“I’ve been through some pretty tough stuff,” she said.
“I led teams through the merger of the Babies R Us and Toys R Us divisions, multiple significant reductions in force in the beginning of Chapter 11 proceedings. At Barnes & Noble, the turbulent times came in the form of something a little bit different – massive leadership and strategy changes. Four CEOs in four years, and four different bosses in six months, each with a different perspective on digital.”
These experiences have given Sharrett a thorough understanding of what it takes to lead through periods of great change and challenge and to help teams thrive in the process. Here are her five key takeaways.
1. Identify the cause of the turbulence
Many businesses today are facing turbulence due to Covid-19, but there could be other causes, such as moving from a public to a private company or vice versa.
“Regardless of the reason, how you lead your team, no matter the size, will determine how you rise to the challenge, how effectively you meet the challenge and how quickly you can move into recovery and back to normal,” Sharrett said.
2. Understand the change you’re going through
Once leaders have identified the cause of the turbulence, they’ll need to understand the impact it’s having on their business.
“Is it financial, operational or strategic? Why are you going through that change, and how long will it last – days, weeks, months?” Sharrett said. “As you’re thinking about those questions, you’ll want to formulate the possible outcomes. Create scenarios and begin to come up with solutions and ways of communicating.”
In doing this, leaders should think about how their teams, customers and potentially shareholders will be affected by the change they’re going through, because it will dictate what and how they communicate the change.
“Make sure you find out what partners you have who you can engage with. For public companies, a deep partnership with your PR team is important,” Sharrett advised.
“Lastly, think about what opportunities might arise from the turbulence. Sometimes you have an opportunity to refocus on what’s really important and stop doing the things that aren’t contributing to your strategic objectives, and regain your identity.”
3. Plan your approach
While many leaders are biased towards action, Sharrett said it’s important to gather information before jumping into solve mode.
“Talk to other people that are in your industry, talk to your team and brainstorm, sometimes they have great solutions, and make sure to use your partners and ask for help. A lot of them are trained to get you through turbulent times, your HR partners in particular,” she said.
“Look and see what company documents and statements might be helpful. If you’re the cause of the change, then create them if they don’t exist.”
One way to respond to change quickly is to take people out of their existing roles and put them on a special task force to tackle the issue head on.
“Make sure you’re developing a plan and at least one contingency plan,” she said. “Remember that you will have to still achieve results during your turbulent time, and you want to make sure people have a clear path on how to get there and through their obstacles.”
Leaders will also need to think about how they communicate their plan.
“Think about how often you need to communicate with people, and keep in mind that you want to be responsive. Right after events happen, you want to be in front, you want to be leading, you want to be fluid in your response and timely,” she said.
Having quick daily stand-up meetings, weekly debriefs or new team meetings are important to keep everyone on the same page.
Basic leadership principles, such as transparency and authenticity, are even more important in turbulent times, according to Sharrett.
“Be honest with your team if you don’t know the answers. Make sure to ground your team in the same fact base, and make sure they’re operating on the same information,” she said.
With that in mind, it can be a good idea to share a set of talking points with everyone involved.
“You also want to demonstrate that you understand the gravity of the situation, and that it’s serious, but be careful not to add fuel to the fire,” she said.
That means being compassionate and not dismissive of the change, since it will impact everyone differently. Sharrett suggested encouraging teams to ask questions, and working with HR partners to figure out the best way to answer them.
“You’re not going to be remembered for your actions, but rather for how they [team members] feel going through the change.”
5. Stay close to your team
Depending on the size of their team, it can be hard for some leaders to get ‘on-the-ground’ feedback, so Sharrett recommended setting up one-on-one meetings with people who are influencers in the group to find out what the concerns are and what they’d like to see done differently.
“If you ask them, they will tell you,” Sharrett said.
At the same time, she cautioned against making promises to individuals or the group, “because you don’t know what the future holds”.
“I highly recommend that you have an open door, or an open virtual door as it may be right now, and when you do that and invite people to stop in, or put time on your calendar, make sure you give adequate time and energy to people who are going to be brave enough to come and talk with you,” she said.
“Last and most importantly, don’t judge people for where they are and what their concerns are. Meet them where they are, and they will appreciate you for that.”