by Achim Nowak

Stop Faking Flexibility In the Midst of a Pandemic. Adapt BOLDLY!

October 9, 2020

As a stubborn pandemic gallivants along, business leaders are challenged to keep their teams from burning out while they propel their business forward. This is true whether you head a small mom-and-pop shop or a global enterprise.

Like in every transformational moment, incremental steps get you nothing.

The thing to do is not pretend that the old system just forced into the new system is going to work, says Simon Sinek, leadership thinker and voice of one of the most famous business TED talks of all time, “Start with Why.” Sinek made his remarks at a recent Wall Street Journal CEO Summit. Insights from this summit were captured in the WSJ article “What Bill Gates, Satya Nadella and Gen. Stanley McChrystal Say About Leading Through Uncertain Times” (October 6, 2020).

Sinek is the only contributor not mentioned in the name-dropping header of the article. He is also the only one who doesn’t resort to largely incremental platitudes. Sinek’s observations drop to the core.

The leaders of companies that fare best during the pandemic, Sinek asserts, cultivate the outlook of a whole new company:

They’re pretending that they’re start-ups. No matter how much success they’ve had in the past, no matter how big they are, they’re saying ‘OK, this is day one, we have a product, we have a service, this is the marketplace, how are we going to build a company around what we want to sell?'

Buddhist practice calls this having a beginner’s mind. Shifting the work of your knowledge workers online and then conducting business-as-usual misses the point. Adapt crappy practices to virtual life and they’re still crap. Well, modified crap. Crap lite.

The pandemic has spotlighted the lack of leadership in many organizations, according to Sinek. Crisis is the great revealer, he says.


I don’t know your business well enough to suggest organization-wide adaptations for you. But I know what themes keep popping up, over and over again, in my Executive Coaching practice. These themes transcend simple adaptation tricks and go to the core of how you and I show up in the world. They call for a beginner’s mind.

Here are some of these themes:

1. Paying Attention is a Muscle. Develop It.

I am a little tired of the incessant whining about "Zoom fatigue" and the hardships of attending virtual meetings. We have the astounding opportunity to connect more intimately with colleagues all over the world. We have the privilege of not spending hours every week commuting to work. And true, we are called to be more fully present.

I learned this lesson back in the 90s. I was facilitating Personal Transformation retreats during most of the decade. Each event began on a Friday evening and ended on Sunday night. Well, by Sunday morning my energy was spent. I didn’t want to listen to one more person. Didn’t want to act nice. Didn’t want to be pleasant. Just wanted to be left alone and hide in a cave. Sound familiar?

I had to develop my ability to stay present for often difficult conversations. Had to learn to not check out. We develop this ability when we, moment by moment, focus fully on the other person(s). Focus. Listen. Without the many tempting distractions of in-person gatherings. This muscle strengthened for me, a moment at a time. I got to the point where I no longer hit my attention wall on a Sunday. You, like me, have likely had attention-span-disorder for years. You have sat in meetings where constant distraction was the norm. These days are over.

Growth question: What would being more fully present look like for me?

2. Stop Managing Your Time. Manage Your Energy.

When we work for a large corporate entity we often feel that we're not in charge of how we spend our time. I know, I know. Have had this conversation with execs for years. Perhaps now is the perfect time to dispel this myth. Energy to perform well supersedes the availability of time. Showing up for any occasion when we don't have energy is a waste of time. Having a gathering with 10 colleagues who all don't have optimal energy amplifies this waste.

So - let's manage our energy better. Need a break every 15 minutes? Take the break! Make it Ok for folks to step away from a meeting, take an energy break, return. Meetings too long? Hold 15-minute or 30-minute meetings. Need to have a team update? Cancel the update meeting. Send a memo. Need more thinking time? Schedule thinking time. Depleted after 3 pm? Don't talk to people after 3 pm. Want everyone in your team "on the same page?" Who came up with the rule that everyone needs to be at the same meeting for that? Have a bunch of quick 1-1 meetings, instead. More personal. More efficient. Invariably more energizing. 

Growth question: What would have to change if staying energized were THE overriding performance principle?

3. Stop Comparing Apples and Oranges. Celebrate the Difference.

When I moved from Manhattan to South Florida, person after person said Yeah, Florida is nice, but it's not New York. Well, that's the whole point, isn't it? If I wanted New York I would have stayed in New York! I help organize a popular visual storytelling event in Miami. Pechakucha Nights. Full of vibrant collective energy. When it was time to plan a virtual Pechakucha program, some of my fellow organizers said well, it won't have the same vibrant spirit you have in a theatre. True, it won't. And it may have an intimacy and poignancy that exceeds anything that happens in a theatre. It will be different. Perhaps better.

At the WSJ CEO Summit, Microsoft's Satya Nadella bemoaned that virtual meetings are more transactional than in-person meetings. Perhaps. Why not make that an asset instead of a liability? Why not celebrate their transactional quality? What is so compelling about replicating a frequently boring in-person meeting in virtual life? Let it be wholly different!

Growth question: What would happen if I accepted the new on its own terms and fully explored the potential within?

4. Question Everything

I mean everything. That is the clarion call of our times. Sure, start with vigorously questioning the need for brick-and-mortar offices. It's where we all seem to begin. But dig in from there. Is this process really necessary? Is this job function truly essential? Is this organizational framework at all optimal? Is this product actually the product we should be offering? Is this client really the client we should serve? What is a sacred cow we worship and never, ever question? What would happen if we stop genuflecting at the altar of tribal knowledge? What would happen if we throw everything we take for granted out the window?

Growth question: What sort of freedom waits on the other side of questioning everything? 

Yes, beginner's mind. Better business adaptation is, indeed, often an organizational matter. And yet it is always, always, always a personal matter, as well. You may, in fact, have little influence over your organization’s flexibility. But you completely "own your own."

What would happen if you were more flexible? Less comparative? A little bolder? Heck, a lot bolder?

Go explore.

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