“I’m disappointed; just sad right now,” says Christina Stembel. “But we have to lead through this.”
Stembel, the founder and CEO of Farmgirl Flowers, a San Francisco-based bouquet-delivery service, echoes the sentiments of many entrepreneurs across the country about how they are reacting to the lack of a decisive outcome in the 2020 presidential election. One common refrain is that they are increasing the frequency of communications with their team–and monitoring how employees are feeling. “This is a moment when transparency and empathy matters,” Stembel says.
Steve Cody and the leadership team at his 50-person New York City communications firm, Peppercomm, had prepared emails to the staff for three possible election outcomes: a decisive Biden win, a Trump upset, and “uncertainty.” Wednesday morning they had to hit send on the latter, letting employees know the company was monitoring various sources of information, and would relay insight–and providing resources for employees experiencing emotional distraction or needing flexibility. It informed them that Peppercomm had created a microsite on its internal communications platform for employees to discuss the razor’s-edge election.
Warby Parker’s executives, too, sent their staff an email Wednesday morning addressing the fact that results may not be known for some time–and framing uncertainty as something both the country and the company had gotten through in the past. “While we expected this year to be different because of the number of voters who took part in voting by mail, that can still create anxiety among individuals and our team,” Dave Gilboa, the co-founder and co-chief executive, says.
Acknowledging your staffers’ peaking stress levels, heightened distractions, or exacerbated feelings of isolation doesn’t have to be complicated. “Team members want to hear from leaders; they want acknowledgment of what’s happening around them, and that this is going to be a challenging period,” Gilboa says.
Cody says 2020 has honed his communication skills–and the nature of a challenging business environment during an economic slump and pandemic has taught him that people-first leadership is becoming the new normal. “If you cannot keep your employees engaged and motivated, and their morale up, you will suffer,” he notes. “Your quality will suffer and you will lose business.”
It’s during times of uncertainty like this week that leaders can be defined by how they react. “The individual entrepreneur is being judged by how they comport themselves, and how they are dealing with the stress and uncertainty and how authentic and vulnerable they are,” Cody says.
Conveying a sense of calm fortitude may sound like a cruel joke–after all, the distraction-laden unease isn’t limited to those outside of the C-suite. Ginny Whitelaw, a former NASA scientist and founder of the Institute for Zen Leadership in Madison, Wisconsin, says it’s important to calm yourself before tackling team communications. “The leadership signal we send out is highly contagious. If we’re all hyper-excited, no one is going to believe us,” she says. “If we can connect with another person, we are plugging them into that state of calm. That connection eliminates that feeling of separateness and aloneness.”
At Bite, the toothpaste company in Los Angeles, the five-person virtual team was in near-constant text communication through Tuesday evening as results came in. But by Wednesday daytime, founder and CEO Lindsay McCormick says it was clear anxiety had set in–and her team members tried to counter it: “Now it’s a lot of dog memes and things to keep the mood up.”
McCormick is acknowledging that the constant electoral news is a distraction, and isn’t just offering time off to employees who need it–she’s actually pushed off important decision-making to next week.
“We’ve been embracing the crazy. We’ve packed our days with things that can be done on pseudo-distracted days,” she says. “We have calls about things that could be good for our company–but things that don’t take a ton of creative stamina. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, this is a distracting time.”