Leading a company is marked by constant change. When things are going well, your business is rapidly growing while you hustle to make decisions to keep the company on pace; when things aren’t going well, you’re building a plan to surmount obstacles and set the business back on course. An undercurrent of uncertainty leaves your team hungry for direction. As a leader, you have an opportunity to create clarity and alignment through purposeful and consistent communication.
We reached out to a few of our firm’s Founding Pillars — experienced leaders who have built high-growth companies including Ginkgo Bioworks, PillPack, Demandware and Iora Health — to learn how they’ve provided guidance to their teams during challenge times. While every circumstance can be unique, the insight they shared is evergreen and is applicable for companies addressing any type of new challenge.
Be Clear and Direct
Yvonne Hao is no stranger to intense change; she currently supports a portfolio of growth-stage companies as Co-Founder & Managing Director at Cove Hill Partners, and was previously the COO of PillPack, where she helped navigate the company’s acquisition by Amazon in 2018. A crisis can certainly bring emotional stress and pressure, but Yvonne emphasizes that it also provides a chance to turn turmoil into solidarity through purposeful communication.
“While crises are super tough and challenging, they are also a huge opportunity,” she asserts. “It’s easy to be a good team and culture when times are good. When times are tough, teams get really tested and the best ones rise to the occasion. They emerge from the crisis with an even stronger culture and bond.”
The key is to move swiftly to get in front of a crisis, providing your team with a clear source of information to help ease uncertainty. Be direct and transparent, and don’t worry about perfectly crafting every word. Give your team an opportunity to rally behind the shared mission of surmounting the crisis together.
Be Quick and Decisive
“Be quick and decisive,” advises Hao. “Things evolve rapidly in crisis situations, and it’s important to react and make decisions when needed. It’s hard when people feel like the leadership team is dawdling or not acting on the macro changes.”
Tom Ebling, former CEO of Demandware, led his company through several periods of extreme change and growth, taking the company public in 2012, and later selling the business to Salesforce for $2.8B in 2016. He observes that it is the uncertainty itself (beyond anyone’s control at the moment) which causes so much anxiety among employees, making the need for clear communication ever more important. Your team is looking for consistency and reassurance in this moment of transition — share what you know to be true.
Increase Your Frequency of Communication
Reshma Shetty, COO of Ginkgo Bioworks, encourages leaders to increase the frequency of your team meetings during a crisis. “If you have weekly 1-hour meetings, consider moving to a daily 15-minute standup or 30-minute meetings 2–3 times per week. Since things are changing fast, you need to be able to react and adapt faster. Particularly now when folks can no longer run into each other physically to exchange information.”
It’s almost impossible to over-communicate when your company is working its way through an intense transition. The more clarity, the better.
“Communications are key in crises like this,” shared Rushika Fernandopulle, CEO of Iora Health. “We’ve adopted some of the techniques suggested by General McChrystal as adopted by the US military after 9/11, outlined in a recent New York Times article — mainly a daily 60-minute video huddle with all our central and market leaders with clear agenda, data and accountability to quickly iterate on changes as our response evolves. I’ve also started a 30-minute video conference weekly with all employees (750+) and send out a weekly video (~3 minutes) to all our patients.”
Repetition and frequent touch points will help your team remain informed, aligned, and on-mission.
Set a Standard Cadence
Be purposeful about your communication with your team. Tom Ebling encourages leaders to communicate frequently, but most importantly, to communicate with a defined and predictable cadence.
“Folks should come to expect a communication every Friday (or whatever your chosen frequency). The point is not to have random communications, except when things change significantly requiring an ad hoc communication, which is obviously appropriate. If there is not a regular cadence, people start reading into the absence of communication. They begin thinking there is a big problem brewing and that’s why they have not heard anything. Gaps in messaging from exec team members are always bad, but they are truly awful during a time of crisis.”
Be Calm, Empathetic and Transparent
“Up the level of transparency about everything having to do with the business,” advises Ebling. “There will always be some things the CEO feels can’t be shared; reduce those to a bare minimum during this time. It’s also important to explicitly communicate that this increase in transparency is intentional, and is not itself a cause for alarm.”
“Be calm and empathetic,” adds Yvonne Hao. “Things may be bad, but staying calm and focused is important to help the organization know that there’s a plan and we will get through this. It’s good to understand and acknowledge how folks are feeling. People look to the leadership team and take their cues from the signals the leadership team sends. Say what you know and what you don’t know. Don’t sugarcoat or try to cover up. People can figure that out pretty quickly.”
It’s ok to be vulnerable — your team will appreciate your authenticity. We’re all collectively working our way through uncharted territory together; be human.
Reshma Shetty notes, “In team communications, acknowledge the stress that you [and your family] are under, and acknowledge the psychological toll this is taking on everyone. Admit that there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the world will look like post COVID-19. In the face of that uncertainty, the best thing to do is for your startup to stay adaptable and maximize optionality.”
Most importantly, be honest. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep. If you don’t know the answer to something, admit that. If you say something to the team and later realize that you were wrong or need to reverse course, admit it. It helps to maintain trust and credibility with the team.”
Consider Setting Up Dedicated Temporary Communication Channels
Recognize that you may need to set up temporary lines of communication that serve you right now, but will be phased out at a later date. One of our Founding Pillar CEOs recommends setting up new channels and efforts specifically dedicated to address employee concerns during a time of crisis:
- A living FAQ, which can be updated daily to reflect how we’re evolving and adapting.
- A Slack channel to answer general questions
- A private/confidential Slack channel for personal questions (HR/CEO/COO/Legal Only)
- A weekly townhall with live Q&A, including pre-submitted questions (make sure to supply notes and talking points to managers before so they can expand the discussion with their teams after)
“Remind everyone that email and Slack can be difficult communication mechanisms, especially when folks are stressed,” adds Reshma Shetty. “It’s easy to misinterpret a quick Slack message or one line email. Encourage everyone to take care of each other, be kind to each other and give each other the benefit of the doubt.”
Remember, your team relies on you to lead them through the ebbs and flows of the business, especially the significant challenges. If you invest in communication early and often, you’ll emerge on the other side of any crisis with a team that is informed, united and more resilient than ever.