Leadership in Uncertain Times, Part I: Advice From the New York City Tech Scene

March 25, 2020
new york city empty subway
PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK

When a business selects its leaders, a “proven ability to lead an organization during a global pandemic” is not a traditional prerequisite.

But as the novel coronavirus rattles families, healthcare systems and economies across New York City and the wider world, that’s exactly what executives and team leads are being asked to do. During times of crisis or heightened uncertainty, traditional leadership qualities — communication, influence, team- and culture-building, decisiveness, resilience, problem-solving, curiosity — become more important than ever. 

One thing we can learn from this unfolding crisis is that none of us — as individuals, professionals and companies, but also as communities, nations and economies — are an island. It’s a reminder that, as with all things, humanity is in this together. 

In Part I of our series on leadership in uncertain times, we checked in with leaders across New York tech to learn how they and their teams are faring, how they’ve adapted and what advice they have to share with other leaders in the city. 

 

Mary Good
Chief People Officer

As a leader, you are the person people in your company turn to for answers. Who are you looking to for motivation and support? What advice do you have for other leaders who are walking into a world of uncertainty?

I am currently leading our cross-functional coronavirus task force, which meets regularly to provide employees with guidance on how to adapt to this unprecedented situation. My advice to other leaders is similar to the advice flight attendants give before an airplane takes off: Put your own mask on first before helping others. We have to pay attention to our own emotions, energy levels and resilience in order to make sure we can serve as strong leaders who provide a calming presence in spite of the uncertainty.

Reach out to your peers and colleagues, stay connected to your own support network of family and friends, and create silver linings to the extent you can to reframe this difficult situation. Take the long view and do as much scenario planning as you can. This will help you anticipate challenges, and when it comes time for you to make a decision that impacts the organization, you’ll be prepared with a plan. 

 

Neal Narayani
Chief People Officer

Over the coming weeks and months, what concerns are you anticipating from your team? How are you addressing them?

At Brex, we’re learning to navigate a new way of working in a fully remote environment. And since our company continues to grow, we’re primarily focused on how to welcome great engineering talent to the team virtually. We want to make this a positive onboarding experience, so we are experimenting with new approaches and iterating constantly.

Joining a company already comes with its own obstacles, like meeting new people, learning a new business and establishing credibility with your teammates. We want to minimize any additional stress and allow our “virtual new hires” to feel comfortable, confident and set up for success from day one.

 

Chien Chou
Vice President of Engineering

NYC is a strong tech community. How do you think we can help each other in times of uncertainty? What specific advice do you have for the tech community — not just to other leaders or your team, but to our industry at large? 

In this current time of uncertainty, we can help each other out through sharing our thoughts and solutions. Supporting each other is critical right now, as is having a community around us that can act as a sounding board. For example, based on the lessons we’ve learned over the past few months from our Asia offices, a long work-from-home policy can cause significant stress for our employees. We need to learn from this to create proper engagement and support strategies.

For the overall tech community, I always recommend having a buffer in place. In the last 10 years there has been an illusion that there is unlimited money in the market, but this is not true. When the money stops flowing, those without resources already in place will be left out in the cold. We need to return to the basic business model: Does my service or product create value? Can the revenue cover the cost and provide margins? 

 

Chris Griffin
Co-founder

Over the coming weeks and months, what concerns are you anticipating from your team? How are you addressing them?

We are a relatively social team that values in-person collaboration. We would occasionally work from home beforehand, but the full remote situation is definitely a transition for the entire team. We’ve tried to be proactive in addressing the negative effects of the transition. We’ve organized weekly virtual coffee breaks, have sent everyone a tropical houseplant to help liven up their work-from-home environment and have set up more frequent stand-ups.

One thing we know is that this will not be a short-term crisis. As a New Yorker, I’m proud of the state’s response to date and have been relying on its communication as my main resource.

 

Chris Murphy
Chief Executive Officer, North America

As a leader, you are the person people in your company turn to for answers. Who are you looking to for motivation and support? What advice do you have for other leaders who are walking into a world of uncertainty?

Earlier this year I attended a course entitled “Leading the Agile Organization,” which focused on building and leading organizations that are able to respond rapidly to changing and uncertain conditions. Little did I know how immediately relevant the lessons from that course would be.

Staying motivated and feeling supported through these challenging and rapidly changing times is certainly not something that I take for granted. We are all looking after each other as an extended community and providing one another with mutual support. I feel comfortable providing my input and direction when needed, but also in admitting when I don’t have all the answers and deferring to those who are better equipped to make decisions.

A great recent example of this came during the early days of the COVID-19 crisis. One ThoughtWorker used his own time to write a detailed paper analyzing what he knew of the virus, the likely modeling of its impact and specific suggestions for how ThoughtWorks as an organization should respond. He sent it to me and others on the leadership team, and it helped us make better decisions earlier.

My advice to other leaders is that you don’t need to know all the answers. Indeed, you can’t know all the answers. You can, however, help to build and sustain an organizational culture whereby the collective does have the answers.

 

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