Meet Captain. Captain is my dog, a 90-pound (and still baby-minded) brown labrador that my family and I welcomed one year ago. If you would have told me that, one day, I would be participating in a hangout meeting to introduce Captain to Randstad Canada’s community of pet lovers, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. But that’s exactly what happened. COVID-19 has pushed us apart in some ways and brought us closer together in others.

But this article is not about my dog, nor is it about COVID… rather it’s about lessons learned in times of chaos. Navigating through uncharted and rough waters is not easy. All of us were surprised by this unprecedented crisis. In a matter of days, we were thrown into a completely new way of working and interacting socially. To be quite honest, we did not expect such a thing was even possible. However, when thrown into a sink or swim situation, swim we must. The crisis has tested all of us; technologically, financially and socially. And as leaders, as well. 

captain… we lost the GPS signal

Imagine that you’re on a boat in the middle of a storm and suddenly you lose the GPS signal. That’s exactly how it felt navigating this crisis, at first. We used to have a 2-year plan. A 1-year plan. A quarterly plan. A monthly plan. And then, all of a sudden… nothing!

Planning a few steps ahead is a necessity in leadership, if you ask me. But when the brunt of the storm hits and all you can do is plan week-to-week, it’s easy to lose sight of your landmarks. Going through the choppy seas of COVID, we’ve had to adjust how we navigate in real-time. 

I was recently asked the following question: what lessons have you learned through this crisis that you will never forget?

Hmm… the question pushed me out of my take it day-by-day, firefighting mindset and forced me to contemplate for a few moments.

My answer: Communicate. A lot... It sounds simple, at first.

steering a ship through the storm

Any decent leadership book that sits on your shelf will tell you about the importance of communication. In times of crisis, especially, leaders have to communicate in a transparent and timely manner. It sounds simple… communicating is meant to keep people informed and reassured through times of turmoil. But what do you say when you simply don’t know what’s coming next? Or worse, when you know people won’t like what you have to say? What if the things you have to say will create more uncertainty when your intention is to reassure and calm the team you care about? 

That’s when the doubt sinks in and you can feel adrift. There is a general thought that good leaders always have answers. Early in this crisis, my team and I made a commitment to communicate regularly and transparently. In the last few months, I’ve been caught in situations where I just didn’t know the answers to everyone’s questions. In these situations, telling it as it is has worked out okay! I’ve had to get comfortable telling my colleagues that I don’t know the answers and that I can’t provide guarantees. Communicating regularly, however, has allowed me to update everyone as things unfold and to stay transparent. Frequent, genuine, and less polished communications have worked better than carefully crafted and refined messages.

connecting the head with the heart 

Everyone reacts differently in times of chaos. Many of our behaviours as leaders are learned as our careers progress. And many of those carefully learned behaviours get forgotten in times of uncertainty, only to be replaced by our very best natural self. This is normal and healthy. Some people react with their emotions first, whereas others firmly camp out on the rational side of their brain. I’m personally naturally part of the latter group. Plans. Analysis. Measurement. Scenarios. All of these words comfort me in times of crisis. However, I’m fully aware that not everyone feels the same. 

One thing that is obvious to me is that, even if my first instinct is to look at the rational side of things, it doesn’t mean that I don’t care. I care a lot about my team. When my natural, rational self kicks into gear, my intention is to protect. That said, I have learned that even if you come up with the best plans and scenarios (and intentions), emotions and feelings can’t be forgotten. There’s a reason why the heart feeds the brain. In these difficult moments, we must take time to inquire and listen to people's feelings and emotions first and foremost. Only then can we get both sides of our collective brains working at their best.

sailing onwards… together 

We’re now planning for recovery, and the learning is ongoing. It’s clear that leaders must be agile and open to redefining their landmarks as we sail onward. Whether a storm comes in the form of digital disruption, a pandemic, an economic crisis, or societal conflicts, adjustments must be made if you want to have any hope of reaching your destination with everyone onboard. Without adapting, one oversized wave can easily come in and sweep you away. Having navigated these changes over the last few months, I’m certain of one thing: the future will make sure all leaders are open to change!

This crisis has forced us apart and brought us closer simultaneously. Now that we’ve memorized the backgrounds of everyone’s kitchens and basements, and have seen each other’s kids and puppies pop in during video meetings, we must remind ourselves of what we have learned and how we’ve changed. 

Captain is surely the happiest guy on earth, now that we spend so much time together. He reminds me every day that staying connected to both your brain and your heart is key. That’s how we sail forward. Human forward (pun intended). 

about the author
Marc-Etienne Julien, CEO Randstad Canada (thumbnail)

Marc-Etienne Julien

ceo randstad canada

Marc-Etienne Julien is the Chief Executive Officer of Randstad Canada, where he oversees the company’s strategy and operations. Marc-Etienne spearheads the digital transformation of the business with a strong focus on innovation, most notably by creating Randstad Canada’s Innovation labs. Most recently he has integrated Randstad Sourceright, a workforce management outsourcing solution, to the Canadian operations. Marc-Etienne now focuses on further developing and promoting Randstad Canada’s total talent architecture approach to current and prospective clients.