Shifting to the New Normal

The COVID-19 pandemic has descended upon our global community with a surprisingly sudden impact.  It is challenging us to think differently about every aspect of our lives.  In response, some have adopted a short-term, “hold your breath” mindset which imagines life will return to its previous state of normalcy.  Other people, companies, and communities are embracing a different approach, focusing on a longer-term success time horizon.  In runner parlance, this is the difference between viewing our current reality as a sprint or as a marathon.

Which is Sustainable?

Photo by Nicolas Hoizey on Unsplash

I have a client we will call “Nora.”  Since the coronavirus took hold in the US, Nora spends her #stayhome workdays putting out fires, fielding crisis Zoom calls from company executives and clients, and managing constant changes to business priorities.  She is not getting the time that she needs with her direct reports to create the right operational tempo, reprioritize work demands, and spend time in the creative process.  In essence, Nora has spent three weeks trying to sprint through the current business reality, leaving her feeling frazzled and exhausted.  She is trying to do too much herself, sleeping too little, and worrying too much.

Nora, and many others, may need to recognize that we are in a very different type of race, one that looks more like a marathon than a sprint.  Some financial analysts predict it will be 2021 before GDP bounces backThe investment world is already suggesting we adopt the marathon analogy for our current reality.  To perform at our best and get great results over the long haul, we need to learn a little about the endurance athlete concept of pacing.

Pacing: The Key to Winning

Do you remember Katie Ledecky during her world-record performance in the 800-meter freestyle swim at the 2016 Olympics?  A key to her success was her controlled use of power and pacing, which she adjusted throughout the race by varying her kick.  As the finish line drew closer, Katie transformed what was a steady, easy-looking kick into powerful, controlled one.  As a result, she broke a world record, and dusted her nearest competitor by 11 seconds (an eternity in the swimming world).

If you have ever run a 10K, you know what happens when you ignore the principles of pacing.  If you start too fast and try to sprint the entire effort, you experience either physiological or mental fatigue or both.   As an endurance athlete, I have often practiced pacing regularly in the weeks leading up to a running event.  Yet, on the day of the race, I have let nerves and excitement get the best of me, and I start the race too fast.  Inevitably, my pacing falters, and I pay the price in a disappointing finish time.

Similarly, companies that do not pace themselves during the next 12 to 18 months may find themselves limping to the financial and competitive finish line.  There are countless stories of businesses and government agencies that have continued to require their employees to show up physically to their job site during COVID-19, even when concerns for personal risk are significant.  This sprint mentality might meet day-to-day needs, but may result in large-scale defections when the job market improves.  By contrast, DoorDash’s CEO Tony Xu committed to providing financial assistance to quarantined drivers, converting to a zero-contact delivery method, and adding 100,000 independent restaurant partners to their DashPas platform. By adopting a marathon mentality, Xu is creating a pace that is manageable for his team, puts long-term goals (e.g., market capture) ahead of short-term wins, and allows him to build the tempo for success over time.

To achieve expected outcomes like Xu’s, leaders need to adopt this marathon mindset and learn how to pace.  Below are four strategies to help you through mile after mile so that you can finish strong.

4 Strategies to Manage Your Pace

To help you (and Nora) finish this COVID race strong, I recommend the following steps to help you build your pacing strategy:

