve got " and "embrace the now " are some of the most important LL, in this era of so much information and easy opinions.
Also to realize how the environment have benefited from this situation, must oblige us to re consider what we are doing wrong and take action!

Marcel Lukac Project manager| Swep Slovakia s.r.o. Kosice, Slovakia
Inspiring article Jen, thank you.
"Do it now" is what I try to nowadays, hard to plan anything.

Jen Skrabak Portfolio Management Office (PMO) Executive| Strategy+PM, LLC Calabasas, Ca, USA
@Wasela, good suggestion - making sure we're communicating and checking in with team members can help counter potentially feeling isolated due to the Work from Home situation we're all in.

Jen Skrabak Portfolio Management Office (PMO) Executive| Strategy+PM, LLC Calabasas, Ca, USA
@Oscar, excellent tips to embrace the current situation, and make it work with what you have.

Jen Skrabak Portfolio Management Office (PMO) Executive| Strategy+PM, LLC Calabasas, Ca, USA
@Marcel - yes definitely Do It Now. I'm sure in hindsight, there would be plenty of things we should have done in February, but going forward - just do it and be proactive.

Iheb Barhoumi Engineering manager - Program Manager - Bio pharma| Bio - Pharmaceutical Company Tunis, Tunisia
Great article, reminds us how to live as Humans for once. I was thinking about a last lesson to add if you don't mind, Be Human: Take time to value the team you are working with. We all know that Covid-19 crisis has shut most of the businesses down for the passing period, but now getting back to work, it seems that the engagement of our collaborators got stronger. We are whitnessing fast response and actions, accurate datas, respected deadlines...and that is amazing. So we should focus more on our Human to Human interactions, and take time to value our collaborators, encourage them, motivate them and above all trust them.

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