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How to be a Better Leader in a Crisis

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Surely you’ve attended a wedding. One where, during the reception, a toast from a prominent member of the wedding party, greatly anticipated by all present, begins with that most hated, most clichéd of phrases: “Webster’s Dictionary defines marriage as….” And like everyone there, you groaned and maintained a polite smile on your face. 

Of course, a dictionary is an excellent place to go for a starting point. “Leadership,” as defined by Webster’s dictionary, is “the position or function of a leader, a person who guides or directs a group.” But should we limit our understanding of leadership to the dictionary? Should we even restrict our respect for the concept of leadership to politics, entertainment, or technology? After all, something fairly significant has happened in the last two years that has altered, perhaps forever, how we connect and what we seek in, and expect from, a leader.

Covid-19 has affected us in ways we cannot always see. Friends of mine, who worked in retail and restaurants, reported levels of despair heretofore unseen. Their supervisors and managers are often unable to look them in the eye or give them information or comfort, or reassurance. Writer friends were petrified when their editors asked them to go out and find a story because this was at least a year before the vaccines were made available. For most of the pandemic, I was working as a teacher, and everyone in my district’s hierarchy that had “leader” in their job title was struggling, sometimes visibly on our Zoom calls, to hold it together. It didn’t help that one by one, we all came to know someone who had become seriously ill or had died during the pandemic.

Leading Sales Teams during Covid-19

It is with these memories in mind — as well as our ever-evolving daily reality — that I contacted two sales directors. Both friends of mine whom I’ve known for many years via social media. Both happen to work in liquor distribution: Tara Simmons is in Tampa, and Andy Arrington is in Fort Worth. Both are the top sales directors at their respective companies, and both love their jobs. Both had a lot to teach me about leadership, especially the way the practical realities of their work had to evolve in real-time, along with their emotional and social approach to their jobs and teams.

Cirrus Insight. Manager assisting a subordinate on the computer.

Andy began with the nuts and bolts of leadership in a time of crisis. I asked about his most crucial concern when the pandemic first hit, in spring 2020: “Our company historically does a lot of business with bars and restaurants so when everything closed in March 2020 the leadership team's first priority was ‘Can we adapt to a new business model fast enough that none of our people lose their jobs?’ And I am very proud to say we did accomplish that.” 

Like Andy, Tara was concerned about logistics but was equally concerned about the wellbeing of her team: “Over COVID I realized managers that rely on micromanaging and pressure are only suited to growth periods and if that is the case just how much of it is them and how much is the economy itself.”

Indeed, it became clear from my interviews with Tara and Andy that, as they implemented new ways of doing business safely, they actively monitored morale, and instituted methods by which their team could, for example, relay concerns during check-ins. For Andy, this wasn’t easy: his team grew in both 2020 and 2021, but “it was touch-and-go to pivot like that, not just to keep sales numbers up, but also to make sure everyone was able to stay busy enough so morale didn't suffer without compromising everyone's safety.” Tara put it even more plainly: “It is pretty simple: if my heart drops whenever you call me, I am not going out of my way to work hard during a pandemic when the profits for me and you are likely marginal. Managers who trust employees and give them independence make you want to do well.

Supporting Your Sales Team

Sales is a tough job on a good day. Trying to sell something that isn’t Lysol or Purell during a pandemic is probably even tougher. Despite the once-in-a-lifetime nature of the obstacles posed by Covid-19, Tara is still committed to the insights she’s gained from her work thus far. Like many sales directors, one of her biggest priorities is “team collaborations, i.e., salespeople working together sharing insights on what works for them. Encouraging them, rather than you just always telling people how you think things should go, will produce more results.” She also believes in the value of setting basic, realistic goals as a far better way to get growth, as opposed to impossible goals that accomplish nothing but increase the stress levels of your entire team. Careful calibration of expectations encourages growth without making everyone hate you. “If you set a goal of 100 cases on something that trends indicate can only sell 20 cases,” she said, “your team will not try. If you set it at 30 cases, you’ll sell more than you did at a 100 case goal.”

Cirrus Insight. Employee talks during a meeting with hand motions.

Much like Tara, Andy knows the secret to effective sales is ensuring the wellbeing of your salesforce: “Sales is a people business and you cannot lose sight of that. If you are taking care of your customers, your suppliers, and your sales team, you will have success. Everyone is always under some kind of stress to perform, but squeezing an extra nickel out of a customer or a sales rep in a way that damages your long-term relationship with your team or your customers will ultimately end up costing you.” 

When I asked both of them about how they shared their insights with team members, Andy invoked, in a way, Aretha Franklin’s greatest hit: “A culture of respect is critical. If your people—customers, suppliers, reps, all of them—know you respect them, they will go to war for you. And I don't mean a Mickey Mouse, lip-service kind of respect. It is a given in our team that the only real mistake you can make is not disclosing your mistakes. The team knows leadership has their back unconditionally as long as they stay forthright in turn. And when it comes time to defend your people—whether to customers, management, or whomever—don't throw them under the bus. Accountability starts at the top and you can't disown your team's (hopefully limited) mistakes while getting bonused on their sales numbers.” If only my former employer—the local public school district—could back teachers with anything resembling Andy’s level of empathy and concern!

