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Ilka Herzog, Member of the Executive Board taskforce Management on Demand GmbH, in an interview with Ingrid Lohse, Partner and Interim Manager on the subject of leadership in crisis mode

Ilka Herzog: The corona pandemic is spreading around the globe with enormous intensity. Many people are in crisis mode, social interactions have been reduced to a minimum, deadlines and projects are falling through in rows, considerable parts of the economy are lying idle. We are all acting only "on sight". In this time of maximum uncertainty, employees expect strong managers who keep a clear head, give direction, prioritize measures, and implement them consistently. Ingrid, you yourself are an experienced leader, but also a business psychologist who has successfully managed many crises. In our discussions over the past few days, you have particularly brought in the aspect of "being a human and a leader at the same time". Why is this so important to you?

Ingrid Lohse: I am currently reading many publications on the topic of leadership in crisis. Their basic tenor: People are looking for role models who lead the way and thereby reduce the feeling of losing control. In a company, this is the central role of business leaders and business owners, and has rarely been more important than now. There are plenty of good and simple instructions and methods for successfully sending clear signals and messages, and there is little value in repeating them now.

However, so far I have seen little commentary on the aspect that business leaders and especially business owners are of course only humans, too, who, in addition to their responsibility for the organization, have to deal with the same personal existential fears and worries as every other employee: Will my family stay healthy? Will I be able to support for them in the future? What remains of the assets and values I have been creating over the last years?

Leaders are affected by the crisis in two respects: on the one hand, as those responsible for a large number of employees and their future, but also as individuals, parents, spouses, and often as children of parents who are now particularly at risk. However, the pressure of responsibility and high external expectations leave little room for personal sensitivities.

Ilka Herzog: This is an obvious dilemma; do you have a recommendation?

Ingrid Lohse: In order to maintain the necessary strength in external communication, it is elementary that managers create small reserves for themselves in order to address, reflect, and manage personal concerns instead of suppressing them. Interestingly enough, in this situation it is pretty helpful to apply the same methods you use in crisis management for your company to manage your personal fears; this way, fears are directed into rational channels and can be dealt with methodically and hence more effectively. For the emotional handling of the pressure, it is critical to share & ventilate in conversations with experienced sparring partners, who in this case may especially be external ones. In the last few days, I have experienced many times that precisely because everyone mutually affected. Motivating impulses that create new strength arise from such an exchange and the joint reflection of one's own situation. This is where the slogan "together we are stronger" comes very true.  

And it is in this spirit that I would like to take this opportunity to express my great appreciation to the many leaders and business owners who, not only do everything they can to keep their companies going, but also give their employees new courage, motivation, and orientation every day.

Ilka Herzog: Another aspect of the current situation is that we are experiencing a new way of working. What until now has often led to complicated discussions in many companies, has become reality within a very short time: collaboration from the home office. In your professional career, you have already led virtual teams for more than ten years that were composed globally and with which communication was essentially conducted through the mostly remote channels. In your experience, what is the most important aspect of digital collaboration?

Ingrid Lohse: Actually, it looks like we are presently experiencing the largest field test of virtual collaboration. My standpoint is simple: leading teams over distance does not follow fundamentally different principles than direct leadership. On the basis of jointly defined communication structures and governance systems, corporate and operational goals can also be effectively transported and achieved virtually – if (!!!) leaders, and that would be my main limitation, live the associated attitudes and actions with passion, consistency, and empathy. The latter is of course indispensable, especially in times of crisis, whether virtually or personally. McKinsey recently wrote on this question: "In a crisis, the most important thing is that leaders maintain an important aspect of their role: making a positive difference in people's lives". I can only agree with that. We must ensure that the people we have met so far remain connected to us.


Ilka Herzog: How do you personally feel about this virtual collaboration? Isn't there something very fundamental missing?

Ingrid Lohse: Not really. My teams and I have never considered it a fundamental disadvantage to "only" communicate virtually 90 percent of the time. This is simply because we together have made the experience that we can solve not only simple but also major challenges even if we are located far away.

Solutions to problems are not only found in presence workshops. Today, there are many powerful and secure virtual communication tools available for communicating plans simply and transparently, engaging employees, valuing progress, and celebrating success. All we have to do is shift the traditional personal exchange to the telephone, video conference or chat and provide a simple structure for it. This is not rocket science. The already practiced Jour Fixe can very well be arranged virtually. You can even toast yourself with a cup of coffee from a distance. Look for creative joint rituals together with your employees. In this way you can stay "together" even over distance and develop a shared positive energy in the team. It also works virtually to build relationships between people, they need inspiration and must feel valued.


Ilka Herzog: Maybe it is still a little early, but we all know: Every crisis also holds opportunities. Where do you see them right now?

Ingrid Lohse: I see the greatest opportunity in the fact that we find many innovative solutions that would be rejected in "normal" times. Companies find new sales channels, suddenly produce completely new product ranges to counter the pandemic. We will also see that employees who we would otherwise not have "on the radar" suddenly pull others along under these special conditions. Managers and entrepreneurs should be very attentive now and document all these experiences in order to use them for a stronger future.

Furthermore, there is a simple approach I often apply: I use the "Backwards Imaging" method in workshops for developing visions. To create a vivid target image, one articulates what the future will look like when a project is successfully completed. This creates a positive attitude and channels our thoughts to seek ideas, approaches and solutions for success instead of being limited by the "now". All in the sense of a positive "self-fulfilling prophecy". Applying this method today helps to paint the picture of a strong future.

"The world is shock-frozen, we will unfreeze it again" was the headline of an article I read a few days ago - this sentence reflects my attitude and it is exactly this image that we should hold on to.

Conclusion: Positive thinking in the present time immediately creates new energies. If you too, valued reader, feel the need for a constructive exchange on the topic of leadership and change or just want to reflect on a few thoughts, we look forward to hearing from you.