April 10, 2020

The Five Rs of Effective Leadership for COVID-19 Prevention

As a nation, we are great at responding to catastrophic events: we have systems in place that allow us to react to large- and small-scale incidents and near misses.  In an event’s aftermath, leaders will typically attempt to learn as much as they can about how, why, and lessons learned in an effort to prevent future occurrences with like and similar potential.  With COVID-19, prevention requires ongoing learning by keeping up with a variety of sources of data and expertise.  Having a prevention plan in place for your organization is probably already done, but how has your actual COVID-19 response impacted you and your organization’s confidence in your plan?  Is it being executed as designed?   For leaders at every level, whether you’re the plant manager of a plant with 100 employees, or the CEO with an organization of 100,000 global employees, here are five things you can periodically assess to increase your confidence in the plan itself, as well as its execution effectiveness.

1. Right People

Most organizations have already established a governance structure for planning and executing COVID-19 response and prevention plans.  Although the governance team must balance efficiency with effectiveness in this disruptive environment, one of the best areas to assess regularly is the make-up of the team. There should be good representation from the various organizational levels – from the executive level to the front-line worker. Unionized workplaces should include local or international union leaders.  To ensure your ability to leverage the decision making power of a diverse team, consider a mix of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc., for multiple points of view, a necessary ingredient for solid decision making.

2. Right Data

Choosing, updating, and analyzing multiple data sources helps the governance team make data-driven decisions along the way.  Obviously, the CDC and OSHA provide guidance and regulatory updates on a regular basis, but there are several other sources for tracking COVID-19 cases, deaths, etc.  Find one that provides metrics using common denominators (e.g. cases per million people) to ensure apples-to-apples comparisons.  See my partner Kristen Bell’s blog “Making Good Decisions in a Sea of Statistics” for more information on using data.

3. Right Focus

With respect to focus, there are two areas you can assess.  First, it is important your decision making is value based.  Many organizations have documented and publicly displayed “organizational values.”  In these times, these thoughtfully considered values become excellent decision criteria as you evaluate decision options.  Your employees will feel you care when the organization’s value for protecting the health and safety of employees is paramount in decision making.  Secondly, for obvious reasons, today’s focus is to minimize the spread of COVID-19 into your workplace.  It is important to ensure the focus on COVID-19 doesn’t distract from your focus on other serious injury or fatality (SIF) exposures in your workplace.  Those with a mature SIF prevention process will want to re-check their SIF precursors.  Anxiety and distractions during the pandemic can become a significant amplifier to already high-risk tasks.  Put some organizational time towards ensuring your safety controls are still robustly in place and consider additional safety controls where necessary.

4. Right Process

Decision making is a process. Like any process, the steps can be identified, the effectiveness of the steps can be measured, and the process can be improved.  From time to time, it would be helpful for the governance team to assess the decision making process and look for opportunities to improve the following:

  1. Decision triggers – Are there mechanisms in place that signal the need to make decisions? 
  2. Generating options – Is there an effective divergence process in place to help generate compelling decision options?  Refer to the comments about diversity above: do we pull in people with diverse views to ensure we don’t succumb to groupthink?
  3. Options Judgement – Are there objective criteria developed to measure options?  Ensure the criteria is values-based, measureable and data-driven. Is there an understanding of the more common types of cognitive bias that can influence decision making?  Have you built in mechanisms to avoid that bias?
  4. Decision Execution – Again, there are two areas to assess at this stage of the process.  First, communicating and rolling out decisions made is perhaps the most important part of the process and is commonly the step that breaks down most often, and with the greatest negative impact.  Clearly defining the roles of those who must roll out the decision is critical.  Ensure there are regular feedback mechanisms to check that the roll out was effective. Secondly, decision execution is another area where the process breaks down frequently. Again, it is important to create strong feedback mechanisms to ensure the decisions made are being effectively executed.  Leaders must create an atmosphere where it is safe to provide upward feedback, especially with respect to things that aren’t going well or as planned. The governance team can only address problems when they know they exist.

5. Real Accountability

The credibility of leaders and the governance team will hinge precipitously on how well there is follow through and follow up on the commitments made to employees and to the organization.  Here again, it is important to have transparency in communications, effective feedback loops, publicly communicated action trackers and, maybe most importantly, increased leadership presence on the floor.  Social distancing does not mean leaders should stay in their office; now more than ever great leaders display their commitment to their employees and their operational mission through visible, tangible efforts to meaningfully engage the workforce. 

Using the 5 Rs above, you can easily create a self-assessment survey and engage the organization in providing feedback on the effectiveness of your COVID-19 prevention process. 

The Five Rs of Effective Leadership for COVID-19 Prevention

April 10, 2020


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