One of the welcome gifts the Covid-19 crisis has afforded me is doing unexpected things in atypical ways. This time has brought not only more closeness with my family, but also appreciation for things like bluer skies not so clogged with fossil fuels. When I put my toddlers to bed at night, I hug them a little closer. When I connect with the amazing people that I work with, I spend more time lingering in the interstitial spaces of our conversation and appreciating who they are as people. And, while I am indulging in some nostalgic TV shows and movies, I am also using this time to reflect and read more (Originals is a great book), while thinking about how companies, leaders and whole civilizations thrive and survive, or fail and perish.
My eldest daughter is a college freshman enrolled in St. John’s “Great Books” program, reading Plato and Thucydides and grappling with many of the same questions I have been asking myself. How do we find strength within ourselves to persevere and function, to make the very hardest decisions, despite everything going on in the world? How do we love and lead with strength and compassion, within our families, within our companies, municipalities, or nations? What makes a good leader in a time of crisis?
The Covid-19 pandemic has been testing every leader, from all levels of organizations, in new and unexpected ways. Each of us is coming to terms with new ways of working and living while navigating an uncertain world. At Convene, “shelter in place” orders meant that we needed to shut down all of our locations and make the incredibly difficult decisions to let more than 100 team members go and only a few days later, to furlough over 400 more. While it was extremely heartbreaking and challenging, I am proud of how we handled these decisions and conversations. We created an employee relief fund to financially support every employee impacted by this crisis, and executed a restructuring that allowed Convene to take steps to evolve our business model and weather this Covid-19 storm.
We were able to make a lot of really tough decisions in a very short amount of time and execute them successfully. Why? Because at Convene, we have “Growth DNA” and we always make decisions with our core values (GRIT – Genuine, Relentless, Integrity, Teamwork) at the forefront.
Growth DNA is a term I coined to describe a person’s ability and willingness to face a challenging situation and not only make the most of it, but become a better human and leader for it. These are the people who thrive in high-growth companies because they can adapt to their constantly changing nature. They have the willingness to be intellectually and emotionally supple, with a facile mind that works in frameworks instead of specifics and an open heart that is malleable and forgiving. This powerful combination allows a leader to be open to possibility and find opportunity, to start with “YES,” rather than beginning with “NO.”
At Convene, we assess for Growth DNA in our talent acquisition process. We hire people—particularly executives—who have struggled through adversity that has ultimately improved them as humans. If you have overcome extreme challenges in your life, you are likely to remain unflappable, even amid a life-and-death crisis like Covid-19.
Growth DNA has allowed the executive team at Convene to use this crisis as an opportunity to continue to evolve and improve our business. Rather than being paralyzed by fear or grief, we set about using this time to rally our remaining people to form SWAT teams to mature our systems, structures and processes and reinforce capabilities that will allow us to achieve our vision of becoming America’s backbone and infrastructure for work, wherever and however it happens: in one of our Convene locations, remotely, or at home.
While we will soon launch our updated operating standards for reopening, we are not stopping there. We are using this time to study remote/hybrid work and to conduct experiments on our own team so that we can ultimately learn and deliver a better experience to our customers. Our ability to do this while working with a disparate workforce powered by GRIT during a global pandemic has been made possible because we cultivate growth DNA in our leaders and our company.
During challenging times, I often seek leadership wisdom from the explorer Earnest Shackleton, who famously conducted four expeditions to Antarctica in the early 1900s, including the infamous Trans-Antarctic Expedition. When he was selecting his crew, he made the dark underbelly and challenge of the endeavor abundantly clear. His advertisement for crew members was essentially a screening tool for Growth DNA.
It read, “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” When Shackleton encountered extreme life and death adversity, he had the right team because he had selected them accordingly and been honest with them about the likely challenges they would face.
Attitude is everything, especially in challenging times. As long as you and your team don’t get wedded to how scary or uncomfortable something is, then you can still see the opportunity and find the upside in any situation. Most great companies actually failed first (HP and Apple, to name a few) and only reached super-company status after moving through a period or several periods of massive challenge and constant change. The same is true of most great leaders.
The upside to Covid is that the crisis will only serve to deepen growth DNA and resilience, thereby making us better leaders and more able to thrive and bring our teams, companies, families, communities and nation through challenges in an increasingly volatile world.