April 29, 2020

Creating a “We” Culture During COVID-19

Thoughts by Kristen Rhoads, People Engagement Manager

If you play a hand in leading culture development for your organization, you may also be feeling like this time is one of the most dynamic, interesting, and some days, terrifying times in your career. On any given day, I myself have felt a mix of all of those emotions. But I’ve also experienced more gratitude than ever before, because during those emotional days, there’s one feeling I’ve not experienced: loneliness.

At Aileron, everything we do, we do together. Our culture is steeped in collaboration and camaraderie, so in many ways, we came into this experience very prepared. Still, as the past two months have unfolded, we’ve approached the change and uncertainty with unity, and we’ve been very intentional about how we wanted to get through this time – even to the point that we created a cultural vision for navigating COVID-19:

We’re going to get through this together. We’re going to share information openly. And we’re not going to be tremendously formal.

These three main points are driven by our values of community, transparency, and being a “we” organization. By sharing this single vision, we’ve been able to make decisions that align with our desired future state, and we have something to fall back on when we’re feeling decision paralysis.

More specifically, here are some cultural practices we’ve taken on to navigate this time as a collective “we.”

We’re practicing intentional noticing and active listening.

We recognized early on that since our interactions with each other were going to be drastically reduced by not being physically near each other, we needed to be exceptionally adept at picking up cultural cues in other ways. We’ve heavily leaned into noticing what people are talking about, sensing the energy of our interactions, hearing what people are asking for, paying attention to the language they’re using, and collecting other emotional data that can give us insights into how our team is feeling about, processing, and managing this time. I’m excited to see how our new practices of being extra tuned in will continue to serve us, even when we’re back on campus together again.

We’re being intentional about gathering and communicating.

Through intentional noticing, we learned early on that our team was craving togetherness. We immediately created time and space to gather during our morning team huddles, which started out as a daily meeting and have become a three-times-per-week practice as we’ve been agile to meet our team’s changing needs. And since our values include transparency and community, we’ve also created space to be extremely candid about the state of the business and the future, knowing that sharing honest information and keeping people informed fosters community.

We’re making decisions as a “we.”

As we’ve evaluated our culture of decision making, we intentionally determined that as a “we” organization, it’s important that we practice collaborative decision making. This has been the most challenging piece to navigate, but we know that when we choose to operate as a “we” and not as singular individuals, we take on challenges that come with that choice – and we believe it’s worth the work.

At first, we played with making decisions as a single, collective unit – but as you can imagine, that quickly became unsustainable. Now we’ve shifted to a different model: our leadership team, which represents every discipline at Aileron, meets three times per week to discuss important decisions. While decision making resides in each functional area (i.e. our Client Services Manager is empowered to make decisions about service delivery, our Marketing Manager is empowered to make decisions about communications), those decisions are informed by the larger team. This approach gives us time to hear diverse perspectives and discuss how those decisions will impact adjacent teams. Another great by-product is it also builds trust because all voices are heard in the process.

We’re evaluating how we express our values.

The expression of values happens on a spectrum, and we’ve tuned into what healthy values expression looks like in the COVID environment. What formerly felt good might be an over-expression or an under-expression right now, so we’re re-evaluating what feels right for us.

For example, to exercise our value of continuous learning, we’re performing an activity on our morning huddles called the Client Red Dot. We each take a few moments to note where clients are (mentally, emotionally, financially, etc.) based on what we’re seeing and hearing in our interactions. An under-expression of this value might be assuming we know how our community is feeling; an over-expression might be learning just for the sake of learning, without having deeper context or a meaningful way to apply that learning. For us, the Client Red Dot is the right balance.

How we adjust to circumstance is changing by the day. We’re constantly talking about ideas, exploring new practices, and thinking about the future. I’m curious – what has your team experimented with to uphold or enhance your culture during this time? What’s working, and what isn’t? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

April 17, 2020

Making Space for Gratitude

Thoughts by Joni Fedders, President of Aileron

Although highly unnatural, quarantine is starting to feel normal. Our team at Aileron has gotten in a virtual groove, my family has found ways to connect that don’t require physical togetherness, and my emotional rollercoaster is starting to level out. The past week has been a calming, unburdening, very deep, very needed breath. As life has normalized, it’s given me space to see beyond the immediate needs of the present and reflect on gratitude. I’d love to hear what you’re feeling thankful for during this time, too.

I’m grateful for the people on the front lines.

I think it’s important to state from the top that I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who is indirectly impacted. Like many of you, I’m working from my home and isolated from many of the people I love deeply. Though I’m feeling the impacts of the world around us, it’s impacting me in a much less direct way, which has made me so grateful for those on the front lines – for the woman who delivers groceries, for the ER nurse who puts his life at risk to care for patients, for those who must continue to work outside of the house and for everyone else who is giving us the ability to stay safe and distanced. My heart also goes out to those who have personally contracted COVID-19 or have family members who have as they navigate heartache, face very valid fears, and seek out care during this time.

