Leadership in Uncertain Times, Part I: Advice From the Chicago Tech Scene

by Quinten Dol
March 25, 2020
chicago covid-19 empty bridge
Photo: Shutterstock

When a business selects its leaders, a “proven ability to lead an organization during a global pandemic” is not a traditional prerequisite. But as the novel coronavirus rattles families, healthcare systems and economies across Chicago and the wider world, that’s exactly what executives and team leads are being asked to do. During times of crisis or heightened uncertainty, traditional leadership qualities — communication, influence, team- and culture-building, decisiveness, resilience, problem-solving, curiosity — become more important than ever. 

One thing we can learn from this unfolding crisis is that none of us — as individuals, professionals and companies, but also as communities, nations and economies — are an island. It’s a reminder that, as with all things, humanity is in this together. 

In that spirit, we checked in with leaders across Chicago tech to learn how they and their teams are faring, how they’ve adapted and what advice they have to share with other leaders in the Chicago area. 

 

Steve Garrou
Chief Executive Officer

Over the coming weeks and months, what concerns are you anticipating from your team? How are you addressing them?

Unpredictable times make it harder for people to look ahead and remain positive. As the CEO of an entrepreneurial company, I reach out to each person and listen to understand how our current situation is affecting them. My team works remotely and many now have children who are at home or spouses who are out of work, adding new elements to their day-to-day schedule.

We’re finding that our team’s schedules are fluid, and we are providing them with the flexibility to care for their families while also getting the job done. By understanding each person’s situation, we can create greater alignment among the team and provide resources, support, tools and encouragement. I know that mistakes will be made, but I hope we will find a way to learn from the mishaps and create new opportunities we hadn’t thought of before.

 

Chris Murphy
Chief Executive Officer, North America

As a leader, you are the person people in your company turn to for answers. Who are you looking to for motivation and support? What advice do you have for other leaders who are walking into a world of uncertainty?

Earlier this year I attended a course entitled “Leading the Agile Organization,” which focused on building and leading organizations that are able to respond rapidly to changing and uncertain conditions. Little did I know how immediately relevant the lessons from that course would be!

Staying motivated and feeling supported through these challenging and rapidly changing times is certainly not something that I take for granted. We are all looking after each other as an extended community and providing one another with mutual support. I feel comfortable providing my input and direction when needed, but also in admitting when I don’t have all the answers and deferring to those who are better equipped to make decisions.

A great recent example of this came during the early days of the COVID-19 crisis. One ThoughtWorker used his own time to write a detailed paper analyzing what he knew of the virus, the likely modeling of its impact and specific suggestions for how ThoughtWorks as an organization should respond. He sent it to me and others on the leadership team, and it helped us make better decisions earlier.

My advice to other leaders is that you don’t need to know all the answers. Indeed, you can’t know all the answers. You can, however, help to build and sustain an organizational culture whereby the collective does have the answers.

 

Andy Adams
Head of Technology

Chicago is a strong tech community. How do you think we can help each other in times of uncertainty? What specific advice do you have for the tech community — not just to other leaders or your team, but to our industry at large? 

We can best help each other by sharing experiences — both successes and failures. There is no precedent for what’s happening right now so the more we can learn from each other, the better. We went from having our entire organization in the office to working remotely in two days.  We were able to do that by learning from each other, sharing best practices and also being open with our challenges and setbacks.

The only way to make good decisions in times of uncertainty is to listen to and empathize with the perspective, challenges and concerns of your team. People are looking for clarity and transparency when things are uncertain. If you don’t feel like you’re over-communicating, you’re probably not communicating enough.

Trust your teams, work together and you’ll get through it. We’ve seen our teams rally together and although it’s trying, we’ll come out stronger on the other end.  We haven’t lost sight of our targets and continue to trust and support one another.

 

Ron Lamb
Chief Executive Officer

Over the coming weeks and months, what concerns are you anticipating from your team? How are you addressing them?

We are doing everything we can to stay on top of the latest information so we can assess and reassess our situation on an hourly and daily basis. When we made the decision to have our team members work from home to keep them safe, our next biggest concern became our customers. They want to know what we can do to help support them during this crisis. There is not an easy answer here. COVID-19 has created a time of great uncertainty for all of us and no one knows how long this pandemic will last.

We’ve created “rapid recovery toolkits” for our customers. The solutions in the toolkit will help them glean key insights, drive continued engagement and maintain communication channels. Everything that we are offering is designed to maintain both customer and member engagement.

During difficult times, communication is key. We will continue regular communication and “ask me anything” meetings with our team as the news changes, and as we make new decisions in response.

 

Ken Kennedy
EVP, President Technology and Product

As a leader, you are the person people in your company turn to for answers. Who are you looking to for motivation and support? What advice do you have for other leaders who are walking into a world of uncertainty?

Our first priority is the health and well-being of our employees. With COVID-19 dominating the news and social media, we feel it’s crucial to regularly and openly communicate with our employees. We’re providing daily updates and pointing our employees to unbiased, authoritative information sources, including the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

My advice to leaders during this period of uncertainty is to communicate regularly and take into account the fact we’re in the midst of a global crisis. In times like these, leaders need to remain composed, communicate openly and act decisively.

 

Chien Chou
Vice President of Engineering

Chicago is a strong tech community. How do you think we can help each other in times of uncertainty? What specific advice do you have for the tech community — not just to other leaders or your team, but to our industry at large? 

In this current time of uncertainty, we can help each other out through sharing our thoughts and solutions. Supporting each other is critical right now, as is having a community around us that can act as a sounding board. For example, based on the lessons we’ve learned over the past few months from our Asia offices, a long work-from-home policy can cause significant stress for our employees. We need to learn from this to create proper engagement and support strategies.

For the overall tech community, I always recommend having a buffer in place. In the last 10 years there has been an illusion that there is unlimited money in the market, but this is not true. When the money stops flowing, those without resources already in place will be left out in the cold. We need to return to the basic business model: Does my service or product create value? Can the revenue cover the cost and provide margins? 

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