The pandemic brought a new slew of challenges for CEOs and managers of startups: offices closed down, companies pivoted to remote work, and there was a whole slew of challenges in weathering the financial and logistical impacts of the pandemic. But there were also many workplace initiatives throughout the pandemic that exemplified leadership, boosted company results, improved workplace culture, or set an industry example.

Alisa Cohn is an executive coach for startups and companies, including Venmo, DraftKings, and Etsy, and the author of From Start-up to Grown-Up. I spoke to her to learn how stand-out CEOs excelled during the pandemic, and the lessons for founders everywhere. 

Put people before profits 

According to Cohn, stand-out CEOs focused on the health and well-being of their people from the earliest days of the pandemic. This was despite many industries facing financial and long-term uncertainty. 

But instead of focusing on profits, their concern was about their people:

How are our people? Where are they? Are they safe? Are they traveling to visit family? What is their family situation? How are they going to handle working from home? 

Cohn asserts that this was something that great CEOs did spontaneously from the earliest days of the pandemic and continue to do. This helped companies boost morale, improve work-life balance and retain good people.

Regular check-ins 

Regular check-ins between CEOs and leaders with their staff were critical for keeping people on the same page. Cohn explained:

Executive teams invented daily stand-ups. They wanted to make sure that their leaders and managers connected the team, and ensured that everyone felt connected and knew what they were doing.

Part of this was the recognition that there was a lot of bad news in this evolving environment. And people were isolated at home. So keeping in touch was important. 

Develop adaptability and freedom to experiment 

Successful leaders recognized that business was going to be different, said Cohn. Rather than simply bemoaning the challenges, they found ways to use those constraints to drive innovation. 

She gave the example of a startup that recognized it had a whole lot of data that could be valuable in some way. But rather than do an entire project from scratch, and think about pricing and how it would go to market, the team just decided to approach it like an MVP (a minimum viable product). 

As Cohn explained:

They said, we’re just going to use these six data elements. We’re going to price it a little bit based on our intuition, and we’re going to test and see if anyone buys it. And they weren’t sure if it was viable. But people bought it, and they ultimately raised the price and perfected the product. But I think in the past, it would have taken them years.”

But because of the mood of experimentation and having more focus, they could get something great out the door. 

Good CEOs build a good company culture 

Company culture is often viewed as something that needs to be created. But as Cohn asserts, “Any company that exists has a culture.” But one of the biggest challenges to culture during the pandemic has been expansion. 

She gave the example of a company of 100 employees that shifted to working from home. Eighteen months later, they hired an additional 100 people. The challenge was that the founders and the initial team felt like the same company. But new people didn’t have that same context. 

Remote companies need to be really intentional with the culture they want to create. Cohn also contends that culture means two different things. One is that we like each other, enjoy each other, and have good relationships together.

But according to Cohn, it’s also about, “do we give direct feedback to each other? Or do we kind of hold back? Are we proactive people? Is there a focus on valuing speed or thoroughness? Those are the topics that people don’t think about when they think about culture. But either way, in a remote environment, you always have to be much more explicit and intentional about everything you’re trying to do.”

Being mindful of the great resignation

There’s also talk about the great resignation and the need for startups to attract and retain their staff. Cohn believes that great CEOs get a chief people officer if they don’t have one. And they’re thinking a lot about why employees continue to work for the same company. 

The truth is, employees stay at work because of a great manager, someone who cares about me, who is looking out for me and helps me get my work done. The other reason is that they feel fairly treated, including financial compensation.

Therefore, CEOs are focusing a lot on internal mobility and career opportunities, even outside of the regular career path.”

Good feedback

Feedback is also an essential part of feeling valued at work. Cohn shared that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about feedback: 

Some managers think that feedback means being in your face, telling you what you’re doing wrong. That’s not true. Feedback means how you proactively make sure you’re giving positive feedback and supporting someone, and encouraging someone so that the person feels like they’re successful. If they feel successful, they want to stay.

Did you know Alisa Cohn is speaking at the TNW Conference this summer? Check out the full list of speakers here.

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