Five Leadership Lessons From COVID-19

Levenson-Leadership lessons from COVID September 15, 2020 By: David Levenson

Leaders are trying to adapt to one of the most challenging times in history. It helps to meet employees—and a difficult situation—both head-on and with empathetic agility.

Nothing tests your mettle as a leader more than times of extreme adversity. Yet here we sit in the middle of a global pandemic, with the compounding effects of record economic decline in the second quarter, record job loss across the country, and record low yields in Treasury securities. 

At the beginning of 2019, I assumed my new position as president and CEO of LL Global, a 100-plus-year-old trade association serving the insurance and financial services industries, knowing that I was entrusted with preserving its long legacy while also forging a path to ensure its future relevance. Although I never could have imagined the sequence of events that we are experiencing today, I learned some valuable lessons that are helping us navigate these unprecedented times.

Put your people first. At a time when so much was unknown about COVID-19, the one certainty was that the health and welfare of our employees came first. We were an early mover to a remote environment. Work schedules became hyper-flexible to allow for the various challenges that we all faced in our personal lives. Even today, six months after the start of the pandemic, my senior team and I spend a lot of time talking about pace and balance and being realistic about what we can achieve in this environment.

Respond to your customers’ changing priorities. As a trade association, we set our goals based on our members’ needs. The pandemic changed day-to-day life for our members and caused them to reprioritize a number of important initiatives. At LL Global, we chose to focus our time and energy on determining how we could be indispensable to our members.

We turned our efforts toward developing resources that would be timely and valuable and would support our members’ efforts to adjust to their new circumstances. For example, we conducted best-practice surveys on remote work, established 11 executive forums to allow senior functional executives to talk through challenges with peers, and launched a low-interest-rate task force to help members think through all the implications of record-low Treasury yields.

There will be other setbacks and challenges. It’s inevitable in business and in life. During these difficult periods, leaders must be visible, decisive, positive, and resilient.

Financially stress-test your organization. As a non-for-profit trade association, we have limited cushion to help absorb annual losses. We needed to fully understand our current financial situation by developing different scenarios to gauge revenue and income fall-off. By the end of April, we had completed and shared several detailed projections with the senior team for discussion. This information helped us determine how to balance immediate challenges with our longer-term goals.

Communicate frequently. In a crisis, there is no such thing as overcommunication. It is important to frequently engage every stakeholder—internal and external—so they remain connected to the organization and its purpose. Initially we had many daily and weekly employee communications, and we continue to work on the right cadence to ensure that we are reaching out without being overwhelming. We also sent research and other information to member company leaders about the things that they would find valuable and relevant as they addressed their own business challenges.

Don’t abandon your core mission in the face of a crisis. And finally, while our short-term focus had to change to accommodate the evolving needs of our members, we were careful that any new endeavors aligned with our existing five-year strategy. We wanted to ensure the work we did in 2020 advanced the core mission of our organization and positioned us for future success. 

Leaders are only as effective as the people around them. When COVID-19 hit the United States, our senior team met daily. It was critical that we were coordinated and consistent in our employee discussions and communications and aligned tightly around our newly-defined, short-term goals. It also was important that each senior leader felt empowered to make the necessary decisions to see us through this challenging time.

I’m hopeful that the disruption caused by the pandemic will fade with the discovery of a vaccine later this year or early next year. But there will be other setbacks and challenges. It’s inevitable in business and in life. During these difficult periods, leaders must be visible, decisive, positive, and resilient. Those who do this well will be able to help their organizations accomplish extraordinary things today and when we all get through to the other side.

David Levenson

David Levenson is president and CEO of LIMRA, LOMA, the Secure Retirement Institute, and LL Global.