By Bernie Dixon
It’s a scenario you probably never visualized. You exit a zoom meeting and begin to feel the symptoms: a low-grade fever, the dry and persistent cough, labored breathing and a loss of smell and taste. The energy that drove you to keep your company growing in unprecedented times is suddenly gone. Replacing it is the unshakable fear of the worst. You want to be optimistic and yet, it’s time to call your doctor and communicate to your family how you feel. But what are you going to communicate to your team while you process your own thoughts and deal with the ravaging effects of COVID-19?
Promote your most capable team members. It has been weeks since the virus first exploded in major areas of the US. By now, your team has adjusted to working fully remotely. For leaders who find themselves ill and not able to work as much, elevating your most promising team members will reinforce your trust in them and their ability to get the job done. Now is the time to trust their adaptability. Asking team members to step up to fill new needs of the organization can be a huge boost to their morale and their sense of contribution.
If you lack the talent to fill your shoes … If you are in a situation where there is an important deal, merger, capital round closing, a relationship you have been personally cultivating or you simply have no one you can call upon to replace your role as CEO, consider leaning on your strongest board member or advisor to step up. It is a common practice among public companies to bring in a lead board member to temporarily fill the role of CEO when other team members may not be ready or able to assume responsibilities. This is the time to lean on their experience. Also, your Board has a fiduciary responsibility to the company and should be willing to step up to aid in the success of the company.
Develop a daily check in routine. If you temporarily become too ill to hold meetings, count on your most capable members that you have called upon to step up. They can lead the meetings and communicate directly from you. If you are capable, a daily status with you lead team member, even if by email, is essential. Remember that they will be concerned about you as much as you are concerned about their health and well-being. Whether it is the entire team or at the individual level, all team members need to be touched at least once a day. The check in conversations need not be simply about work and tasks. Find out how your team members are doing. In turn, find out how the next level team members are coping. Encourage openness.
Focus on succession planning. It may be a difficult thought. You need to have a succession plan in place for a worst-case scenario. The virus and its impact on you and your team makes it more apparent that succession planning is a necessity. Although it is essential that a CEO succession plan be in place. It’s not simply the CEO succession that matters. You need to be insistent about it throughout the organization. Ask your team to identify potential replacements for them and any other layer of teams you may have in your organization. Assess or ask your team to assess key contractors and partners where you are reliant. Examine single point of failure areas where a person who is unable to work or manage their full workload may impact your business. Examine it across your business from marketing and branding to final delivery of services. You just don’t know who is going to become ill and you want to make sure you are not scrambling when your get a note from your CFO that says she is in the hospital.
Balance employee safety with business continuity. It is a true balancing act to impress employee safety and health first while keeping an eye on business continuity. Many companies, particularly public ones have robust succession plans in place. Executive recruiting companies with practices in succession planning have assisted most public companies. According to Korn Ferry, some companies are trying to ensure their leaders stay healthy by telling them to take time for themselves and get enough sleep to help bolster their immune systems. Some businesses are including more people on projects to duplicate decision making or insisting that technical staffers document their work in greater detail so others can help, if necessary.
The best time for succession planning is clearly not in the middle of a crisis. Reacting to a crisis is not always the optimum time to plan people moves. Succession planning is best done with individual performance assessments in mind and an overall HR planning and development game plan. For most early stage companies, that type of disciplined HR planning and development is not in place. Nonetheless, the current environment makes it blatantly apparent that succession planning is a business necessity.
If you are a CEO battling COVID-19 symptoms, stay home; schedule your work around rest. The best way for you to be there for your team is to recover and get well enough to drive the company into greatness for the long run. For those of you who have the resources to help, I strongly urge you to donate supplies and protective equipment to health care providers. Give to research initiatives. Support local restaurants by ordering out. Offer any support you can to displaced workers. Most importantly make your health a priority.
Stay home. Stay healthy. Play to win in the long run.
Bernie P. Dixon is Founder and Chairman of Launchpad2X, a founder-to-CEO accelerator training program for women entrepreneurs. Find her on LinkedIn.