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Covid Class: How the Coronavirus Put Leadership to the Test

November 11, 2020
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Business leaders learn many of their biggest lessons in a trial by fire. This year has bought plenty of those.

“Great lessons challenge great leaders, and this is the greatest hands-on leadership lesson you will ever experience,” said Erin Thompson, Columbus region market president of Messer Construction Co. “Now is when a strong culture delivers strong results.”

Columbus Business First has interviewed more than 100 business executives about the challenges wrought by 2020. Many said the Covid-19 pandemic is unique among the crises they’ve led through. An untold number of books will be written about this time, and future business graduates will study those who did right, those who did wrong, and everything in between.

“Now is when you really have to have that trust for your people,” said Tauana McDonald, chief administrative officer at Mount Carmel Health. “Everything about your management style is tested here. It takes time to build that balance of trusting versus providing direction, listening versus leading. Act. Don’t fear acting.”

Asked about the the lessons learned and the advice they would pass on, executives said crises are when a manager needs to carry a presence and an awareness of their team and the stresses they face. Some will see the crisis as a time to shine and relish work challenges. Others have worries about the health of their families and loved ones.

“Folks can silo off, especially right now and when we’re in isolation from one another, so you listen more to the small things,” said Susan Choe, executive director of Ohio Legal Help. “Don’t wait to reach out, and don’t wait to recognize when you see good work.”

Intentional vulnerability was another theme, especially when leader and employee alike are in an uncertain place. Eileen Goodman at Moody Nolan Inc. has organized a session for people to talk openly about the challenges of racism, bias and prejudice, another national conversation that impacted workplaces this year.

Feazel’s Leo Ruberto said it plainly to his junior managers: “I just didn’t have this in my playbook.”

“You should not be nervous about getting personal with people at this point,” said Rick Milenthal, CEO of The Shipyard. “Everyone in your company has their own life story and we don’t tend to think of them along the lines of that life story. You don’t need to be intrusive but you do need to show you understand.”

Finally, executives said, planning takes on a new kind of importance amid a crisis. Many of the companies that began multi-crisis contingency planning after the Great Recession say regularly setting aside time for crisis evaluation in good times better readied them, even though next to none specifically planned for how they’d react in a viral pandemic.

“You’re going to have people pulling you in all different directions, and you’ll have an instinct to knee-jerk,” said Dustin Rohrbach of Danis Building Construction in Central Ohio. “It tests your patience. You have to look at your strategy and understand, calmly, that this thing will end. No bold change right now will help you.”