Getting To The Pandemic Finish Line: Tips From A CEO and 50-Time Marathon Runner

 It's not a sprint, so pace yourself: be empathetic, share stories and learn from Jack Nicholson’s life hack.

Along with spending Christmas with my family, running the New York Marathon in November has been at times of how I memorably close out a year. The 26-mile run from Staten Island to midtown Manhattan didn’t happen late last year, of course, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been a marathon on its own for nearly everyone.

As U.S. Olympian and long-distance runner Jeff Galloway once said, a marathon can feel negative yet added, “But it’s just as easy to frame it as a positively challenging journey.”

Positivity is central to how CEOs need to lead hundreds or thousands of employees through this next difficult stretch. Even after this crisis, executives will have to manage other endeavors — like developing new products and creating industry categories — that are anything but a sprint.

I have run more than 50 marathons since 2006, and I guided my last company, Motricity, through the 2008-’09 recession and then into the public market only two years later. These types of lengthy, challenging experiences have taught me valuable leadership lessons that have been useful in 2020, and they will help me create success into next year and beyond.

Practice active empathy

Getting to the finish line – a COVID-19 vaccination – is going to be grueling for most people due to health dangers, economic worries, and endless Zoom meetings. It’s a lot. Consider that 53 percent of employees during the pandemic have felt emotionally exhausted.

CEOs must be empathetic toward employees by participating in events with them. Nothing says, “We are all in this together,” like actually doing things together. Each week during the pandemic, a different employee of mine leads the virtual all-hands meeting and not only runs down the updates but also asks an executive or a department lead to share more about themselves. These meetings help us all feel more tight-knit and inclusive while we work virtually.

We have also established a company-wide Spotify playlist. And it’s just not our millennial staffers spinning tracks – it’s filled with the favorite jams of every employee and executive!

Share ‘why us?’

Each week, I ask someone different to talk about why they chose to work with our company. The experiences shared have been amazing — collectively, we learn so much.

For example, we’ve had people reveal how bonding with an employee or two during their job interview tipped the scales. We’ve learned about diverse professional histories. And one employee explained how our company’s mission of moving wasted ad dollars back into regular folks’ pockets resonated deeply with the childhood experience of surviving on food stamps and clipping coupons.

Even over Zoom, these empathetic exchanges recharge our batteries. Carving out time in these forums for personal storytelling inspires employees to keep putting one foot forward to drive their personal performance and the bottom line.

Accentuate the positive

This long pandemic stretches your employees in ways they have never been asked to before. They are working from home with their kids learning remotely. They are figuring out how to make a virtual sale instead of in a conference room. They’ve become IT-pro wannabes at home out of necessity.

These are profound “asks” we are making of our employees, and this health crisis appears to have plenty of pavement ahead. That’s why it’s more important than ever to celebrate the wins and share relevant experiences to embolden a hopeful culture.

Jack Nicholson – certainly more recognized for winning Oscars than endurance running – may have put it best about managing life’s struggles: “Accentuate the positive, that’s what I say. It’s a trick, but it works.”


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