how to lead rapid change

How To Lead In The Midst Of Urgent, Rapid Change And Strain

Lead through rapid change with calm clarity.

When he started work that week, “Aaron” didn’t know that he’d be asked to guide his team through a Coronavirus response, but within just a few days the situation was urgent. Major clients were making changes quickly. Like many leaders throughout the world, Aaron found himself having to lead through rapid change.

We happened to be in his office that morning as Aaron brought together his leadership team to communicate the next steps. We watched as he gracefully led his team through the day’s urgent situation. The entire office worked with clarity, focus, and resolve. The same principles Aaron used to lead through rapid change will work for you.

As you and your team respond to the rapidly evolving realities of this problem (or the next one):

1. Over-communicate clear, precise actions.

Aaron’s first message was very clear: “We need to call every client, ask them this question … and give them this information.”

Keep it simple. Check for understanding and be ready to repeat what matters most—frequently. When your people are worried and stressed themselves, communication is more challenging. Even with this seemingly straightforward request, there were several questions.

Aaron patiently and confidently reiterated the task: “A phone call to every client. Voice to voice communication is our MIT (Most Important Thing) here. If we can’t do that, we’ll use email for a backup. But #1, #2, and #3 is a phone call. Ask them this … tell them this …”

Focus on clear, concise communication that leaves no doubt about who will do what and by when.

2. Acknowledge emotion.

Ignoring emotions doesn’t make them go away. In fact, it makes them stronger. When you have to lead through rapid change and stressful circumstances, acknowledge how everyone feels.

Aaron looked at his team and said, “I know this is scary and there are a lot of things we don’t know. We have a plan for today. If anyone needs to talk with me individually, I’m here.”

If you’re not sure, you can also take a moment to ask how everyone is feeling. Acknowledge their emotions e.g. “It’s normal to feel nervous or upset in times like this.”

3. Focus on what you do know and what you can do.

Clarity is the antidote to uncertainty.

You don’t have to know everything. Focus on what you do know, on the next steps, on what needs to happen next, and the process going forward. You may not know what will happen or what decisions will be, but you can be 100% clear about what you know and what you will do next.

4. Communicate your confidence.

One of our favorite parts of this meeting was when Aaron told his team, “I know there’s a lot going on and this is on top of all the other things we’ve normally got to take care of—and I know you’re up to it. If you need help, I’m here.”

Your belief in your people becomes their confidence in themselves.

Next, Aaron shared an analogy that he’d learned from a mentor:

As a leader, you’re like a flight attendant during turbulence. When the plane shakes in the air, everyone looks at that flight attendant. If they’re joking or reading on their phone, everyone relaxes. If they’re upset, everyone panics. Your job today is to be that calm flight attendant for your team.

In talking with Aaron, he had his own concerns, but he modeled this “be the flight attendant” approach beautifully. Your team will take their cue from you.

5. Address concerns.

Aaron then took questions from his team. Some involved the work, some focused on personal concerns, and internal company procedures and response. Where he had information, he shared it. Where plans were being developed, he was clear about the process and that how he would inform everyone when the time came. When concerns were more personal, he met with those team members individually.

When you have to lead through rapid change or stressful circumstances, you often don’t know what you’ll show up to—but as a leader you always choose how you’ll show up. Your team needs you to be clear, calm, focused, and connected.

You don’t know what you’ll show up to, but you choose how you’ll show up.

Your Best Way to Lead Through Rapid Change

We’d love to hear from you: leave us a comment and share your best practice for leading through urgent, rapid change. 


You might also like:

Leading When Life is Out of Control (podcast)

How to Lead When Your Team is Exhausted

7 Ways to Lead Well During Times of Uncertainty and Change


navigate the chaos

How to Help Your Team Navigate the Chaos

How do you help your team navigate the chaos, particularly when you’re feeling frustrated, overwhelmed (and maybe even a bit frightened)?  In this article, I share three ways to help your team navigate the chaos of reorganization, shifts in direction or toxic leadership, and why it matters.

Help Your Team Navigate the Chaos: A Team Member’s Perspective

I received a LinkedIn message from  “Brian,” a director that worked on my corporate team over six years ago.

“Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

Of course! I love catching up with old friends and colleagues. (Although the request did seem a bit random since we hadn’t spoken in quite a while.)

“I’m just calling to tell you how much I appreciate your leadership and the opportunity to work with you. I learned so much.”

Wow! What an incredible gift. I was really touched that he’d taken the time to call.

(Side note: if you have these feelings about leaders you work with,  please call them. It matters! Leaders need to know what’s working so they can do more of it.) 

“Brian, you know growing leaders is my passion, so I’ve got to ask: What specifically did you learn from our time together and why?”

It came down to this.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but now that you’re not here, I understand how much you buffered us from the chaos and politics so we could focus on doing the right things to get results.”

My mind flashed back to the turmoil our organization was going through at the time, and all the anxiety I felt. It was a daily struggle to decide what to buffer and what to share. I did see a big part of my role as battling the bullies and pushing back on stupidity so my team didn’t have to.  I’m sure I didn’t always get it right.

I wanted to unpack this for you. So, I searched for clues of what I was doing at the time. And then I remembered blogging about it.

An excerpt from a blog post I wrote at the time called Chaos Curtailed: How to Shield Your Team

Your team does not want to …
  • see the stress on your face
  • know about the indecision in the meeting you just left
  • understand the stupid hoops you just jumped through
  • have their schedule jerked around because yours is a moving target
  • have deadlines that creep closer as you get more nervous
  • hear about the pressure you have from those above
  • know about your political or career struggles
They do want to …
  • understand the big picture
  • know where they fit in
  • understand what they need to do
  • know which decisions are final
  • understand what is up for discussion
  • know what could still change
They are looking for you to …
  • do what you said you would
  • stay the course on your big plans
  • be there to support
  • explain the reasons behind any changes
  • follow through on your commitments

3 Ways to Help Your Team During Tricky Times

So, through a little further discussion, this is what the things Brian appreciated boiled down to. I share this to help inspire your own thinking as you help your team to navigate the chaos.

  1. Build Human Connection – Be sure everyone knows you really care about them as people–and that they can trust you to have their backs. Be genuinely interested in them beyond what they are bringing to the immediate project.
  2. Shield Them From Stupidity –  Sure, you need to help them navigate the politics and learn how to get things done, but over-exposure to the drama a level above creates unneeded stress, makes them question their career choices, and distracts them from the important work at hand.
  3. Encourage Action – I learned this one early in my career from one of my favorite bosses, Gail Parsons, who said, “Where there is chaos, seize control.” Meaning, don’t let the chaos paralyze you.  Be the team that is known for positive action to move the business forward. You can read more about that in one of my very first blog posts here.

The truth is, what Brian also appreciated were the transformational results our team was able to achieve during that time. Leadership is always about the “what” and the “how.”

Your turn: What advice do you have for helping leaders to help their team navigate the chaos?

See Also: How to Navigate Yet Another Office Shake-Up (Wall Street Journal)

7 Ways to Help Your Team Deal with Ambiguity