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Leading Through a Global Pandemic

Featured Articles - Issue 6

To Lead: Crisis, Culture and Connections

My personal approach to leading during this crisis—or any crisis—is “to be about it, not talk about it.” I borrowed that phrase from a leader I admire, but I have found this approach to be a helpful guide when it comes to leadership and problem-solving.

The irony is that working from home means that talking is in some sense our only option. The inability to spend time with each other in an office setting has created a need for more frequent and deeper conversations because in many cases “talk” is the only tool in our toolbox. Our focus at MLA has been on creating opportunities for connection and upholding the culture we have built internally despite being physically apart.

Major, Lindsey & Africa is fortunate to be a global organization with professionals spread across 30 offices. We have years of experience with remote communications and are fortunate to have excellent technology. But like most companies, we were used to coming into the office on a regular basis. Our people consistently tell me that our people are the reason they come to work and our people are the best thing about working here. Being apart has challenged our culture accordingly.

I believe humans need to regularly connect with others. Without genuine relationships, at work or at home, we suffer in heart and mind. Every study in happiness ever completed concludes that relationships are what matter in life. But how can we maintain those relationships while working from home? How do you maintain community when everyone is exhausted by video meetings? How do we fight the loneliness we all are starting to feel after months of working from home? Answering these questions is a challenge for every leader during this crisis.

Although I spend time every day trying to solve this riddle, I confess I don’t have many answers yet. But I am working on it and constantly experimenting. As Brett Pletcher, GC of Gilead Sciences, says in our cover feature, “The only preparation is experience—with a company, with the law and as a leader. Everyone thinks that when you’re a senior leader, you have all the answers. Right now, we’re all figuring it out as we go, so we’re using our experience from other situations and applying it here.” That describes my approach as well.

My advice is to stay the course when it comes to communication and connection, even if it feels futile at times from your home office. For example, continue your regular schedule of video and phone meetings; keep text conversations going across your teams; keep participating in virtual social events; keep a regular email schedule for communicating to your company. These small efforts can cause you to think of the movie “Groundhog Day,” but I believe these small efforts are meaningful in maintaining the culture that you had before the crisis. People value the effort and the connection these efforts provide, even if they don’t tell you. Ultimately, leaders must continually remind their people why we work together and that our work has meaning beyond simply paying the bills. And leaders need to talk frequently to achieve that goal.

Trey Muldrow at Akin Gump shared in 360 that he is following this advice. Akin Gump’s practice group leaders regularly meet (virtually) to talk about what everyone is working on. They also have meetings with each assistant to check in on how they are navigating the crisis. These meetings allow leadership to stay connected and share information across the firm.

Brett shared how Gilead has increased its usage of Yammer internally, asking conversation starters like whose got the cutest pet or whose got the nicest desk setup things—small icebreakers to increase the opportunity to engage. They are even planning a jack-o-lantern carving contest in October. He finds visual connection provides the opportunity to demonstrate personalities and unique talents and to reinforce personal connection in the absence of physical proximity.

I encourage each of you to experiment with unique methods for building personal connections across your teams despite the physical distance. These efforts will help your people fight the solitude that comes from remote work. These efforts will help maintain the culture you had worked so hard to build before the crisis. These efforts might even cause your people to value working at your company even more when the world returns to its “new normal,” whenever and whatever that might be.


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