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Leading during a crisis? Be ready to break your own rules.

by Ben Spradling | May 29, 2020 10:50:08 AM

The business owner rebellion is upon us!

Okay, that proclamation may be more than a little extreme, but to help their organizations survive the ongoing pandemic, company executives really have been breaking some of the most rigid and resolute set of rules ever established – their own.

Because working conditions have changed drastically since early March, some business owners have been doing away with leadership principles that formerly served as the foundation of their operations. For Xiao Wang, co-founder and CEO of Boundless Immigration, a Seattle-based tech company that specializes in helping immigrants apply for green cards and U.S. citizenship, the first tenet to get tossed was the expectation that execs should have the answers.

“You have to start by assuming you don’t know anything,” says Wang. “You honestly don’t know. We started thinking this was all temporary, but now who knows how long it will be. We don’t know. The ultimate thing is to be okay with that and acknowledge that. Then say, “Hey, everything we’re going to be doing will be different now because of the situation.’”

When things are being done differently, the value of transparency can be at its highest levels. Wang and Boundless Immigration had emphasized openness with their team before the pandemic, but as unprecedented events unfurled and futures seemed increasingly unsure, it became an especially essential tool to lean on. Upping their transparency wasn’t a break from normal protocol so much as a radical reinforcement of a preexisting rule.

“I shared screenshots from our bank account,” says Wang. “I shared very detailed metrics about what is going on with the business so that you make your own sort of conclusions about it. I’m going to do a voiceover, but this isn’t sugarcoated. This is exactly how much sales we have. This is exactly how much money we’re spending.”

Other tough issues were addressed directly as well. Layoffs had previously been a considered a mostly taboo topic. Wang explained that within the context of the coronavirus, that approach could not continue. Layoffs were on everyone’s mind, so it was necessary to bring that conversation to the surface. Leadership’s thoughts on downsizing were shared directly with reports to avoid employees coming up with their own interpretations or predictions.

The emphasis on clarity, communication and transparency was key to the successful rollout of some swift and significant workstyle changes. Boundless Immigration staffers now work exclusively from home – a departure from pre-pandemic days – and that new format runs on accountability. 

“There’s no oversight. We don’t have time for that, we don’t have energy for that. So, it’s pushing far more trust onto everyone. You know where we’re at as a company, you know where we want to be, you know that your teammates are counting on you. So, you do whatever you need to do whenever you need to do it to fit into your life.”

For Ted Brown Music, a music retailer based out of Tacoma, Washington, allowing its employees to work from home represented more than just a rule break. It was a retreat from its identity. Regardless, current circumstances forced the move, and for some, the changes may stick.

“We had a ‘you don’t work from home’ policy,” says Whitney Grisaffi, President of Ted Brown Music. “That’s not who we are. We want you here at the store. We did not allow that before, but we figured out how to make it so that people who had to work from home could work from home. Now, we’re going to let those people who figured it out, keep working from home. For some of them, it’s way easier.”

Rules are easy to follow when circumstances are more stable than what has been experienced these past three months. With the near future seeming similarly uncertain, more rules are likely to break. The one principle some business owners are standing firm on, though, is that it’s okay to not know what exactly lies ahead.

“You want to know that your ship has a direction,” says Wang. “The change I have had to make personally is that, although we are heading this direction, there are icebergs and pirates and things along the way that are scary. It’s OK to be scared of them. I don’t know where they are or how best to deal with them. But, we’ll figure it out.”

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