Leadership Opportunity Knocking

By Sandy Zannino

I wake up daily, wondering what the changes will be.  I’m guessing you do, too. This unprecedented situation is constantly shifting and I think I can safely say that all of us are struggling to keep up.  I’ve been trying to write all week long. Stopping, starting, stopping, starting— like getting on and off a merry-go-round—except WAY less fun.  

Things change so rapidly that I have found it difficult to write about one particular aspect of Human Resources as this crisis has emerged over the last few weeks.  Yet, as I look back at the Facebook Lives I have done since March 2nd there has been one underlying theme.  And that is Leadership. Whether I was talking about how this was an opportunity to be proactive and urging dealers to start coming up with a plan and communicate that plan or if I was encouraging all of us to think beyond this moment and take action in line with our core values and professed “culture”—I was talking about Leadership.  And the opportunity FOR Leadership is knocking on your door. Will you answer? 

We talk about it a lot.  During normal times, we talk about how important good leadership is to our business, to our sales teams and the rest of the dealership.  We talk about how, without good leadership it’s impossible to be the best. But these are not normal times and we find ourselves in a place where all that talk is being put to the test. It is in times of crisis and uncertainty that the leadership rubber hits the proverbial road.  It’s time to step up—well, it’s actually past time, but as they say: better late than never.  

And okay.  You know what?  I’m just going to say this.  If you are one of those “leaders” who is still kind of walking around in the midst of this tornado saying, “look at the beautiful day!”—stop it.  Stop it now, please. Not panicking doesn’t mean to be in complete and total denial.  

Or maybe you are one of those leaders who still operates under the old school, military management style and you are making contingency plans and communicating that plan on a “need to know” basis—stop that too.  You know who you are, and so do your employees, your most valuable asset, knows who you are. The vast majority of people out there are no longer in denial about this crisis.  COVID-19, coronavirus, rona or just plain corona—whatever name or nickname we are giving it—we ALL know it’s here, real, and on a rampage through our country, our world, and our economies.    

We are scared.  Your employees are scared.  Your customers are scared, too.  Your employees and your customers deserve your leadership now.  They deserve your honesty, transparency, and realistic positivity—that we WILL get through this but it is going to be bad.  They deserve to know that you are remaining calm but you are worried and maybe even scared too. They deserve to know what Plan A, B, C, D, E is.  

A few days ago, I saw the video of Marriott’s CEO, Arne Sorenson’s message to his associates.  One of those associates is my nephew, Garrett Zink who is a manager on the Social Impact & Public Affairs team at Marriott International.  Garrett told me that this message made “…a tough situation like we are in now that much more bearable.” If you haven’t seen it you can view it here.  I think this exemplifies the epitome of leadership and is worth the few minutes of your time.  

Arne Sorenson starts out saying, “I’m here to give you an update on the impact of Coronavirus or COVID-19 on our business and the steps we are taking to respond to it.”  Mr. Sorenson’s delivery is calm, collected, serious, kind, sad and hopeful all wrapped in one amazing package. Most of all he is truthful and transparent. No smoke and mirrors here.  

So, if you want a leader-in-crisis template to follow—be Arne.   Follow Arne’s example and maybe even borrow the first sentence of his message to his associates.  I bet he won’t mind. Talk to your employees and customers about the impact of this crisis on your business and explain the steps you are taking or the plans you have made and processes you have put into place.  

As I’m writing this, I feel as if we should all now be planning for the worst case scenario as State after State goes to essential business only.  So, I urge you, be Arne now—don’t wait. What is perhaps the most important Leadership Opportunity in our history is knocking on your door.  

Only you can answer.

Communicate the plan now to your employees and clients.  Explain what essential business only will look like at your dealership.  Communicate the plan if that doesn’t happen. Communicate and communicate often and then communicate again.  Listen to your people’s fears with compassion. One of the things this will accomplish is gaining the respect and loyalty of your employees AND your customers.  Do this so that when this crisis IS over, and our wild, wonderful and amazing industry does what we do best—innovate and rise up—you will be perceived as an employer of distinction with wonderful leadership.  Do this so that when this is over the best of the best in our industry want to come and work for you.