Two months ago, I was on my way to a reunion weekend at New College of Florida in Sarasota. I am currently on the college’s foundation board, and a trip to Sarasota was long overdue. I made the reunion a quarterly goal. Perfect timing! As the director of programs and research at HERS, we were in between the February and March delivery of the HERS Leadership Institute, our signature leadership program for women leaders in higher education. My team was moving forward as planned. It was the right time for my vacation. Furthermore, I needed time away. Well being, particularly self-care, is essential as a team leader. I was glad to take the time off and committed to not working. In the past, my team felt that I wasn’t sincere when I would encourage them to truly leave the work during their vacations, because they knew I never did. I was determined to be a good example.
In early February, before my trip, I sent the cohort an email advising them to take the necessary health and safety precautions as they planned for their upcoming travel. I took my own advice as I packed for Sarasota – to wash my hands, cover my cough and stop touching my face. The esthetician, who expertly cares for my acne-prone skin, would love it if I stop touching my face! I am used to keeping a safe distance from people in airports knowing from my kickboxing experience that if I could land a crescent kick on someone, I was too close. My health was good, and I was confident that our business and the business of higher education that we depended on was good. A packed suitcase plus a ticket to Florida all multiplied by an excellent work environment equaled vacation.
Reflecting on my thinking from that time, there was ‘me’ as an individual and ‘us’ as a collective society. It was only a short time ago when many of us were thinking that our business and leadership continuity was not an issue. Our risk management plan sat securely on a shelf in the office with a digital copy in Smartsheet. All essential team members were in place. Everyone was performing the tasks and activities necessary for the organization to thrive. All of the success metrics looked great. Priorities were clear. Organization and team goals were being reviewed and developed based on the strategic plan. It appeared that we were on target for a stellar quarter. Next quarter’s personnel searches were green-lit after reviewing long-term staffing plans. To move to the next level, it was time to develop more products. Systems and technology were working well.
It seemed like a great time to hire more staff members. A few more people would ensure everyone on the team had space to develop and grow while exploring new markets. Having spent many years building partner and client relationships and reserves along with a dynamic human resources team, it was the ideal situation for staff expansion. Daily activities felt predictable. The caption to your meme read, “commute, work, home, repeat.” Business partners and clients were still calling to connect. Team members, who traveled to meet partners and clients, had minor concerns about going to some areas of the country. However, after discussing the risk, it seemed that travel was safe enough. Within our immediate network, we didn’t know anyone with COVID-19. And we didn’t feel that anyone at our company or in our local community had the virus. Many of us were paying attention and felt we had no blind spots—no unknown unknowns! This was us.
We now know that life and leadership are inextricably entangled. COVID-19 disrupted our lives beyond what most of us have experienced. After years of low unemployment, we are now hearing about how difficult it is to file for unemployment insurance benefits for millions of people in the United States. Businesses deemed non-essential have ceased face to face operation. Physical distancing and stay at home orders mean most employees are working from home. Parents who never thought of the challenges faced by elementary and secondary school teachers have had to learn about homeschooling quickly. We’re connecting to our passion for arts and culture. We’re also exercising at home—walking, biking, downloading the Peloton App. Thank you to the fitness studios for democratizing physical fitness to #flattenthebelly while we #flattenthecurve for those of us with the privilege to have WiFi. Speaking of privilege, we are now exposing disproportionate racial and ethnic disparities and similarly, realizing how many people sacrifice their health and safety for the rest of us—medical professionals, first responders, grocery store employees, food service managers and staff, construction, delivery, and postal workers. They are heroes, and our job is to practice exquisite self-leadership at home, in our work, and within our communities. We can do this if we embrace #alonetogether beyond the current crisis. News outlets and social media posts indicate many of us are discovering working alone for the first time in a long time. We are accustomed to working in teams and your team needs personal and professional development, thoughtful inquiry, and humanity. After all, we are in this together.
As leaders, we can build strong teams to strengthen our organizations during this collective crisis. If we understand the value of individual action within a cooperative enterprise, we can do tremendous good for ourselves, our employers, and our communities. In an environment stranger than fiction, a crisis the magnitude of the one we are now encountering may skew our perspective. Is the glass half-full?
