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Leadership in Pandemic

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As BMO addresses clients during the unprecedented crisis of COVID-19, Andrew Bhak, Managing Director & Group Head of Healthcare Investment Banking at BMO Capital Markets, hosted a call with Chris Fussell, President at the McChrystal Group, to discuss how leaders can adapt to the disruption they and their teams are facing.

Fussell was a Navy SEAL officer who also served as aide-de-camp to General Stanley McChrystal during his final year commanding the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq, working to defeat Al Qaeda. The experience involved synchronizing a network of 25,000 people to work together to combat an elusive threat, and required a pivot from traditional, hierarchical command structures to a model that combined the best elements of bureaucracy and those of highly-adaptable networks. JSOC became an organization that has been described as “remote and interconnected, decentralized and highly structured, geographically separated and singularly aligned.” Following the war, the McChrystal Group was formed to reflect General McChrystal’s and Chris Fussell’s views that the crisis and JSOC’s response surfaced valuable lessons to be shared with leaders and their teams who are pivoting to face any competitive threat or crisis in today’s complex and interconnected environment.

Following are a few of the lessons learned as they apply to leadership in the age of COVID-19:

Hybrid Response Framework

What made Al Qaeda so challenging to defeat, Fussell explained, wasn’t its military might but its ability to spread through a vast population, creating small and independently functioning networks. Al Qaeda, he said, used the information world to reach tens of thousands or millions of people worldwide in real time.

At first, JSOC was unable to keep up with Al Qaeda’s constantly changing nature, because it was still working as a top-down system. “Our methodology (a traditional bureaucracy) of ‘interact, grab information, bring it back through a series of very deliberate decision-making processes’, couldn't possibly keep pace with the rate of change we found in their networked environment,” he said.

“What we eventually needed to become was what we refer to as a hybrid model between these two,” he said. “Learn the lessons and the speed and the way that a network system shares information and decentralizes authorities.” The military responded with a dual structure, where they pulled network methodology up into the system while maintaining the strengths of a traditional hierarchy. 

Empathy in Leadership

In times like this, it’s important for leaders to set the tone, said Fussell, describing this pandemic as a “before and after moment” – similar to 9/11 and even the Great Recession – that will change how we do everything, forever. While most business leaders likely have in their lifetimes been through at least one of these moments, because of their age, they should be sensitive to the fact that many people in the workplace today may have been too young to have been of working age during a past crisis.

“That's critical, for leaders to have a sense of empathy towards that,” he said. “Just hearing a senior leader say, ‘Hey, look, I know how hard this is. I've been through this two or three times in my own career. Here's what it felt like,’ is critical.”

Different people will be experiencing different stressors, depending on their living situation, Fussell said. An employee who is isolated in their apartment with spotty Wi-Fi and financial fears needs to feel like their worries matter, so it’s essential to create the understanding that leadership wants to hear about these things, and that the door is open to conversation.

“Being very structured in how long we're talking, what topics we're talking about, having an agenda where people can see those topics, so mentally we can get as close to being on the same page as possible,” he said, “and then having the discipline around that to allow it to move in a steady and predictable fashion.”
Disciplined Communications and Cadence

Fussell explained that, for JSOC, daily meetings with the option for everyone to attend, rather than just senior leadership, facilitated quicker communication than a cascade of multiple small meetings each day, and allowed for rapid synchronization across the enterprise. The key benefit of this structure, JSOC found, was that it allowed teams to do their jobs and re-convene every 24 hours to review decisions and make adjustments before going back out again.

The cadence of meetings is critical in times when the world is constantly changing, providing an opportunity for organizations to synchronize and ensure their teams are all operating with the same information. Meetings can occur daily, every other day, or weekly, Fussell said, but the idea of the traditional quarterly catchup has no place in a pandemic environment like COVID-19, where variables are much more fluid and change so much more rapidly.

Thousands of employees on a single call might seem daunting, but having a crisp, structured agenda visible to everyone is the key to making this work. That means leveraging all of your digital platforms effectively, Fussell said, to create as seamless and as meaningful a learning environment as possible.

“Being very structured in how long we're talking, what topics we're talking about, having an agenda where people can see those topics, so mentally we can get as close to being on the same page as possible,” he said, “and then having the discipline around that to allow it to move in a steady and predictable fashion.”

What is paramount is to have a narrative that the entire organization can align to and access at the same time, allowing space to effectively make decisions and resync repeatedly on the process and how it is working.

McChrystal: Empowered Execution graph

Ship, Shipmate, Self: We’re All in This Together

There’s a false dichotomy that times of crisis can impose on people, Fussell said, that it’s either about the people or the mission, when, in reality, it’s both.

He drew on a Naval motto that McChrystal Group uses to underscore his point: Ship, Shipmate, Self. This means that, if the ship is sinking, no one is going to survive; therefore, the first thing everyone should consider is the health of the vessel, or the enterprise in this case. The next most important thing is the health of shipmates, which translates to the employees, because, without them, the boat won’t function.

“When you've done all you can for those around you on your team, then you can look to yourself and take care of your own priorities,” he said.

Also critical is that leaders and employees go into all interactions with “positive intent,” Fussell said. During meetings, people may be offended by others’ suggestions, he said, or by what others bring to the table. It is absolutely necessary to reiterate that everyone is coming at the problem with the intent to solve it and that, “we are all in this together”.

As such, problems that arise should be addressed and resolved quickly, including: Why it is relevant; Why it is important to understand; What are next steps; What phase the decision is in; and What can they do to help.

The New Normal

The reality is that life is not going back to normal in a week or two, Fussell said, and we’re likely going to be in the position of needing to work remotely for the foreseeable future, so a meaningful culture will be critical in helping organizations succeed.

Dealing with COVID-19 will not be about downloading our Outlook calendars and continuing the same as before. Executives must become even better at delegating decision-making that does not require their direct attention.

His advice to executives is to think: ‘Here’s our strategy, here are the things that require my sign-off (and that) I need to decide,’ and then force yourself if you're at the executive level to say, ‘Okay, these are the 20 things that I always decide.”

Fussell recommends that leaders push 15 of those 20 decisions down a level, and have their executive teams, and other leaders at every level of the organization, do the same, all the way down to the frontline. To do otherwise puts them at risk of becoming the ultimate bottleneck to getting things done.

The key to the pivot around COVID-19 over the next 12 to 18 months will be for companies to remain true to their purpose.

“Organizations have to think deeply about, ‘What is our North Star that holds us together organizationally and as a culture,’” he said. This will carry the organization even after COVID-19.

For more information on McChrystal Group advisory services, please contact

The views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of BMO Financial Group or its affiliates

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Andrew Bhak Head of Healthcare

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