NAVIGATING LEADERSHIP AMID THE CRISIS OF A PANDEMIC
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
Throughout his career, Stewart Pollard has been influencing change – among leaders, among teams and throughout organizations. An engineer by trade, he spent over 20 years working with companies to implement process improvement and drive organizational change. He then moved out on his own to become a leadership coach, and is today part of Vision Coaching’s roster of exceptional coaches. He caught some attention recently on LinkedIn when he shared with his network a photo of a pile of leadership and coaching books – his “self-isolation book order” during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Titles include Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek, Radical Candor by Kim Scott and Daring Greatly by Brené Brown.) I chatted with Stewart recently at his home – by phone, of course. We talked about coping with isolation, his drive to help leaders and influence change and coaching leaders through the unprecedented crisis around the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell me about this self-isolation book order and your strategy of using this time to develop yourself and your coaching.
One thing I tell entrepreneurs when I am coaching them is not to get too wrapped up in only working in their business. When you are building something, you actually have to take time to build it – you can’t just live in it. I found myself falling down that same slope a little bit. Over the last six months, I just found I was doing a lot of delivery, a lot of coaching, and probably not doing enough building to make me feel good about it.
When COVID-19 hit, it’s not a good thing by any stretch, but when a couple of clients called and said they can’t do face-to-face training for the next few weeks, suddenly I’ve got some 10 to 15 days over the next month to do all that work that I don’t normally have time to do. That includes catching up on my reading. That part has been great.
You thrive by being around people. How have you been coping with the isolation and social distancing?
I’ve been looking for opportunities to take webinars, to take training, to have conference calls, teleconferences, videoconferences – whatever I can to fill my bucket.
How long have you been coaching?
I’ve been a coach for about five years now. But before that I had been informally coaching leaders and helping them through issues since about 2005, although I didn’t realize it was coaching at the time.
Why did you get involved in coaching leaders?
I enjoy influencing organizations at a senior level. I enjoy working within the context of culture. I saw a quote several years ago that resonated with me: “Culture is the shadow of a leader.” I decided that I need to help people cast longer shadows.
That quote really got me thinking differently about what I had been doing. Up to that point, I had done continuous improvement – Lean Six Sigma and change management. I was working in the process world and then I started working in the people world with change management.
But I realized that through coaching you are influencing the leaders. Leaders influence the people, people influence the process, and process influences the results. I wanted to go right to the root. It starts with leadership – that’s where I see the biggest opportunity to impact organizations.
Why is that important?
Look, people spend two-thirds of their waking hours working in order to live – it shouldn’t be hard. It shouldn’t be an onus on people to show up and do a good job. With good leadership and a good culture, it just makes it all work better.
I spent a lot of time earlier in my career, before coaching, counselling other employees who were struggling at work. They just knew I would listen. To an extent I’ve been lucky – I’ve mostly liked what I did, like where I did it and like who I did it for and with. But that’s not everybody’s experience.
I want people to enjoy going to work. And leaders are employees first so I want leaders to be able to do the same thing. For me, I just want to make an impact personally. I want to have a broader impact on people’s lives.
The crisis around COVID-19 has been an unprecedented challenge for leaders. How have you been helping them through it?
I think initially they were looking at this as, “This too shall pass” but instead it accelerated, and quickly. The conversations I have been having lately, leaders are saying, “I don’t know what I am going to do – I am at a loss, I don’t know what to tell people.” Or even, “I don’t know what I am going to ask people.” That’s probably scarier – it is one thing not to know what to tell your employees, but they don’t even know what questions to ask at this point because this is so uncharted.
So, as I have been talking to them, my encouragement is keep talking – just keep communicating with your people. If you don’t know what to tell them, tell them you don’t know. But keep talking. If you have news, share it because your employees will likely lean in and help. As long as employees know what’s going on, they are willing to help make the business survive.
But there are a lot of leaders that aren’t used to that. They think they have to have all the answers and a master plan. They think that they need to be able to see around corners. There are a lot of corners to see around right now – they can’t do that.
And no one has experience to lean on – no one has been through a pandemic. Many of them have not seen this level of global economic impact in their lives, with newer and younger companies and newer, younger leaders.
Is there any other insight on this that you want to share to help others?
I think if people keep their heads up and continue to look forward, we can bounce back faster than we expect. There is going to be a lot of progress made from this if people are willing to continue to look forward.
Even going back to the book list – all of the books I mentioned, a golden thread runs through them. They are all skills people are going to need coming out of this. They are going to have to be daring. They are going to have to be caring. They are going to have to keep coming back to their why. They are going to have to be great coaches for their people. These are the skill sets that are going to be what gets leaders out the other end of this.