  1. Create clear and realistic long-term goals. Setting specific targets and objectives help us focus on the big picture, organize our efforts, and give us direction.
    • In addition to short-term objectives, set clear, well-defined, medium- and long-term goals. Use information from customers, competitors, economic forecasts, and best practices from other industry leaders to assist.  As Adil Najam suggests, short- and long-term goals should not be mutually exclusive, but factor in contingencies and longer-term effects of decisions.
    • Work with your team, get input from superiors and colleagues, and use what you have learned from the past few weeks to challenge assumptions and consider alternatives. For example, many organizations are having to rethink their digital transformation in this new world order; what other possibilities might elevate our success in the future?
    • Be decisive and communicate clearly. Goals can be changed, but giving people a clear path forward will bolster confidence in your leadership and provide a sense of purpose.
  1. Build your base.  Many endurance athletes spend the majority of their training time at a level of effort that is challenging but sustainable, a concept known as “building your base.”  Try these strategies to build your team’s base:
    • Find a sustainable pace and effort level. Help others create a cadence for work and family that does not render your team wholly exhausted.  To help employees and customers create a manageable pace, Microsoft created a Guide to Working from Home During COVID-19, which is editable by customers to use with their organizations.  Such strategies help people craft a work and life tempo that functions well for the long haul.
    • Stay consistent and hold your ground. Plan goals and stick to them, building in time for unanticipated demands.  Give your team the freedom and flexibility to say “no” or “not now” to maintain focus and a manageable, but challenging, pace.
    • Find ways to take breaks and recharge. Build and keep the team’s energy high through adequate sleep, self-care, support, and reflection time.  Human resilience is critical to long-term success, and will be particularly essential in the early stages of this race.
    • Recommit to discipline – often. The desire to act quickly will be much like that start line at the 10K – lots of leaders will start too fast.  Remind yourself that a short-term, reactive approach is not sustainable in the long-term.  Your team, your company, and your clients, will reap the rewards of consistency, predictability, and resilience.
  1. Pick up the pace when needed.  The unpredictable will happen, and we need to have some fuel left in our tank to perform well organizationally when it does.  It is the work equivalent of the surprise 6% grade hill at Mile 18 of a marathon.  If you have been working too hard for the first 17 miles, you will not have what it takes to pick up your pace and get over the hill effectively.  Strategies to develop a differentiated yet sustainable pace:
    • When more work effort is necessary, be explicit about its intensity and duration. Imagine one of your team members has to take an extended leave of absence to manage family needs during this crisis; you and your team will need to put in 110% effort to cover his absence.  Set clear expectations, timelines, and a line of sight as to when this more laborious effort will end.  Such clarity will help your team manage their mental and physical energy, resulting in better productivity during that sprint interval.
    • Create cycles of extra effort. Not all problems are solved with a single, short-term, all-out sprint.  You may need to create cycles of varying intensity, so that team members can catch their breath before starting another sprint effort.  For example, one leader I know (in a critical services field) had to cut his staff by about 50% in the past two weeks.  Rather than laying people off, half his team comes in one day, the other half the next day.  When working, staff members are highly productive, knowing they have an opportunity to rest the next day.  This system has also solved childcare issues that have arisen for several team members, as those not working are watching children for those who are.
    • Vary your pace to build strength and mental agility. Many endurance coaches preach against training in what is called “the grey zone,“ i.e., training at an intensity that is moderately difficult but does not allow the athlete to adjust her effort easily.  Instead, by holding her effort back, then picking up the pace when a harder effort is needed, the athlete learns to sustain harder work at higher levels of effort over time.  As an Endurance Leader, this might mean pushing greater levels of responsibility down into your organization or taking more risks to expand your online customer interface, for example.  The more versatile you become in ramping up and ramping down effort, the more likely you and your team will adapt successfully to the proverbial 6% climbs that develop on our way to post-COVID normalcy.

      Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash

      Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash

  1. Face it: We are not great sprinters. The world’s fastest sprinters spend a relatively small percentage of their training time sprinting. Yet many of us may be under the illusion that our companies need us to sprint 24/7.  To help us maintain a realistic perspective:
    • The long view is in vogue. Many organizations now recognize that long term performance has significantly higher value for both shareholders and employees than a short-term focus.  The sprint business mentality is so 2010s!
    • Regularly assess yourself and your team.  The costs of continuous sprinting can be devastating for an athlete, resulting in overtraining and injury. Yet, due to the fundamental attribution error, we may tell ourselves we can keep up an untenable pace without adverse effects.  The reality is we are every bit as susceptible to “injury” as the athlete. In the case of work, continuous sprinting can lead to burnout, lack of clarity and direction, poor decision-making, and suboptimal outcomes.  Ask yourself and your team regularly,  “What problem are we solving?  Why?” and, “Is this a sustainable pace?”  Consult with your team, your family, and your boss to check your assumptions, so you do not overtrain and risk business or personal health.
    • Embrace the notion of sprinting as a brief activity to help overcome a specific, time-limited demand, and plan accordingly. Find ways to pick up your effort, but also to find your way back to a more manageable pace that allows for recovery and rebuilding strength.

Lace Up Your Shoes!

To paraphrase Bill Meehan, “The COVID-19 pandemic is creating a crucible moment for America,” and every company must shift their thinking to thrive in the new normal.  Learning to pace your leadership efforts for this marathon could propel you and your company miles ahead of your competitors.  Are you ready to run?