How One CEO, Positive For COVID, Is Continuing To Lead

When you're battling the disease, it is critical to elevate your most capable employees and reinforce your trust in their ability to get the job done.

The coronavirus pandemic has touched every aspect of our lives, and each day, the devastation creeps closer and closer to home (if it hasn’t already barged in). Through it all, my company has thus far been very fortunate to keep moving forward, with a team that adjusted very well (and fairly early on) to working remotely and apart. Nonetheless, managing a team so spread out (and all dealing with these new fears and losses) has its challenges, but I was ready to keep lifting everyone up so we could overcome them together.

And then it happened. A few days ago, I began to feel the symptoms: a low grade fever, the dry and persistent hacking “cough” with labored breaths coming from a heavy chest, and a complete loss of my sense of smell and taste. My usual boundless and inexhaustible well of energy was suddenly, strangely, empty, and I feared the worst. I was able to walk into a field hospital in NYC where it was immediately clear that as bad as I felt, many others were faring far worse.

I considered the sheer luck that I was able to walk in, while so many could not, as I sat waiting for my turn with doctors and nurses amidst a sea of stretchers full of the sick, suffering, and dying.

I’m home now and hanging in there as I fully intend to do, but I’m still processing my own mortality and the ravaging effects of COVID-19. And I still have a lot of recovery ahead of me. For weeks before the virus exploded in New York, my team had already been working remotely. For other leaders who may find themselves like me, ill and not able to work as much, this is the time to elevate your most capable employees and reinforce your trust in their ability to get the job done. Despite a much reduced hands-on presence from me, my team continues to communicate smoothly and remain as productive as ever. It certainly helps that they had been telecommuting at least once a week for years prior to it becoming a statewide edict, however their adaptability doesn’t reduce the peace of mind that the trust I’ve cultivated in their work ethic brings.

My leadership style has always been one rooted in openness and optimism, so I’m predisposed to encouraging flexibility and self-propulsion in my employees. If you’re now trying to understand and adapt to this new normal and struggling to connect with or motivate your team while spread apart, cultivating that same kind of trusting relationship is essential to keeping employees sane and productive.

Some helpful tactics for bringing the remote office together through leadership are:

• Develop a routine where employees check in at the “start” of the work day. These should be done on a group and individual level and should happen at least once a day. And they shouldn’t just be about work. Really ask your people how they are coping and encourage openness.

• Encourage employees and show support by communicating gratitude for their work and completed projects. A simple email saying “Great job!” after a problem is solved or a project is completed makes a world of difference to your employees and helps them feel appreciated and more connected to team efforts. This is needed now more than ever when people are isolated at home; over-communicating is key (don’t just assume your team knows when they’ve done a good job, tell them!).

• Don’t expect them to work every minute of every hour. Every single person is going through a difficult life-changing event right now. The world has changed dramatically and that loss of normalcy and security is traumatic. Give people breathing room to take care of their families, to go for a walk, and to manage their mental health. Set and meet necessary deadlines, but trust your team to manage their time.

• Lead with empathy and compassion and be there for your team. These are challenging times for everyone so if there’s something that you can do to help employees in extraordinary circumstances, do it.

Essential business employees require different, but similarly enhanced support from bosses at this time. Again proactive communication is vital. They, like all employees, must be informed in a timely, easily accessible manner about the changes the crisis is making to how they work. In both essential and nonessential businesses, this information should be communicated by company leadership, and any decisions made should be informed by facts and data (which should also be shared with employees). In a rapidly evolving situation, it can be tempting to wait until everything is understood, however it’s best to be transparent and deliver pertinent information as soon as possible – keeping your team in the loop and mitigating speculation or confusion– rather than waiting until you have all the answers. As your most important stakeholders, employees must be reassured that the business is doing all it can to minimize the risk to them as they stand on the front lines of this emergency.

Customers and clients are your next biggest stakeholders and also require the transparency, cohesion and timeliness that your employees do, albeit in smaller doses. Since you don’t have the same frequency or access to them, focus only on the changes to your business that are important to customers. If the crisis has changed hours of operation, the availability of products and services, how they can interact with the company or any other customer facing aspects, they must be made aware.

In the case of COVID-19, many essential businesses have instituted more intensive cleaning, distancing, and population density protocols which have changed how people interact with them. Additionally, it’s critical to anticipate potential concerns and address them proactively with clients. Let them know what is changing and what isn’t. And lastly, reach out and ask clients or customers what issues they’re facing, what needs they have, and how your business can help them. This should be communicated through a myriad of channels: email, the business website, and the press if possible. The head of the company should always be the messenger and should balance empathy with the seriousness of the situation. It’s very important to avoid sales promotion during this communication and avoid “tie-in” sales that relate to the crisis.

If you find yourself like me, a CEO on the mend but still battling COVID-19’s debilitating symptoms, I urge you to do the following: stay home. Rest. As a very health conscious guy usually I’m able to power through a day almost entirely on the strength of my conviction. However, for the first time in a long time, my work schedule revolves around rest, and not the other way around. It won’t matter how many clients I secure, or any opportunities I get if I’m not healthy enough to be present for them. The best way I can be there for my team right now is to get better enough to fight another day.

Leading by example – by working from home, sharing information about symptoms and testing from credible sources, isolating if you feel sick and encouraging others to do so as well are all ways leaders can help be a part of the solution and encourage others to do their part to flatten the curve of this disease. I am hopeful and optimistic that I’ll recover from this physically but still can’t help but think of the thousands who haven’t and the heroes on the front lines risking their health for that of others.

For those who have the resources to help, I urge you to donate supplies and protective equipment to health care providers, give to research initiatives and support funds for displaced workers. It’s going to take a collective effort to stop this virus, and we all need to do our part.

And please remember: there’s no place like home, so for now, stay there.

Eric Yaverbaum
Eric Yaverbaum is CEO of Ericho Communications and the author of seven bestselling books including the seminal "PR for Dummies" and "Leadership Secrets of the World's Most Successful CEOs." He has over 35 years of experience in public relations and communications, serving at the head of agencies of record for countless multinational companies.