Brian Curr, People Ops Business Partner at Uplight Energy, gives some advice to businesses and leaders on how to lead a team through a crisis.
Brian will talk about empowering a remote team during a crisis and how businesses are adapting to the new normal from a workforce standpoint.
This series is aimed at helping entrepreneurs and founders learn how to navigate these unprecedented times. Topics for events have been chosen based on a discussion with a closed group of founders who joined us for an exploratory event on the 22nd of April which was moderated by Arezou Zarafshan – serial entrepreneur, C- level executive, investor, and mentor and presented by Caroline Lofts, Founder, and CEO – WorkAbility. Find out more about the Entrepreneur SOS Series by clicking HERE.
Interview conducted by Arezou Zarafshan. Preview and transcription written by Samantha Stakel. Click here to scroll to the written version of this interview. Click here to watch the interview in its entirety.
Since around March 10th, the world has been different. We’ve never seen anything like this. The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for economies across the globe, not to mention the racial inequalities and the resulting social unrest that has divided communities. People are anxious and angry. Meanwhile, we have businesses to run, we have customers to serve, and we have companies to lead. So, how does one lead a team through a crisis?
Brian Curr, People Ops Business Partner at Uplight, has over 16 years of experience in HR and talent acquisition with numerous companies ranging from startups to enterprise to academia. In this interview with Arezou Zarafshan, Brian gives advice to leaders on how to maintain staff morale during crisis, cut costs without cutting staff, and avoid burnout.
What is work/life harmony and how is it different from work/life balance?
How should a leader be handling doubts about job security during the COVID-19 crisis?
How is the COVID-19 economic crisis different from the Great Recession?
How do you identify the bad apples in a business culture?
What’s the most important skill a business leader should possess during the COVID-19 crisis?
How should a business leader practice empathy during a crisis?
What business reading are you doing right now?
What’s the biggest thing we should take away from this conversation?
How to Lead a Team Through a Crisis
AZ: You’ve seen what has happened to the world over the past few months. Have you ever seen anything like this?
BC: No I have not. This is different.
AZ: You went through the Great Recession. How is this different?
BC: The way [COVID-19] has impacted small businesses and corporations alike this quickly is different. Because remember, it was a slow roll in the recession. It was the housing market and all the “Wall Street stuff”. This isn’t Wall Street. This is a pandemic. We are 4 months into a two year pandemic and we don’t even have enough data sets to figure out what we’re dealing with. That’s different.
AZ: What are some of the things that you’re seeing from your colleagues as a result of what’s going on?
BC: People are not just working from home. They are at home during a crisis trying to work. We are trying to create a space top down where executives set the tone – where it’s OK if a little kid has to sit on your lap for a few minutes during a Zoom call because you don’t have child care because schools are closed. Making it okay that people can’t be 110% every day because the biggest thing that happens is burnout and there’s a lot of people talking about what measures a company can put in place to prevent burnout because the minute you start burning out a culture, you’re done.
AZ: What are some of the bad leadership behaviors that you’ve heard of or you may have seen in the past?
BC: Not having boundaries around work/life harmony.
AZ: What’s work/life harmony?
BC: Let me use a musical term. Here we go, ready? Work life balance is predicated on the fact that you have work over here and you have life over here and they never intersect and you have to balance them on a highwire act. Work life harmony is predicated that they work in symbiosis, almost simultaneously and beautifully like harmony when you have a piece of choral music. The notes harmonize but they’re separate.
AZ: It almost feels like deadlines and sprints are all the time. I’ve been away from corporate for a little while and looking back, a lot of it is self-imposed and so when it’s self-imposed then it radiates into the organization and it gets them all stressed out, so talk about how you manage that.
BC: There’s the macro and the micro. The macro is what can I do with my team and my direct supervisor and my colleagues to work through a fire drill or prevent a fire drill or to put some water on that fire drill, but then on a culture level from the top down, what can the executives do? There are things we can do culturally, but sometimes you just need to package people out. I’m sorry to say it but if you have an executive that is burning your people, if you have a retention issue because you have a revolving door due to fire drills, you just gotta package that executive out. Because we can’t have that. Now the micro, if you’re in that environment, you’re going to have to lay down the law with your colleagues and your boss and say, “listen, these are the items that I’ve been hired to do. This is the salary that I’m on. We are not on the same salaries, so if you’re making a quarter of a million dollars or you have 50% equity in the company, yeah, that’s your fire drill. That ain’t my fire drill. My job is to get you to where you need to be to make money, so what can you do to keep me to support you?
