How to Be a 'Favorite Boss'

During the COVID-19 pandemic, practice these skills to help your team grow through the crisis

By Paul Falcone May 22, 2020
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​COVID-19 has certainly rocked our world as human resource professionals, but the opportunities we have before us as we navigate a global pandemic are innumerable. 

Think about it: We're managing employees' anxiety while moving toward a new remote business model that focuses on accountability and productivity. We're finding new and more effective ways of communicating when we don't have the benefit of MBWA (management by walking around). We're strengthening our team and creating a deeper sense of trust and camaraderie. And we're building bullets for our resumes and LinkedIn profiles: remote learning, delegation, and virtual accountability and performance delivery. In other words, our entire business worldview has been turned upside down, yet we're still finding new and innovative ways of getting the job done—in some cases, even better than in the past.

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

"When you find yourself at a point of pure creation, you'll be amazed at what you're able to accomplish," said Kim Congdon, global vice president, human resources and talent management for Herbalife Nutrition in Torrance, Calif. "The obstacles you've faced before melt away, and you have an opportunity to reinvent yourself, your relationship to your team and your leadership brand."

To keep yourself motivated and growing in the right direction, ask yourself this question: "How do I become someone's favorite boss, and what might that look like in the COVID-19 era?"

Favorite Boss Characteristics

When you ask people about their favorite boss, their eyes light up and they say things like:

  • She always made me feel like she had my back.
  • He challenged me to do things I didn't think I was capable of.
  • She made me feel included, she appreciated my input, and I felt like I could almost do no wrong when working with her. My confidence soared.

"What you realize when hearing these types of descriptions," Congdon said, "is that when people describe their favorite boss, they talk about who that person is, not necessarily what that person did. It's the [boss's] character, encouragement, and personal concern and involvement that makes them someone's favorite boss." So the next question to ask yourself, especially in times of emergency, should be "Who am I, and who do I choose to be in this work relationship and during this challenge?"

Applying the 'Favorite Boss' Standard to COVID-19

In addition to maintaining open communication, building a stronger team as we work remotely, and producing and measuring performance results, what other challenges are we facing right now? The list is long:

  • Loss of safety and security.
  • Loss of control due to unpredictable events.
  • Lack of emotional and social support (and feelings of loneliness and isolation).
  • Loss of loved ones.
  • Overwork, exhaustion and lack of self-care.

"We're not expected to turn into psychologists overnight," said Steve Axel, executive coach and transition coach for senior leaders in San Diego, "but many of these and other concerns are very real for certain people. Your role isn't to diagnose anything—you're not the appropriate resource for that. But you are responsible for helping people help themselves. Leading with empathy, always having a listening ear, and being careful not to make anyone feel judged for their fears or anxieties will go a long way in helping people come to terms with so many unknowns and their natural reactions to them."

You need to not only manage performance but also demonstrate the soft skills of listening, empathy and concern for your employees as they make their way through the crisis. Here's what your communication and leadership strategy might focus on during the pandemic:

  • Communicate organizational resources, like your employee assistance program, or local resources such as pastoral care and social services.
  • Be a calming influence for your team by introducing moments of pause or meditation.
  • Form "battle buddy" relationships. Pair up remote team members and ensure that people have each other's backs at all times.
  • Help people change their perspective so they'll change their perception of current events. Talk about how this too shall pass. Encourage people to think about where we will be one to five years from now when we look back on this time. How can your team use this period to develop their careers and skills?
  • Share recovery stories. Discuss prior generations and how they came to terms with seemingly insurmountable challenges—from the two world wars to the civil rights battles of the 1960s to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"The point is, it's not business as usual," Axel said. "For some it may be, but for others who need more guidance, structure and direction, be there for them. Be present. Exercise mindfulness. And most important, come from observation rather than judgment. No one wants to be judged, especially if they don't feel particularly in control of their lives or feelings right now. Your gentle guidance, concern and empathetic ear will help them find themselves again. That's what a coach does—not give answers but help people come to their own solutions in their own time."

Favorite Bosses Also Push Productivity and Achievement

"We've got a job to do, work to be performed, and goals to meet in terms of performance and productivity," Congdon said. "'Favorite bosses know how to motivate and engage their people to perform at their best because nothing builds confidence and self-esteem like knowing that you're hitting it out of the park performance-wise."

To that end, follow some of these best practices when leading your team, either remotely or in return-to-work mode:

  • Create a shared document where everyone on the team can document their weekly progress, roadblocks and achievements. Use it for celebration and recognition.
  • Assign different staff members to lead weekly staff meetings and make them responsible for the agenda and follow-up items.
  • Schedule weekly or biweekly one-on-one meetings to check in on individuals' physical and mental well-being.
  • Schedule quarterly progress meetings on annual goals, roadblocks and achievements.
  • Ensure that remote workers' work/life balance needs are being met (e.g., by not working all hours of the night) and that nonexempt employees adhere strictly to wage and hour guidelines for meal and rest periods as well as overtime.

Now, more than ever, people are looking to leaders in business to respond quickly and proactively. This is the time to lean in, lead through the changes coming your way, show compassion for others, exercise the selflessness necessary to coach and mentor, and ensure high levels of individual and team performance. Help your employees process their physical and mental reactions stemming from fear and uncertainty and focus on work/life balance, productivity and shared achievements. You can use COVID-19 to redefine your leadership and communication style so that others look to you as that special boss; that individual who taught them how to lead, pivot and bend through a pandemic; and that leader who had their backs and encouraged them to discover their personal best through challenging times.

Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is CHRO at the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Los Angeles and a frequent contributor at SHRM.org. He is the author of many top-selling books, including 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews. 

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