What Leaders Learned Amid the Pandemic - Senior Executive
Transformational Leadership 6 min

What Leaders Learned Amid the Pandemic

The most challenging times give leaders ample opportunities to learn and grow.

by Senior Executive Media Editors on December 22, 2022


  • A major lesson Michelle Wimes, chief equity and inclusion officer at Children’s Mercy Kansas City, learned from the pandemic was that being flexible and adaptable is critical.

  • Matt Watson, CEO at Origin, a financial planning platform, explains how the pandemic helped shed light on the need to treat employees holistically.

  • The proliferation of remote work amid the pandemic has taught many of us the need to set boundaries and tend to our mental health and well-being in order to avoid burnout.

The holiday season is meant to disrupt the darkest days. It also gives us an opportunity to rest and reflect.

Facing this third Christmas since COVID entered our everyday lexicon, we’re reflecting on a silver lining: Leaders (and all of us) have learned a multitude of lessons from the unprecedented challenges we’ve confronted. To survive, you had to learn them fast.

Adaptability Is Key

Michelle Wimes, chief equity and inclusion officer at Children’s Mercy Kansas City, tells us that being flexible and adaptable was a major lesson she took away from the pandemic. “Health care is changing at such a rapid pace that you can come in with these fixed ideas for what you think will make change, but you have to be flexible and nimble and be able and willing to adapt according to what is presented in front of you,” she says. “You know, none of us knew that COVID was gonna last for almost three years, right? And so, just being able to be flexible and be nimble and to adapt.”

Recent DEI surveys led by Wimes, for instance, revealed a surprising new challenge: “High degrees of incivility and disrespect” in the workforce, often directed at employees by patients. It’s a problem fueled by COVID, Wimes explains: “As you can imagine, with COVID and now with RSV and all of that, there’s just an incredible stress on our patients and families. When they show up to our doors they already have anxiety and stress. And then in some instances, we’re not able to see them right away just because of the high demand, and so it just leads to some bad behavior, sometimes bordering on discriminatory comments and things to our providers. We really had to step it up.”

Among other initiatives in response, Wimes and her team are rolling out a “Respect for All” guide and de-escalation processes and teams. (For more from Wimes, see Chief Diversity Officer at Children’s Mercy Kansas City Talks DEI Assessments.)

Employees Are People

The pandemic also threw a spotlight on the fact that we all bring our whole selves to work. Matt Watson, CEO at Origin, a financial planning platform, explains how that’s contributed to a trend toward treating employees holistically — and providing the benefits and financial guidance to do so.

“People who are financially stressed are more than twice as likely to be depressed. They’re much more likely to leave the company, they’re much more likely to not be present at work, so you can’t really solve the mental health problem without solving the financial stress problem,” he explains. Likewise, “when people have children at home, and now they’re working at home, how do they manage the child care so that they can be productive and still spend time with their kids?

“I think it’s really supporting them as humans,” he says. “Those are the things that matter.”

(Read Origin’s CEO Shares the Trickle-Down Impact of Financial Wellness on Employees for more of our conversation with Watson.)

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Stay Connected, but Set Boundaries

Indeed, the pandemic shifted the focus for many workplaces from the work to the workers. That made the long-successful strategy of connecting and engaging with your team even more important.

Stephen Keene, a U.S. Navy Special Operations veteran now serving as a leadership coach in the Washington, D.C., metro area, recommends regular meetings. He says all bosses should invest time with each of their employees or at least their direct team members — even for just a monthly 20-minute chat — to check in on both their work and lives. Getting to really know them can help you understand how they can bring their best to your team.

“If you can help that person to really succeed and strike a good balance, then they’re happy, safe, healthy, and hopefully, they’re going to do a much better job for you, and everybody wins,” Keene says. “That was always the recipe for success for us. In the Special Operations community, you knew everybody on a first-name basis, which is kind of supposed to be a no-no in the chain of command. But when you’re with a small team of people, and your lives are on the line with each other day in and day out, you know each other really, really well. And you’re going to be on a first-name basis. But that’s how you got through those worst moments in life, right? If you water that down a whole lot, it’s not really any different. In a company or any sort of culture, you can still know your people that well.”

Of course, most workplaces are not such life-and-death situations, thankfully. So as important as connection is, it’s also important to set boundaries. With the pandemic sending so many people home for an extended period of time, the lines blurred between personal and public spaces. And while remote work and flexibility can help create a more inclusive and productive workforce, without some structure built in, the situation can be unsustainable. “It’s like they don’t leave work,” Keene says. “This just isn’t good for people, because it’s a chronic condition, and it’s going to lead people to burn out.”

Addressing your team’s and your own mental health and well-being is critical. That’s a major lesson Jennifer Good, senior manager for supplier relations, compliance, and diversity at American Axle and Manufacturing and member of the Senior Executive DEI Think Tank, learned from the pandemic. “I think you have to give yourself and others grace and compassion and some empathy,” she says. “It’s a different world and people have really struggled, and I think we have to be more open about how everybody is doing — not only physically, but mentally, as well.”

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