Surviving the Valleys by Looking Towards the Peaks

We’re all experiencing this differently depending on our age, location, employment status—how do you see you, your family, your colleagues responding to this crisis?

McClendon: I think it’s no different than everything else. Everyone shows up with their experiences and who we are. My more anxious or high-strung friends are forwarding everything they see on the news and social media to everyone they know, and my friends who approach life with a bit more humor are forwarding memes of people who are overreacting by going out with boxes on their heads as masks. Everyone is showing up the way they always show up, but it’s just exacerbated with the times.

Things have paused because there’s nowhere to go but home. It forces us to pay attention to some things that life didn’t allow us to pay attention to.

My own personal example, as a working mom I’m working 8-10 hours each day and commuting an hour each way, so that’s about 12 hours. I sleep 6 hours, which only really leaves you 4-5 hours to do everything else. Now when you’re home 24 hours, you start to notice things in your house you never took the time to pay attention to. For me I notice that all the things I complain to not have time to do, now I don’t have an excuse not to do it. I’m the one playing the Blame Game now. Everyone from my staff was happy at first to work from home, but now everyone is stuck at home with their children and are not able to do all the things they wanted to do. Whether it was scrapbook, shop, or all other free time activities.

When you think of the lessons learned right now in all of this, is there anything you’ve been surprised that you’ve learned or become clearer on?

I’m probably one of those people who compartmentalize. I’ve learned with work that people need clarity and answers as it relates to how quickly things move and decisions that need to be made. In my personal life it has taught me to focus on what’s important as you watch the numbers of infected double every day and how it affects leaders and people in all countries. We are more connected than we realize and we’re more alike than we like to admit.

This is a huge disruption in our lifetimes, especially on how it weighs on our kids. What do the conversations sound like in how you are framing this for your kids?

One of the quotes I use with my children all the time is, “Your character will get you places your education won’t.” Unfortunately, many of our kids, especially people who aren’t aware of what being poor really means, don’t understand their privilege. You have to teach them what their privilege is so you can ensure you are raising citizens who will be empathetic and care about how decisions are made so they can be more conscious contributors to society.

I’m saying that without getting political. Some of our conversations are, “We’re just home,” but they don’t understand the impact of not being able to go to work to get paid has on people.  Families may not eat or some of their peers who attend public school may not get a meal because their only meal for the day may be their school lunch. We need to have those conversations, so they see that while we don’t see anything really change in our space, that doesn’t mean other families whose parents are bartenders or servers are suffering because the restaurants are closed. Showing them how this impacts other families and what we can do to be good citizens. I believe if we can be good citizens, a lot of other things will work themselves out, which is why that quote that I use with them often is very important in my family.

You have taught accountability to thousands of people over the past 10+ years, and you’ve seen it impact people in their careers and personal lives in so many ways. How do you see accountability factor in at this moment?

I look at accountability personally because how Partners In Leadership teaches and defines it. I try to encourage people who I meet or work with me that we have to own the experiences we create for people. The alignment piece of accountability is also important because when you have true alignment and buy-in on a shared result, regardless of people’s backgrounds and experience, you can accomplish anything. That’s what I’m hoping will be in the history books about what our country is going through right now: that we have alignment on what the goals are, which is to get people safe and find a cure so we can get back to doing what we do. I want to be a student of history as all of this unfolds and do my part in remaining safe and encouraging others to be safe and make good choices.

I was exposed to accountability as Partners In Leadership teaches it in 2001. I learned it through a company training when I was a Sales Rep, and now 10+ years later as the CLO of the FDA, I still try to live by the principles that I learned back in 2001 as it relates to owning the experiences you create with people and accountability as it relates to feedback. When you think about those words, in a dictionary they seem far apart, but they are so connected and related and when people get that connection it can be life changing. It was for me. You can truly be accountable when you listen and own the feedback you receive. That’s when accountability really starts.

Was there an experience when you were younger where the lesson was you need to focus on what you can control?

As a teenage I learned very quickly that life is full of peaks and valleys. What I didn’t realize is that would remain true as an adult. While I couldn’t control the valleys, I could be clear and intentional about what I consider a peak. The valleys, in business, are the things that are the threats, and the peaks are the happy and positive times when things can’t get any better.

While you’re going through a peak, there will most likely be a valley following right after. What I learned very early is that if I got through the valley, I could get to the peak. I would ride out the valley so I could enjoy the peak.

As a country right now, we’re in a valley. But if we align our decisions with our desired outcomes then the peaks may get here faster. I don’t know if it was one experience or a series of experiences that taught me this, but my a-ha moment was when I learned I control the decisions I make and decide how to land when I get to the valley.

During the valleys and peaks, you have to surround yourself with people and experiences that sustain you. When you’re in the valleys, do you understand who your champions are? Who are you going to for support? Who are the people in your network that advise and council you?

I put people in categories as either an asset or a liability. It’s not a bad thing to be a liability, but you need to know when your space can handle liabilities. A valley isn’t deadly, but you’re not at your optimal self. You have to be clear and intentional about who you are so you can build your network around those periods of your life.

What have you seen leaders do that hurts or helps when leading through uncertainty with their teams?

Leaders I respect practice clarity of goals and expectations during times like this. They practice consistency of messaging and touch points as it relates to priorities and what we are working towards. It is very easy during a time of crisis to be all over the place, so it’s important to be intentional about where you focus your energy and efforts.

My current leadership is very good at not only solving problems but caring about the impact of this crisis on people who are doing the work. It’s very easy as a leader to tap into your key resources to achieve results when you’re trying to get something across the finish line; but what’s critical is to pause and have genuine concern for the well-being of the people who are doing the work. Not only focusing on if they are physically fine, but if their families and everything else is okay. They will then show up and give them everything they have under these circumstances.

What is your advice for leaders who are struggling to keep their remote workforces focused on what they can control?

It goes back to the fundamental question, “What else can I do?” The key word in that question is “I.” Leaders need to be clear on what is in their control, be clear on the principles they want their employees to follow and tell their employees the truth about what they can do and what the plan is. A lot of these workers right now are worried about how they’ll continue to feed their families, about products that are going to go bad, etc. Leaders need to be grounded themselves, and then they can extend themselves to their employees.

In a few words, leaders need to be transparent, honest, and empathetic. Acknowledge that they understand where their employees are and then refer back to the question, “What else can I do?” Be intentional about the things they can do and transparent about the plan forward. I would also add leaders need to be composed and vulnerable. You don’t need to be loud an angry to show people you have things under control. Compose your delivery but be compassionate about your efforts.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

As we walk this journey together it doesn’t matter how much money you make, it’s what you do with it. When I ran new employee orientation for years, I always asked new hires, “What is your family motto?” One motto stuck with me which was, “If the only problems you have are problems money can solve, you don’t really have problems at all.” While we all need money to provide for our families, at the end of the day there are problems money can’t solve. Hug someone you love, apologize to someone you offended, and forgive someone you’re mad at.

Listen to the full Leading During Uncertainty podcast episode.

Interview edited for clarity and consistency.

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