Leading through a pandemic, and a potential recession


Written by: Jillian Climie.


As we enter the summer of 2022, I’m reminded of the difficult journey many leaders have been on over the past two and a half years: figuring out how to lead, manage, and retain their teams through a global pandemic. And now there is another looming challenge: leading their teams through a potential recession. To gain more insight on how leaders have been handling this, I spoke to Kelly Gorder, who left her career as a senior retail executive to become a coach and corporate mentor.


Tell me a little about yourself and how you ended up as a coach and corporate mentor.


Having spent 20 years in corporate retail, I was used to a fast pace and lots of responsibility. But after many relocations and restructures, I was burnt out and had lost my sense of purpose. Then, I was in a car accident which left me with a bad concussion. Add in a looming pandemic, and I was on the tipping point between needing to make a change or letting my health continue to decline. Although my mind was making the decisions, my body was fighting the war. With space and reflection, I left the corporate world to take a break, heal and seek support. I found a coach who helped me regain a sense of possibility in my future.


Purpose and a long-term vision were important parts of my move forward. The aspects of my job I loved the most were helping my team grow and succeed. It felt natural to get my coaching credentials, combining an empathy for those in similar situations, with skills and tools to help them find their own “why”. Now, I look forward to working with anyone seeking a difference in any aspect of their life, and supporting their path towards change for the better.


Leading teams through the past few years has been tough for many reasons, and we've seen leaders taking on a more supportive role than ever before. How have leaders been managing this?


In leadership roles, there has been no drop in the expectation to deliver results. Leaders are expected to deliver at the same high performance level, while also managing all the new issues the pandemic has brought on. This effectively means their to-do lists have doubled. Supporting teams through this uncertain time has been a huge increase in responsibility. Executives are not trained in managing trauma. They’ve often had to take on these almost therapist-like roles, sometimes being one of the only resources for their employees throughout the pandemic. The draining impact on leaders’ energy has been material.


Overall, it’s made it hard to create space and prioritize leaders' own projects amidst managing the team. Executives who are used to functioning at high levels are now finding themselves just keeping their heads above water. Where we’ve seen the most success in managing these new stressors is strong communication of what can and cannot get done – i.e., leaders who have been able to communicate what is simply not doable for their teams, and holding that boundary. By setting outbound priorities instead of fielding the millions of conflicting inbound requests, leaders invite autonomy back to their work weeks. Time-blocking has also been essential; carving space for specific “energy-out” times with your team will make it easier to determine and hold your own re-charge times.


How important is it for leaders to be examples for their teams?


Throughout the pandemic, employees have been looking to their employers and leaders more than ever. Employees can see when their leaders are struggling with managing their own time, and it gives them few options other than to do the same. To solve widespread burnout, leaders must start first and lead by example. It's not easy and takes practice to establish, including space for oneself and self care. Small steps and small wins can make a big impact, and the visibility of leading by doing can release the communal pressure valve for the entire team. In coaching we love the power of the "and" to create possibility. Practice using “ands” instead of “ors” or "buts". For example, “I need to get a project done BUT my team needs me today” feels a lot heavier than “I can take time for myself this morning AND I can open up my calendar for my team this afternoon”.


What are other roles you’ve seen leaders having to take on over the past few years? How are they adapting to them?

There are so many new roles outside of the office taking their toll. When I’ve said to-do lists are doubling, I’ve also meant personal to-do lists. Some have taken on educating their children, managing personal logistics of COVID-19 outbreaks, supporting aging parents, and partners out of work – the list goes on and on. Everything has just gotten harder. The people that are used to making it all happen, have now been faced with a crushing daily schedule. The piece that most often gets sacrificed is personal time and space.


As women, we take on many different roles. I've noticed that burnout starts to peak as we compare ourselves to the best of each of them. For example, we want to be as strong of an executive as the man who has no home responsibilities, as good of a mother as the dedicated stay-at-home mom, as fit of a woman as the spin instructor, as loving of a wife as the newly-wed, as perfect of a daughter as the caretaker. The truth is, it’s impossible to be great at all these things as one human. You have to choose which roles are most important to you right now. Clarity usually comes more easily by getting back to your own values, vision and priorities. Different chapters in life can be focused on different things – what are you focusing on right now? Allow yourself to fully commit to the things that rise to the top, and do those unapologetically. Seek support or outsource in those places that don't need your personal focus and attention right now.


One way we empower leaders at The Thoughtful Co is by ensuring they are being compensated appropriately for the value they deliver, and having role structures and policies in place that support them to do their best work. What impact do you think this has?


Advocating for the resources and support you need is so important. Having mentors or advisors with an unbiased point of view, but also with a vested interest in your success, can be invaluable. They want you to succeed but they will tell you the truth and reflect your big picture. They’ll validate what you’re asking for and empower you to negotiate from a place of strength and authenticity. Women leaders are so often great at advocating for resources, compensation and tools for their teams, but not for themselves. Many are empathy-driven so want to make sure others are taken care of first. But standing up for yourself and what you need is essential to ensure you feel valued for what you’re delivering. Staying tethered to your big picture “why” (why you're doing what you're doing) helps you to not get stuck in the “hows”. Make sure work is working for you short and long-term.


Burnout has been drastically impacting the workforce, including executives. Have you seen leaders be more open in sharing this? What strategies do you recommend to help leaders cope with burnout as we enter a potential recession?


I think it’s starting to come up more, but the conversations are still mostly held with coaches or therapists and not openly in a work forum. There is still a hesitation to appear weak. I see success as true acceptance that you can’t be everything to everyone. When your vision of what you want in life is clear, it's easier to have perspective on your career and the role it plays in getting you to your big picture. This enables preparation for the shift towards more balance – you can’t just one day decide to create new boundaries and expect to be successful.


Our brains are used to doing things a certain way, and they like to know what's going to happen, even if the situation isn't great. Changing things up and creating new habits takes time, consistency and our brains like seeing reward. Starting with small steps and small wins, and building on those enables sustainable change. Think about how you can get one win this week, and what support systems you realistically need in place to make that happen. Through habit-stacking and slow building, you can reduce chaos first, and then have the space to implement the meaningful pieces. One of my favorite quotes is a Peruvian proverb: “Little by little, one walks far”.

Reach out to the interviewee Kelly Gorder, board certified coach and corporate mentor at www.kellygorder.com or kellyg@kellygorder.com. Kelly supports leaders seeking a difference in any aspect of their life, figuring out where to start, and supporting their path towards change for the better.

Reach out to the author Jillian Climie, Co-Founder at The Thoughtful Co at www.thethoughtfulco.net or contact@thethoughtfulco.net. Jillian supports leaders in understanding and negotiating their compensation & benefits, from 1:1 prep sessions, to employment contract review, to senior executive peer analysis.