Now that 2021 has begun, I hope many of you are proud of what you accomplished in getting here, safely surviving 2020. All of us have faced unique challenges and loss — both personal and professional — due to the global pandemic and financial crisis.
This is the first in a series of short stories — a culmination of experiences, leadership lessons and learnings that helped me lead myself, family and manufacturers’ rep agency through not only the first year of this pandemic and one of the most challenging periods of all our lives, but also throughout my years in business around the globe. Some of these learnings are built on education from mentors, workshops and conferences, such as many of mine from Harvard Business School’s Nancy Koehn. My hope is this serves not only as a lens through which to view ordinary people doing extraordinary things at a time of crisis, but a call to action for those who want to become better and more effective leaders.
The entire series centers on two simple facts: Real leaders are made, not born. They are built brick by brick, cultivated by working hard on themselves and continuously learning. Secondly: Success is not built on success. It’s built from a lifetime of collective experiences not only in day-to-day life, but in the face of enormous obstacles, setbacks and frustrating failures, often in-the midst of personal crisis. It is these specific lessons learned through the response (or lack thereof) to these experiences that make courageous leaders. It is exhausting work; the journey never ends and no leader is perfect, but what makes a leader is choosing to make something better of who they are, even amid crises.
“Great leaders see setbacks as classrooms to sharpen their skills, improve emotional strengths and minimize specific weaknesses,” - Nancy Koehn, Harvard Business School James E. Robison chair of Business Administration, Author of “Forged in Crisis.”
Just days before New York City had its first official lockdown, one of my colleagues shared a story. He said: “My father once told me during the Great Depression, one-in-four were out of work; what would you do to keep a job?” The gravity of this global pandemic was similar; we had never witnessed anything like this.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I had to travel to a jobsite in the city. I was just one of a few people on the subway and recall coming up to street level noticing that there were no cars or people; no cabs beeping and no buzz of the great city we love. Businesses were shuddered. NYC looked like a ghost town; it felt cold and helpless.
While walking to the jobsite, I recalled my conversation from a few days earlier. It struck me just how very fortunate I was to have a job in construction and to have the opportunity to supply essential service during this uncertain time. I felt grateful to be the CEO of my own company, but I also felt the heavy burden knowing I would need to make some tough decisions quickly. During normal times, there is always a daily crisis that needs handling, but what should I do now? Often, I find myself using strategies I’ve used before to navigate, respond and negotiate obstacles and problems; pulling from a “tool kit” or belt of armor built over the years. But this moment was unlike any other I encountered.
By the time I got back to the office the phones were silent. I started making calls to other small businesses owners, leaders and mentors to check in on what tactics others were employing. The first CEO I called had COVID-19. Another’s advice was, “Don’t spend a dime; tighten up, stay home.”
My colleague on the third call sounded shaken; they were considering laying off half their staff the next day. I knew at this point all business would be significantly impacted, and before I made any crucial, high-stake decisions, I needed to pause before deciding on what actions I would take immediately. It was in this very moment of pause when I recognized I could not falter, could not fail, could not give up. Instead, I had to lean in.
I knew the most critical thing was to bring the team home, safe and alive. And second, protect the business; keep it operational so we could minimize casualties should this be a long-term event. We, like so many small businesses, are family-owned and operated working off razor thin margins. The first and most immediate action was instituting strict rules to wear masks, follow the CDC guidelines, and not allow anyone into our facility that did not have a mask on at all times.
We calculated a business plan with the goal of maximizing and keeping staff employed, hedging the financial risk that might lie ahead. There was no time to waste; it was mission critical to implement with immediacy. Our employees count on their jobs and salaries to feed families and care for loved ones. Had we waited like many companies did, we would have ended up in a far worse position.
While many of our customers had temporarily closed, I felt obligated to stay open to support our employees, and provide plumbing materials and service to hospitals in New York City. I was proud of our team although everyone was clearly shaken by what we were witnessing at the epicenter of the pandemic breakout in the United States. Our team demonstrated courage, strength and sound judgement, and we had a unified approach. Everyone wore a mask without question, everyone conducted duties as they always would without question. We were warriors with purpose.
It is striking how a seemingly simple moment of pause can have profound effects on decision-making and the outcome. This is such a valuable emotional asset to bestow and keep in a leader’s belt of armor. As Nancy Koehn put it, “When so much of our time and attention these days is focused on instantaneous reaction, it seems almost inconceivable to take a moment to pause.”
All of the above happened before my father’s death in June of 2020 (not of COVID-19). I loved him dearly and his genuine, fatherly care and interest in the success of the business I took over for him never diminished, even as he fought dementia. He would ask me daily, “Steve, has the pandemic affected your business?” I told him the truth. It had greatly affected our business and industry, but we continued to show up every day and we would be okay. We were doing all the right things: Leading by example, keeping the team safe, employed and providing essential services.
I’ve continued to have conversations with a broad range of leaders in the industry and beyond; business owners and CEOs, architects, engineers, contractors and manufacturers. I’ve learned that while the last 10 months presented unique professional and personal challenges to each of us, perhaps it’s these lessons of leadership and perseverance that will allow us to look back on 2020 through a different lens with a feeling of accomplishment, bravery and influence, with the notion that you can change your story, write your destiny and transform your business and life.