TMCnet Feature
March 17, 2021

Eyal Gutentag on Lessons Learned: Team Leadership After COVID

The onset of the COVID 19 pandemic in early 2020 was a tragedy that caused chaos throughout the world. Thousands lost their lives. Businesses, schools and churches were shut down. Hardly a person on the globe was not affected by it. 

But as vaccines now roll out and as statistics slowly tumble back to normal, yet another tragedy potentially looms: the tragedy of not learning any lessons from what happened. 

This is especially true for business leaders. After one of the most disruptive years in recent memory, what lessons have business leaders learned—or should they have learned—on the heels of this catastrophic event?

We decided to ask growth and performance leader Eyal Gutentag, recognized throughout the business world for his expertise in developing powerful managerial teams in some of the nation’s best-known companies. Eyal has been instrumental in developing the smoothly-running management teams at big name companies like ZipRecruiter, Uber and the NFL, and is an experienced mentor and millennial talent manager. 

With over two decades of experience guiding fast-growth companies through all kinds of upheavals, he brings a unique perspective to any discussion of how managers can derive critical lessons from the recent pandemic. Here are some excerpts from our interview: 

Q. Eyal, in your various management positions, you’ve led companies through all kinds of challenges through the years. Now, as the latest challenge—the COVID pandemic—apparently winds to a close, what is the one thing you’d like other managers to keep in mind? How is this challenge different?

Eyal Gutentag: I think the big lesson for managers is to realize that the incredible scale of this epidemic is calling for a different kind of response on their part. We’ve had difficult times before: factory closings, layoffs, economic slumps and so on. And the traditional response has been to find new revenue streams or capital, new internal policies, new training programs, tightening or loosening the fiscal belts, and so on.  

But COVID hit us on a much deeper, broader scale. It hit us not just economically but emotionally. We’ve seen family and friends die. We’ve seen our kids locked out of schools, houses of worship shut down, incomes lost. 

As a result, for some perhaps more than others, there’s a very real fear that still lingers, even as the vaccines begin rolling out. Some workers have lost loved ones and still grieve. Others may be high risk and fearful of rejoining the workforce. People wonder, “Will it ever be safe again? Can I return to work without worry?”

As managers, we need to recognize that this is a health crisis first and a financial crisis second. This is a time for managers to reach out with messages of encouragement and reassurance, to show genuine and heart-felt human compassion. I advise managers to make that personal connection now more than ever. When you do, the business side will work itself out. If you were doing well before COVID, as most companies were, then you can get back on track rather quickly. But before you can make that happen you need to get your people back on track first.  

Q. What can managers do to express their compassion? What steps would you recommend?

Eyal Gutentag: Well, first thing I’d do is to remind myself to be flexible. Not everyone is going to be ready to come back into work on Day One. Communicate with each person. Ask about his or her availability, the external responsibilities they may have for loved ones. Identify any fears about returning. Would they prefer to work remotely or on site? Consider allowing some to continue working from home, even if only temporarily. Avoid ill-conceived ultimatums that ultimately help no one.

If you prefer to have everyone on site together often, then make it extra attractive for them to do so. Add a few company perks such as free snacks or lunches for onsite workers. Add more flexible hours. Offer incentives that weren’t there before. In other words, make the return to work so inviting that everyone chooses that option. But for those that don’t, remember what they’ve been through and why they may be reluctant to give up the work-at-home option. 

A major benefit, by the way, of being flexible is that you’ll likely see a payoff down the road in increased employee royalty and retention. I have found that most employees value the benefit of this flexibility far higher than the company’s cost of offering it.

The next step would be to increase employee connections. If practical, take time to contact each employee personally. Calm any fears they may have. Ask about their family. Emphasize their importance to the team. Let them see the vision you have for them and the company and how they fit into the big picture. 

The final lesson learned: take advantage of your staff’s increased familiarity and comfort with online meeting technology. Find ways to use programs like Zoom or Google (News - Alert) Meet to enhance group participation going forward. Get top management out of their Ivory Tower isolation and let everyone see their leadership and company vision first hand. Encourage feedback from all levels, from the bottom up, and make everyone feel an integral part of the team.

When everyone is on the same page, fear dissipates, loyalty and commitment explode, and the business can move ahead into this next phase.

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