I’m grateful for self-care.

Pre-crisis, self-care might have been perceived as a nice-to-have luxury – something reserved for those with the time and energy to pour back into themselves. But now, self-care is a survival mechanism. I’m glad to see myself and the people I love limiting our media intake to manage our fear. I’m thankful to see us saying “no” and shifting our priorities to prevent (or at least minimize) overwhelm. I’m happy to hear my team members asking each other about their mental health, and talking through their stresses and anxieties and joys together. I hope these healthy ways of caring for ourselves and others persist when the mayhem of normal life creeps back in.

I’m grateful for the lower expectations.

This time has given our team permission to fail, mostly because failure is now a prerequisite for daily life. Doing everything we’re “supposed” to do at the level we previously did is impossible – and with that has come a beautiful freedom to lower our expectations of ourselves and others. As I continue to evaluate whether my pre-pandemic expectations for myself were realistic in the first place, I hope I’ll be more self-compassionate and forgiving of myself and others when all is said and done.

I’m grateful for planting seeds.

Our team is learning at exponential speeds. Out of necessity, we’re constantly trying new things – Zoom happy hours, virtual learning, remote culture management, and more. Some of it is failing, and some of it is serving us better than our previous systems. I know we’ll continue to leverage many of our new processes and ways of working even when life is back to normal.

I’m grateful for consciousness.

All my conscious leadership training is serving me as I step back from my thoughts to examine how they’re manifesting as emotions and actions; simply reframing “the grocery store is out of everything my family usually eats” to “this is a time to experiment with new meals and ingredients” can transform mealtime. Perhaps less trivially, “I am cut off from family and friends,” which was my thought a few weeks ago, has morphed into “now is a time to get creative with how I express care to those I love.” I find peace and joy in the reframe.

If you’re in my boat and you’re curious about how to reframe this experience for yourself and your family, Aileron Leadership Coach Erika Alessandrini just released a video on How to Consciously Shift Your Energy. It includes the principles I fall back on when I’m feeling out of control. If you watch it, I hope you leave feeling empowered by the idea that no matter what uncontrollable forces go on around us, how we process it and react to them is always within our control.

March 30, 2020

Redefining Flexibility

Thoughts by Joni Fedders, President of Aileron

It seems like reality is setting in for many of us in week two of quarantine. Staying indoors, spending time apart from the people we love, and interacting with team members through a computer screen doesn’t necessarily feel good, but it’s becoming more accepted. Settling into this new normal hasn’t been easy. It’s catalyzed a massive period of adjustment for myself and for our team; we’re being called to be more adaptable than ever, and to exercise the practices that support flexibility: patience, compassion, and trust. Internally it requires us to lower expectations, judgments, and, in some ways, intensity.

We’re being patient when kids, spouses, and pets show up to conference calls, and we’re giving people extra breathing room as we all try (and fail) to juggle home life, parenthood, and the stress of our circumstances while doing work. We’re being compassionate as we derail calls about cash flow and operations to share our fears, vulnerabilities and anxieties. And – most importantly – we’re trusting that everyone is doing the best they can.

Here are some more specific ways we’re being adaptable to this new way of working:

We’re being flexible with our expectations

We’re changing our idea of what work meetings look like, and letting people know it’s okay if we hear dishes, dogs, and kids laughing during a call. We’ve found that this has taken away a layer of anxiety people feel when we expect them to be fully focused and eliminate all chaos around them – which isn’t possible right now.

We’re also being flexible with time. In this new environment, it’s unrealistic to think our team is sitting down at 8:00 am and working until 5:00 pm. Heck, that expectation is unrealistic even in an office setting. We’re opting to trust that people are using their time the best they can, and consciously choosing not to add unnecessary stress by creating impractical expectations.

We’re not just being flexible with when people show up, but how. We’re not expecting everyone to show up with a “this is awesome, everything is fine” attitude all the time. We’re reiterating to our team that we don’t have to constantly operate at high energy levels; there’s a place for anger, sadness, and frustration in our daily work. Just because things feel more normal doesn’t mean the emotional roller coaster is over.

We’re being flexible with our virtual processes

We don’t expect the processes and systems we’re using today to last forever. In fact, we’re already thinking about the next iterations of them. Our virtual all-team morning huddles are serving us now, but how long will that last? Our Zoom Friday happy hours are working now, but will they still feel special in two weeks?

We’re giving ourselves space to experiment with new ideas. More specifically, we’re rallying around one idea: Virtual work shouldn’t rely on using video to replace every interaction. We’re thinking about how to use group text, chat platforms, phone calls, and even hand-written mail to create human bonds, and we’re hesitant to rely too much on technology to do the work for us. So far, that looks like giving our team a half a day of vacation time next week to connect with their families and take a break. We’re also exploring the idea of an innovation hour: a 2-hour block of time when we’re all working independently on a passion project, and experiencing connectedness while engaging in individual pursuits.