AZ: How easy is it for you to have those conversations, Brian?
BC: It takes courage. It takes courage to say the unpopular thing.
AZ: Do you think that some leaders need to be re-programmed or “wiped and re-loaded”? (laughs)
BC: Yes, the answer is yes. If you want to be a good leader, the number one soft skill that you must have, and we see this in our very successful corporate, political, and spiritual leaders, is one word – empathy. Empathy is how you are successful managing teams, managing relationships. If you can have the empathy to meet someone where they are and not where you think they are, then you can empower them and you can have a conversation.
AZ: What does it take to have empathy? What is the definition?
BC: I think empathy is thinking outside of yourself, giving people the benefit of the doubt, and stepping in someone’s shoes. Whether you’re a mid level manager or a startup entrepreneur or you’re in the C suite in a large corporation, you’ve got to do right by your people. What it costs both in time and money to get a team back up and running once you’ve lost them because of poor leadership or poor management or inappropriate behavior in the workplace, you’re already behind the eight ball. You’ve got to get rid of your bad apples. If you’re a leader out there and you’re a real drill sergeant and you think that leading with an iron fist is the way to lead, you are fundamentally, patently wrong and you will never be successful. Drill sergeants will never be successful and you can get people to work just as hard, differently.
AZ: Do you have people coming to you and asking you, “Hey Brian, will I have a job in 3 months?” How do you calm the nerves of those people?
BC: That is a great question. I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to happen here. We are in unprecedented times and we don’t have enough data. What I try to tell people is, button up and get bulletproof. If you lose your job, it is because we are in these unprecedented times, so you have to treat every day at work as a gift because there are so many people right now that are unemployed. Gratitude is something we are exercising in my company rather than worrying about losing your job, be thankful that today you have one. One thing we are doing [at Uplight] is actively communicating the financial fitness internally every week. Our company is doing headcount reduction prevention. So, what can we do to cut costs in a way that is strategic where we can preserve our headcount? We all know that at the end of the day, if you have a great app idea, if you don’t have software and UX designers and full stack developers on that app, you don’t have an app! (laughs) Ideas don’t make money, your people make money. Cut everything you can, even salaries, in a specific graduated way, to keep your talent and you will be better for it. Be strategic and use the opportunity to get rid of your bad apples.
AZ: How do you identify the bad apples?
BC: So there are some rubrics that we can use to identify a bad apple. The first one is a lack of respect with the team because bad apples can produce good work. What it comes down to is soft skills. I don’t care if you have an MBA or PhD, how do you treat your colleagues? How do you treat people on cross functional teams? If it’s all about you and you’re a taker, you’re a bad apple. “Good people bring out the good people and bad people bring out the bad in people.”
AZ: Do you give those bad apples a chance or do you just cut your losses?
BC: I can give people a chance, but during COVID, you better not be a bad apple. What was OK before March 10th is not OK anymore.
AZ: What are some books that you recommend for leaders during this time?
BC: The Truth About Employee Engagement By Patrick Lencioni because he gives you some language that you can use to help make agreements with your team or your boss.
AZ: Number two?
BC: I love Oprah. Barack Obama. I read everything they do. Talk about leadership. Tim Cook, follow him on LinkedIn. He is an out LGBT executive leader and he just penned a letter to all his employees at Apple about what happened to George Floyd. That’s leadership.
AZ: For our audience, if there is one thing you want us to walk away with, what would that be?
BC: People are not machines. We are definitely complicated mosaics of our combined experiences and you cannot burn people out by running them down as machines. You don’t win that way. You don’t make money that way. If you meet people where they are as a manager, you will always have that loyalty from that employee and you will have that to drive success for your initiatives, your business plan, your bottom line, your quarterly goals or metrics – it really is that simple. If you don’t see that leadership in the company you work for, get out.