The global outbreak of COVID-19 has created significant challenges for leaders around the world. Adding to the chaotic trifecta of a global pandemic, economic crisis and civil unrest, most of us are dealing with some level of “information overload.” Those we lead, however, are looking to us for answers. In a recent 10-country study by communications giant Edelman, workers said their employers were their most trustworthy source of information, scoring them 27 points higher than the government or media outlets.
“The moments when leadership matters most are in times of uncertainty and change,” says Marillyn Hewson, current chairman, and former president and CEO of Lockheed Martin. “People crave information…Leaders have to speak up.” But, how do we communicate in a way that doesn’t add to the noise? According to Hewson, with openness, compassion, and reassurance.
In 2005, Lockheed Martin’s Systems Integration business unit, under Hewson’s leadership, won the multibillion-dollar contract to build the next fleet of Marine One VH-71 helicopters. Four years into the contract, however, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates abruptly cancelled the program. Loss of the contract meant nearly 1,000 layoffs—roughly one-quarter of the Systems Integration workforce. Company precedent was to handle news of this sort via internal memo and managerial meetings, and for department managers to handle breaking the news to those affected. Hewson, however, handled things differently. Adamant that every employee had the right to stay informed, Hewson regularly held town-hall type meetings in the auditorium, where she openly communicated the situation as it developed, allowed any employee to ask questions, and provided straight answers.
But, she didn’t stop there. When the time for layoffs came, Hewson personally communicated her commitment to helping those affected find employment. She went beyond the standard severance package, providing professional development courses and hiring specialists to help interested parties polish their resumes and practice their interview skills. She hosted job fairs, with representatives from other areas within Lockheed Martin and outside the company, and provided as much information as she could to help people replace the jobs they were losing.
Finally, instead of simply cutting back and resuming business as usual for the other programs within the unit, Hewson worked with her leadership team to establish a new plan of growth, with the goal of replacing as many of the lost community jobs as possible. She shared this plan, in detail, with every company employee and held webcasts and group meetings where people could ask questions on any subject and receive answers. “We wanted to reinforce with the team that our mission was their mission,” she said, “and we wanted them to see that we were capitalizing on change to build a great future.”
Years later, employees still positively remember the way Hewson handled the crisis, saying they appreciate how she openly communicated with them, and that her approach helped them to stay calm during a confusing and terrifying time. In periods of uncertainty, it can be tempting to remain silent. But Hewson’s example shows us that leaders who communicate openly, compassionately, and with optimism provide their employees with the confidence they need to get through any crisis.
In this time of work-at-home stress, we hope you, as a leader, will reach out to your employees more than ever before. Listen to their concerns, and keep the channels open.
For more inspiring leadership lessons, we hope you will join our online courses, designed to fit your new work schedules. Give us a call and tell us what you and your employees need. We can create an immersive learning program, linking historical examples with your workplace issues.