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Thursday, September 17, 2020

Executive Insider

How to persist through unprecedented leadership challenges (without losing your mind in the process)

Mike Smerklo

The zoom meeting with a few of my junior team members started out just fine.  As fine as it can be when you are on Zoom meeting number 11th (or was it 12th?) of the day.  Then it happened.  Three of my four kids burst into my home office, excited to show me an art project.  I struggled and failed to hit mute. My wife had interrupted my previous meeting not 20 minutes earlier, so I was admittedly already on edge. As I yelled at them to get out and quiet down, all in front of my understandably horrified employee, I couldn’t help thinking to myself: Am I being a terrible dad or a terrible business leader? In that moment, it felt like I was failing at both.

Business leadership is hard in the best of times. But right now might be the toughest time to run, and especially to launch, a successful company.

Not only are CEOs contending with all of the usual C-suite responsibilities, but now there’s also a global pandemic, the pressures of managing a newly distributed workforce and a significant dose of social upheaval thrown in the mix. We are living out scenarios never covered in business school or considered in even the most thorough business plans. Virtually overnight, many leaders had to learn how to implement extreme health and safety measures, as well as how to support employee engagement and performance remotely for the very first time, all while struggling to acclimate themselves to a new work-from-home setup.

This situation has been overwhelming and stressful for everyone. There will always be something that comes from out of nowhere to knock you off course. But a leader’s job is to ensure her business continues to  run on all cylinders no matter what — even in the middle of a global health crisis, a struggling economy or a period of societal unrest. Right now leaders are getting “all of the above” and are being asked to do more with little time to figure it all out.  How can leaders meet the challenges of the present moment and continue leading confidently through adversity?

When everything feels uncertain and out of control, the one thing you can control is between your ears. Some call it grit. Some call it stubbornness. I prefer simply persistence. A persistent mindset is the only thing that will keep your head above water despite the deluge around you. It will allow you to remain focused and keep plugging away at your business goals no matter what. But it won’t happen overnight — it takes daily practice and dedication.

Here are five simple ways to develop a persistent leadership mindset:

Prioritize self care

Many professionals may have hoped the recent shift to remote work would offer a little more flexibility. Goodbye commute, hello work-life balance. I’ll finally crack that novel I’ve been meaning to read. I’ll even be able to play with my kids more often. Except, that didn’t really happen. In fact, a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, in the aftermath of stay-at-home orders, workdays grew by 48.5 minutes and the number of meetings increased by 13 percent. We’re actually taking on more work and more stress, not less.

That’s why prioritizing self care is more important now than ever. Whether you enjoy meditation, running, reading, writing in a journal — whatever energizes and refreshes you, set aside time in your busy day just for you. You have my full permission to be selfish right now, not only for your own good, but for the benefit of your family and your team. Self care is imperative to your ability to persist and succeed as a leader.

Utilize Your Time Wisely

If you feel like time has no meaning lately, you’re not alone. The disruption to our regular routines has been warping our sense of time. Days blur into one another until, before you know it, an entire quarter has passed. But if it feels like each workday is really getting away from you lately, maybe it is. Are you being thoughtful about how you utilize your time? Here are a few things I recommend:

  • Use a simple “Eisenhower Matrix” to break down your priorities and separate what’s important, what can wait and what you need to completely remove from your plate.
  • Reevaluate your relationship with Zoom. (It’s not you, it’s me.) Not everything has to be a video conference. Sometimes a simple email or voice call will do just fine.
  • Put down your phone and step away from your laptop. Choose a time of day (4pm? 6pm? 8pm?) to disconnect from work and reconnect with yourself and your family.

Even though the lines between your career and personal life are blurring, you don’t have to be “on” all the time. Be purposeful and mindful with your time instead of allowing yourself to become overscheduled and maxed out.

Re-set Your Expectations, ASAP

I think we’d all love to flip a switch and poof: no more global pandemic. Then we’d have college football and movies again, and we’d all get to go back to work. That’s secretly what we’re hoping for, right? But here’s the thing: none of that stuff is happening any time soon. We’re not going back to normal. The sooner you can embrace this new reality, the better.

To persevere as a leader amidst chaos and adversity, it’s critical to reset your expectations as quickly as possible. The tide has already changed. You can either remain stagnant and let the water cover your head, or shift your mindset, start kicking and live to see another day. The most successful leaders will skip ahead, and do it fast. Fast forward your mind to get to the new reality, rather than hoping for a return to normalcy. That’s how you continue moving forward.

Equip Your Team to Persevere

Rarely has compassionate leadership been more essential than it is today. We’re all going through similar difficulties (or our own private hell, depending on who you ask). People everywhere are overworked, striving for balance and experiencing social withdrawal. Some employees might be dealing with health issues, while those with young children are massively stressed about the future of their children’s education, a burden that didn’t exist six months ago. If your team is crashing and burning, it’s tough to remain resilient as a leader.

Recognize what your people are going through and provide them with the extra support they require during this tumultuous time. In addition to approaching your interactions with greater empathy and compassion, create a framework within your organization that addresses these issues. Host open discussions about self-care strategies where team members can share ideas and discuss their own experiences. Go the extra mile to provide any sense of normalcy or connection, such as virtual team lunches, games or happy hours. Allow more flexible work schedules or perks for employees that continue meeting performance goals. In short, just give people a break.

Keep it All in Perspective

There’s a tendency in business leadership to speak in war analogies or in terms that imply “do or die” consequences. While business or financial outcomes might occasionally seem like the end of the world, the good news is, they are decidedly not. And thankfully, regardless of how serious a business issue may appear, it probably isn’t a matter of life or death.

A key leadership discipline is the ability to maintain a grounded perspective about what’s truly at stake while others are declaring the sky is falling. Yes, COVID-19 has real stakes. Yes, you should be focused and driven by performance goals. Yes, you should strive to ensure your company survives. But if you can keep a more realistic, pragmatic perspective, it will have a significant impact on your ability to remain calm and balanced in high-stress situations, and ensure your team stays that way too. At the end of the day, there are more important things than hitting your quarterly targets.

Business leadership is a marathon, not a sprint. There will always be unforeseen challenges ahead. You can’t control that — but you can control your mindset. Making self care a priority – and giving yourself and your team a break – is more important than ever.  A persistent mindset will give you endurance when you need it most and allow you to power on past any obstacles.


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Mike Smerklo
Mike Smerklo is an experienced entrepreneur, investor and business leader driven by the desire to turn ideas into reality. Having bought and scaled a small business into a publicly traded company worth nearly a billion dollars in value, he has a deep understanding of the hard work, dedication and grit that truly powers successful entrepreneurship. Today, as the co-founder and managing director of Next Coast Ventures, Smerklo is a champion for a new generation of entrepreneurs building disruptive companies in big markets. His new book, Mr. Monkey and Me (Scribe Media, Oct. 2020), is a “real talk” guide for entrepreneurs who want to cut through the noise to cultivate a mindset that supports greatness. Mike Smerklo is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.