News Room

Leading an Organization Through the Uncertainty of COVID-19

March 4, 2020

This post was originally published by Stan McChrystal on LinkedIn

“Prepare for remote work status…” is a common refrain of the past two weeks, as the global spread of the COVID-19 virus is a seemingly unavoidable reality. And we’re likely to hear far more of this in the days to come.

The warning is a nice way to push for preparation, but in practice, how should large and complex organizations posture for this eventuality?

It’s one thing to coordinate a project team of a few dozen folks over remote connectivity – that’s becoming pedestrian in today’s workforce. But if and as the COVID-19 spread continues to have significant impact on how organizations should be communicating and running their businesses, we must switch from bumper-sticker commentary about preparedness to the sleeves-up work of actually implementing a remote system at scale. Attuned leaders need to be preparing for weeks (or more) of remote work status on a massive scale. This is easy to say, but challenging in practice.

 At McChrystal, we’ve learned a lot about building the kind of remote and distributed communication model that will be essential in the coming weeks. In the days ahead, our team will offer a quick series of follow-on articles, sharing our best thinking on the major steps any organization must take to establish a high-functioning remote-work platform. They will be both practical and tactical, discussing:

– tools and structure,

– best practices,

– remote decision making,

– remote client and sales management,

– and long-term mindset/culture shift associated with remote communications.

 We welcome your partnership in developing this series. Please share, comment, or ask questions so that we can target our insights to the questions that are top-of-mind for you.

 First, Chris Fussell and I put together our initial thoughts with some context from our careers on how and why it’s so important for leaders to approach preparing for the organizational management difficulties COVID-19 presents.

Chris: Nearly 20-years-ago, on September 11th, 2001 I was the senior officer of a 16-person Navy SEAL platoon, the core fighting unit of our branch of the special operations community. To that point in my career, I’d never had to consider the fact that our platoon was a one-tenth part of a larger SEAL Team, and that SEAL Team was a one-tenth part of the broader Navy SEAL force, and that the Navy SEALs were just a small part of the entire Special Operations community. We were a collection of small units, not an enterprise prepared for constant, network-based connectivity.

The events of that day set all of us on a path that would force us to understand the size and scope of who we truly were as an organization. The years after 9/11 would see our units spread around the entire globe, from clusters of hundreds in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, to outposts of just two or three personnel in remote and isolated corners of the fight.

But if on 9/11 our admirals and generals had said, “we’re under attack from a fast-growing global terrorist network…so prepare for remote work conditions,” I would have had no idea where to start. And even if I had, I and all of my peers would have had neither the technology nor the methodology to make this possible. Amazingly, I didn’t even have a laptop assigned to me at that time!

 Stan: The points Chris outlines were serious and grave challenges. No one in our community had foreseen a requirement for constant connectivity amongst thousands of distributed nodes. I’d grown up inside a Special Operations community run through centralized, top-down management. Like any other business, this style of management is dependent on a cascading series of daily, weekly, quarterly and annual meetings, the vast majority of which are face-to-face interactions. After 9/11, that face-to-face model would quickly become a thing of the past, and I would imagine that the expansion of COVID-19 will soon present industry with a similar challenge.

When I took command of our many-thousands-large global counterterrorism units, I knew I needed to create a paradox organization that was both remote and interconnected, decentralized and highly-structured, geographically separated and singularly aligned. Remote-work would be critical to our foundation. “The heartbeat of this organization,” I started saying, “will be our ability to be geographically separated, and communicate as if we were in the same room.”

The challenges ahead will be very real for leaders in business, but from experience, I know that they are surmountable with focus and intention.

Chris: The interconnected nature of the modern world brings with it countless advantages, but also the very stark reality that a virus like COVID-19 can spread quickly and massively disrupt our way of doing business around the world. In that vein and given the serious nature of this still-unfolding event, we at McChrystal wanted to share a series of key learnings when it comes to building a remote and distributed communication model. This is likely to be a critical part of any large organization’s game plan in the weeks and months ahead.

 This is, of course, what we do as a business at McChrystal. But the COVID-19 problem is one we will all deal with, and an issue that we will solve globally through sharing of best practices. We acknowledge and caution that building out a truly robust Team of Teams model is a long-term endeavor that can take several quarters, but given the rate with which the COVID-19 spread is likely to impact industry, we hope our forthcoming series will offer a starting point that organizations can put into practice should they find themselves in a days or weeks-long situation of remote connectivity.

 Stan: At our core, McChrystal is a mission-driven organization, focused on people performance, and populated by leaders who were raised to put mission first. The singular, global mission we all share today is the quick isolation and irradiation of COVID-19. We hope our insights can serve a small part to that end.

Next Up: Part One – Chris will offer a deep dive into the tools and structures organizations can put in place to build interconnected, but dispersed, teams and limit the disruption that a crisis like COVID-19 can cause.

McChrystal Website: https://www.mcchrystalgroup.com

Stan McChrystal Biography: https://www.mcchrystalgroup.com/people/stan-mcchrystal/

Chris Fussell Biography: https://www.mcchrystalgroup.com/people/christopher-fussell/

About the Author
Stan McChrystal, CoFounder of McChrystal Group

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More Resources:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5