We’re being flexible with content delivery

Last week we launched a new virtual workshop, Shifting Energy to Lead Change. This project was accompanied by totally new kinds of stress. To start with, we designed this content in one week flat. We also asked people to use new tools and technologies they weren’t familiar with so we could share our content virtually. We all agreed the stress was worth it, because we knew this workshop was something our community needed. So we stepped out on the ledge, used new tools and processes, and experimented in front of a live audience in the hopes that we could help our community navigate the challenges they’re facing. I participated myself, and found it to be an incredible process for sorting out your emotional roller coaster anytime, but especially during this time.

The biggest blessing for me personally has been seeing our team come together to fulfill our mission. I’ve seen in totally different ways what we’re capable of when we rally around an idea. Like how coal becomes a diamond when under intense pressure, our team has astonished me with their ability to use this time to give birth to incredible work. That’s a gift I’m taking away from all the chaos, and a feeling of gratitude that’s going to carry me through the next week.

March 23, 2020

Riding the Emotional Roller Coaster

Thoughts by Joni Fedders, President of Aileron

The past couple of weeks have been filled with ups and downs. Unfortunately, there’s no rulebook or blueprint for how to navigate a global pandemic, rapidly shift how you operate your business, and lead your team through mass, unprecedented, totally unexpected change. I’m feeling the pain. I’m struggling with whether I’m doing what I need to do to support my team and family through this, and I’m processing a wide range of emotions; in a single day, I’ve experienced as many as a dozen emotions, ranging from:

  • Disbelief: There’s no way our country could shut down like this.
  • Anger: Our business and our team have been completely interrupted.
  • Frustration: I thought we were prepared for anything – what do we do now?
  • Gratitude: I’m so thankful for an amazing team, and the way we’ve come together to get through this as a community.
  • Fear: What do I do to keep my family, my employees, and myself safe?
  • Skepticism: It can’t be as bad as they say it is.
  • Relief: I’m grateful to have the flexibility to protect my family and for our team’s grit.
  • Excitement: I’m invigorated by what we can learn from this experience and how it can advance our mission.

Add in there a mix of panic, denial, shock, gratitude, curiosity, and sadness and you get something close to the cocktail of emotions I have been navigating. And I know I’m not alone. Business leaders around the world are facing the same challenges, and we’re all asking the same question: where do we go from here?

To be honest, I don’t know.

I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t know what next quarter looks like. I hardly know what next week looks like.

But I know how we’re going to get there: consciously.

We’re leaning on conscious leadership now more than we ever have. We’re being patient with ourselves and each other, allowing this concoction of emotions to exist, and giving people space to feel them. We’re trying our hardest to not let those emotions control our lives, actions and our organization. And we’re choosing to lead with intention, patience, and love.

Here are some things I’m trying personally and we’re trying as a collective organization. Maybe they’ll help you as you practice conscious leadership in the next few weeks.

We’re meeting people where they are.

We’re focusing right now on acknowledging and empathizing. We’re not tasking ourselves with changing anyone’s energy. That’s not going to be fruitful or healthy for anyone’s emotional processing. We’re giving people space to show up as they are, and that’s where we are meeting them.

We’re being flexible, and we’re experimenting.

I don’t think I even knew what workplace flexibility meant until this week. We’ve totally shifted to a virtual workforce, and are treating this time as an experiment. By doing this, we remove the labels of “good” and “bad” from our experience, and instead focus on what feels right and where there are gaps and breaks in the system. We’re recording key learnings and observations, and logging our personal experiences in a digital group journal.

We’re scrambling, but we’re scrambling consciously.

There’s no way to go through this experience and not scramble. But we don’t have to scramble about everything. We’re scrambling over the things that matter – paying our team, shifting our operational model, and getting groceries, for example – and ignoring the rest. There’s no way to focus on everything, so we’re only focusing on what’s important and urgent.

We’re connecting as a team and as a community.

We’re launching new services to empower our community to connect, and hosting a morning internal virtual huddle. These 30-minute kickoffs have given our team a new routine to rely on. We’re not trying to analyze what makes them successful, we’re just giving people time to connect. We add in mindfulness through personal reflection, and even experimented with group meditation. These meetings have been critical; right now, people just want to be able to connect, because in human connection, we can find peace and be reminded that everything is going to be okay.

I’m going to continue to download my thoughts regularly as we go on this journey together. If you know of another leader who might feel heard or understood by reading this, we’d love for you to share this with them, and we’d love to hear from you.

As you process the past week and navigate the next one, you’re probably working through fear, mobilizing resources in new ways, managing for an uncertain future, and helping your business survive in the hopes of normalization. As you do, we want to be a thought partner, a trusted friend, or even just a listening ear. Complete this form and someone will get back to you within a day to help you develop a plan, process your thoughts, or connect to others who are leading through these changes. When you’re ready, we’re here.