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By: Jacques Couret
By now, most are used to working from home, virtual learning, social distancing, wearing masks in public, frequent hand washing and all the other adaptions the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust upon them. But imagine navigating the “now normal” while wildfires cloud the sky with unhealthy air and destroy nearby houses, businesses and lives. The kids can’t go outside and play, the sky is dark and hazy all day and air quality is a health issue for many. Perish the thought of having to evacuate or losing everything.
This intense physical, emotional and mental drain is daily life right now for many Americans who live on the West Coast, including many of our teams.
In that stressful environment, our San Diego office General Manager Brian Brokowski, Los Angeles office General Manager Wendi Shapiro, San Francisco office General Manager Meghan Curtis, and Portland, Ore., office General Manager Katy Spaulding continue to serve our clients and lead their colleagues, both to our high standards.
They sat down with us and offered some insight into how they’ve helped keep their charges safe, motivated and engaged, and what they’ve learned about themselves and their teams.
Q: How do you lead through this plus the pandemic? What are your challenges?
Brian Brokowski: Stay connected. Talk through the challenges that people have so they realize, and we all realize, we're not alone and we're not dealing with all of these challenges and issues alone. Strength in numbers, comfort in numbers – use that resource of the team and the relationships that we have to get through it together. And just check in on people, make sure they're doing OK.
Meghan Curtis: A couple of things. One, continued flexibility. We've obviously been incredibly flexible since we left our offices in March, but this has just thrown an additional wrench into that. So if folks just need mental health space, we really overtly encourage that. And in all of our huddles, we've actually been pretty vulnerable with each other and talked about what we're nervous about, what keeps us up at night. We know the folks who live in these fire areas or whose families are, and we ask, "Hey, are your parents OK? What's the status?" Everyone's just very in tune with each other and their emotional states.
Katy Spaulding: I love that Meghan brought up the word “vulnerability,” because I think that that's a really important part of this. We have to navigate on any given day being a cheerleader and optimistic and reassure them it's going to be OK, but also read the room and know when it might be best for us to be a bit more vulnerable and to share our concerns. It's definitely a balancing act based on what we feel like the team needs most in that moment. You can't just go through and say, "Everything's going to be fine. Everything's going to be great," which I think sometimes we want to do. All of us have that understanding that sharing vulnerability and sharing some of our personal fears and concerns can sometimes be reassuring for the team that we hear them, we understand them and we're going through the same thing.
Wendi Shapiro: And communication has also been something we've tried to focus on in Los Angeles, because we don't have really anybody coming into the office at all. We haven't seen each other since March and everyone is so busy. And we have our weekly team huddles and I try to call people at random times throughout the week just to say, "Hi, do you have 10 minutes? I just want to check in and see how you're doing and how can I help you?" It’s extending a life raft whenever we can to say, "We know you're experiencing high work volume and stressful life right now, and we're all here to help."
Q: How do you keep our colleagues motivated and engaged throughout all these stresses and inconveniences?
Wendi Shapiro: It’s hard to find motivation when we're all stuck in our four walls much of the day – every day, day in, day out. So, we try to find it in ourselves to motivate each other. We celebrate the littlest to the biggest successes as often as we can. Whether it's someone's birthday or someone's work anniversary or a great coverage that was secured from one of our team members or a client – kudos! Even the smallest thing that might not feel like a big enough deal to celebrate is totally worthwhile. We find those opportunities as much as we can.
Katy Spaulding: I think it goes back to something that Meghan said, which is just giving people the flexibility in their schedules to do what they need to do to stay connected and motivated. There is so much on people's minds outside of what we do at work that it would be impossible to expect them to be motivated and there 120% every single day. So, we encourage them to be in tune with how they feel. And if they need a couple of hours or a couple of days off, they should take it. Now is not a time that you should be pushing through in the way that we sometimes do. You’re not going to wake up every day and be ready to kill it, and that's OK!
Meghan Curtis: Two things. Folks are lifting each other up and being kind to each other, and not in a superficial way by any means. Going back to the vulnerability factor, people are really just looking out for each other. You can feel that in all your interactions in a genuine way. That’s motivating when you know your team cares, has your back and wants the best for you. That's one thing. And then we do bring some levity. We have twice weekly meetings and we show videos, do games and get to know each other. We do these things where people share their life history with photos. It's called a PechaKucha. And it's fun! You might be having a really tough day, but if you can just unplug from clients or your writing assignments for 30 minutes and just have some fun with each other, I think it does re-energize you.
Q: Have you learned any lessons in leadership during the fires? Has it changed you as a leader in any way?
Brian Brokowski: I continue to be floored by the resiliency of the team and their ability to, everyone's ability, to support each other, to step up to the challenge. I get so motivated coming off of our team huddles and listening to everybody's accomplishments and what they're doing. From a leadership standpoint, I had a strong sense of what our teams and everyone as individuals were capable of. I think the notion of what we can do individually and collectively is just so much higher now. I'm just so overwhelmed with how everyone I work with has rallied and responded to the situation, despite all of the challenges. They just keep grinding with positive attitudes.
Meghan Curtis: Dovetailing off Brian, I've always known I can hang with challenging times in the professional environment. And now I'm really learning there's a softer side of me – not only I can grind through the tough, client challenges, new business challenges, the work, but also the people side of the business. I've really softened and become, I think, a more empathetic, better person having to navigate the team and individual challenges.
Katy Spaulding: The wildfires and everything else have just shown me how important it is to have authentic relationships with the people who work for us and with our teams. That's always been something important to me. But it's been, to Meghan's point, even more important now when we ask people to be really honest with how they feel. Having a really strong, established relationship based on trust and listening and trying to help where we can has just created a lot of good two-way communication that enables us to do our jobs even better.
Wendi Shapiro: What everyone has said is 100% true, especially what Meghan referenced. I know our team is great at their jobs and professionally working at a super-high level. But it's not just about, "How are your clients, how's your work? How's your workload?" That’s only half the story right now. There's a lot happening after work hours or that isn't work-related with the pandemic, the fires, social injustice, and the election and politics. Everything has culminated over the past several months to be this perfect storm of needing to be an understanding human, not just a work-bot, and understand all of the elements that make people. The things that impact their lives. I think we have gained a more holistic look at the people we work with, not just from a work perspective, but from a human perspective.