It’s not just respect that allows a team to come together. For Tara, fostering a collaborative environment has to respect the various moving parts of each team member’s life. Adding fear to work expectations, during an already fraught time, doesn’t help. “It starts with an approach to management that doesn’t make you seem like a big scary boss. Then you encourage people to be open with you and their teammates. Encouraging collaboration isn’t possible if people are generally scared of you at all times. And if they hate you, they’re mainly collaborating on what a bad boss you are.”

Instill Inspiration Instead of Fear

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Let me tell you, every desk job I’ve ever had relied on cranking up the fear of the workforce up to 11. Whether it was a way to get higher sales numbers, a larger number of tasks cleared, or just a large volume of positive interactions with clients, every metric kept pushing my stress levels higher, every single day. What purpose did that serve? Sure, I was scared and upset, and maybe I hit those numbers, but at what cost? My resentment of my bosses found new, terrible depths, while simultaneously killing the energy levels I needed to function at a baseline level. Who won, in this situation? I don’t work there anymore, so sure, management got their daily numbers, but they lost a good employee. Was it worth it?

Let’s consider how Andy and Tara transfer their work as sales directors into briefs and reports to their supervisors/managers. At her previous job, Tara dealt with a genuinely frightening protocol to address issues at work: “Sales meetings at my previous job sales meetings were an airing of grievances by managers, followed by an airing of grievances by employees.” But at her present company, the monthly sales meetings, Tara reports, are very different: “Now we have a portion to go over numbers, go over current goals, go over new brands, and at every step we stop for input from the team that we actually take into consideration and send up the chain to corporate. People at the top are so removed from the day-to-day business that if you don’t share info both ways, they really miss what’s happening.”

Sales Leadership Affects Your Customer

What is the role of customer relations in all this? Andy’s belief about how his business has changed during the pandemic mirrors his policies with his team: “The culture of respect comes into play here, and it permeates down to the customer relationship. Of course, we're proud of the products we represent and the services we provide, but the essential truth that isn't said enough is that people buy things from folks they like. You don't have to be on your customers' emergency contact card, but we do try to make our interactions with customers be the best part of that person's day.” 

Cirrus Insight. Sales insights on computer screen.

I chuckled when I read this bit. At my last desk job, I endeavored to personalize the calls I had with clients daily. I memorized phone numbers to answer the phone with the client’s name. I worked quickly for them as we chatted, and I remembered details about their lives and asked them how their families were, how their ill pet was doing, or when the in-laws were due in town. I took pride in my memory and that when I answered the phone, I did not make the client feel like they had to deal with a robot. These personal touches would cause clients to request me when they rang my department; if I were on another call, they’d wait for me to be free. Ironically, these same efforts were listed as flaws in my business demeanor during my annual review. I was to stick to a script and eliminate what clients liked about me from my work. Ain’t that the way?

A Changing Sales Landscape

No one on Earth has been immune to the changes Covid-19 has wrought in all our lives since spring 2020. We’ve changed where we go, what we do, how much time we spend outside of our homes, how we clean, how we shop. How do these individual changes transfer to a sales team? Crises can affect us all differently, but there are areas of our lives where we don’t have a choice but to work with others. Andy had an interesting take on this: “Covid for us was like the old saw about crisis and opportunity looking a lot alike. We were willing to take some educated risks; mostly, they worked out, but also, we were willing to be flexible on the fly and adapt while finding new customers and trying new ways to service them. Everyone had to pinch-hit in unfamiliar roles, and now some people are finding that the entirely new role they only had to try out because of covid is now the new direction they want to move their career. 

Cirrus Insight. Team works on planning using a whiteboard and sticky notes.

When a good work culture is in place, people will tell you what they like about their jobs. And good Sales Managers will respond by giving it to them. Due to Tara and Andy’s diligence, their teams are doing better than ever. Tara has approached team interaction time with a straightforward solution: “We’ve been getting rid of in-person meetings and doing them over Zoom. We still cover the same amount of information over Zoom.” As it turns out, the path of least resistance—Zoom, empathy, respect, check-ins—is also the path to continued sales and success. Andy and Tara are seasoned veterans. They believe in themselves, especially in their ability to direct a team. But they’re now keenly aware that since business is continuing, albeit with significant changes, the way they work must change too. 

Oddly, this reminded me of the Sony hack back in 2015. I lived in LA at the time, working in film/TV post-production, and no corner of Hollywood went untouched by the hack. People were terrified of emails and memos and documents winding up on servers or in the Cloud or on phones. So they started sending faxes and conducting in-person meetings. Everyone had to physically be in a room with another person to ensure an almost perfect level of safety. Everything became more personal; the industry slowed down a little, to talk, to travel to colleagues’ offices, and hammer out details face to face. Sure, covid makes most of that inadvisable, but the effect is the same: we talk more now—we check in. We open up, we share. And that, whether in sales or entertainment or any other industry, is never a bad thing for leaders to strive for in their organizations.

Nandini Balial

Born and raised in New Delhi, India, Nandini emigrated to Texas with her family in 2000. While attending New York University, she interned for New York One, BBC America, and the International Emmys. After graduating in 2014 with a degree in cinema studies, Nandini made an ill-advised move to Los Angeles to work in post-production. After ten years in various parts of the country, Nandini returned to Fort Worth, where she grew up, and currently works as a writing tutor to immigrant and refugee high school students in the public school system. Her chief interests are her dog Apollo, baked goods, television, American literature, mass transit, and leftism, not necessarily in that order.

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