The glass is more than half-full; it is full as all of us pivot. We can make this work as long as we use the information we have to build up our team. Behavior is a result of the information we have, and in a chaotic and noisy environment, optimal decision-making is a challenge. As a leader, aligning the team to the possibilities available within the current context will make all the difference. Team building is active and continuous and happens in good times and bad.
To help you build a strong team now, I have five questions for you to answer.
1. Do you trust your team and do they trust you?
We are living in a time where we need to trust one another. Trust across a team fosters innovation and growth. It also means that team members will follow and collaborate on established workflows from beginning to end. Replication, transparency, support, and accountability is possible if you know what should and will happen. Your team also needs to trust you, your word, and your actions. We are needing to trust each other in many ways right now.
2. Do you know your purpose?
Many people struggle to define their personal ‘why’. Your reminder that the team’s work has purpose and meaning will motivate them to complete immediate tasks and heighten their self-awareness. Champion the organizational values by discussing how you see them in team members. Individual team members have value, and the work they do collectively is impactful.
3. Are you clearly communicating?
In the 1978 movie The Wiz, Diana Ross’ character Dorothy Gale sings Home.
“Maybe there’s a chance for me to go back there
Now that I have some direction.”
Your team needs you to be clear when you communicate, set ground rules, and encourage them to contribute to problem-solving. It’s important to clarify issues, calm worries, and center the team’s attention around what you are trying to accomplish. The team expects you to empower and give them ownership over projects too. Clearly communicating will give people a sense of grounding in this uncertain time.
4. Are you coaching your team members?
As a coach, you maintain a safe distance to give your team room to grow. Micromanagement makes everyone cringe. If you coach each team member individually, you will get to know them and what they have to offer. Diverse backgrounds and ideas yield the best solutions. Multi-generational teams are an advantage in our current environment. Everyone has a critical role to play. Imagine how boring it would be if you did all the work. Make sure to listen and observe verbal and non-verbal communication. For example, a raised eyebrow during a video meeting means to slow down and allow them to pose an issue. As a team leader, you may also have resources to develop them. What are their aspirations? Where do they see themselves in 3 – 5 years? Support your team members in what’s next for them. They will appreciate you and you will all have room to grow.
5. Does your team have the resources they need to produce what you expect?
In economics, the factors of production include land, labor, capital, and entrepreneurship. There is a lot your team may need to complete the work. Are they able to ask you for what they need? Be open and don’t immediately say “no”. You never know what new ideas you may generate from listening to a team member’s resource request. Especially now, we all need to be able to ask each other for what we need.
Three months ago, HERS was in a strong position, moving forward, growing and meeting goals. And despite this crisis, I am proud of how we have been able to pivot in unexpected ways thanks to our commitment to building a strong team. Three months ago, if anyone said we would hire an instructional designer and devote hundreds of staff hours to transitioning the HERS Leadership Institute from traditional to blended learning, I would have said, “Nope, no way, not possible”. Well, we are! We have a culture that gives space for everyone to show up, take bold action, and persist through the tough questions. Team members also know that what we are doing is about the organization’s mission even when it’s a hard decision. Finally, when it’s time to celebrate, we celebrate small and significant accomplishments. Even in the face of the crisis, we are building a strong team because our time to advance women leaders in higher education is yesterday, today, and tomorrow. For us to do it, we do it together as a team.
“I have never had to face anything that could overwhelm the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with.” Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Dr. Ray Burgman is the Director of Programs and Research at Higher Education Resource Services (HERS). Ray brings over 20 years of experience in a variety of higher education settings. As the Director of Programs and Research, Ray is responsible for all HERS program services—HERS Leadership Institute, regional leadership development workshops, and online services–and developing and executing the organization’s research. Ray has expertise in strategic leadership and program and curricular development.
Before joining the HERS team, Ray served as the Associate Provost at New College of Florida and Associate Professor of Economics and Management and Special Advisor to the President for Strategic Faculty Initiatives at DePauw University.
Ray has a PhD in Economics from the University of Florida and a B.A. in Economics from New College of Florida. Dr. Burgman is an alumna of the HERS Institute (2006) and the Harvard Institute for Educational Management (2009).
You can reach Ray at hersnetwork.org.