Leadership in Uncertain Times: Advice From the Seattle Tech Scene

March 25, 2020
seattle space needle
Photo: Shutterstock

When a business selects its leaders, a “proven ability to lead an organization during a global pandemic” is not a traditional prerequisite.

But as the novel coronavirus rattles families, healthcare systems and economies across Puget Sound and the wider world, that’s exactly what executives and team leads are being asked to do. During times of crisis or heightened uncertainty, traditional leadership qualities — communication, influence, team- and culture-building, decisiveness, resilience, problem-solving, curiosity — become more important than ever. 

One thing we can learn from this unfolding crisis is that none of us — as individuals, professionals and companies, but also as communities, nations and economies — are an island. It’s a reminder that, as with all things, humanity is in this together. 

In that spirit, we checked in with leaders across Seattle tech to learn how they and their teams are faring, how they’ve adapted and what advice they have to share with other leaders in the Puget Sound region. 

 

Julie Larson-Green
Chief Experience Officer

As a leader, you are the person people in your company turn to for answers. Who are you looking to for motivation and support? What advice do you have for other leaders who are walking into a world of uncertainty?

I’ve always looked to the managers who are running the teams to motivate me at the same time as I am motivating them. I focus on listening to my team’s concerns and sharing mine so we can have a common understanding. Together, we are setting short-term goals. It’s crucial that it is a collective effort because my role is to help them remove the blockers they consider most important to keep things moving forward. Instead of speculating on what could happen in the future, our focus is on what we can do today.

I also turn to my advisors — my friends to bounce ideas and get their insight. Many have been through different uncertain situations — while building, growing and running companies, dealing with financial crises when funding is stalled or the business is struggling to meet its goals. This is the time in which you need to rely on the people in your organization and in your network, because they will provide you with ideas on how to address the challenges. The best ideas can come from anywhere. Look for ideas that bring empathy and are practical so that you are able to make the tough trade-offs that help employees and the business.

 

Seattle is a strong tech community. How do you think we can help each other in times of uncertainty? What specific advice do you have for the tech community — not just to other leaders or your team, but to our industry at large?

Overall, we need to continue to focus on technology that will help rebound the economy and can have social impact. Consider how your technology can help businesses and people address the issues we will be facing in this new era, and what you can afford to provide at low- or no-cost that will help companies move forward in the downturned economic climate. At Qualtrics, we are focused on experience management and we have implemented a remote work pulse solution that companies are using to understand and improve the experience gaps employees are experiencing, so that they can help them and keep their businesses on track. Think about what your tech can do to enable businesses and people to reduce the impact of temporarily closing their offices, or even their doors. 

 

Over the coming weeks and months, what concerns are you anticipating from your team? How are you addressing them?

I am expecting the unexpected — concerns such as how will we maintain the stability of the business and what actions will that require. If this type of remote working situation continues, how will we accommodate everyone’s different needs? How do we adjust our engagement with our customers and partners in this new era? Right now, we are addressing immediate questions about how to support people who don’t have the proper infrastructure to work remotely, people with children at home and no plans for schools to reopen soon, how do we continue our implementation conversations with customers in a virtual environment?  Our co-headquarters are based in Utah, so we are also dealing with employees affected by the recent earthquake there. We are taking each issue one at a time, and anticipating the challenges and planning potential solutions. We are also being as transparent with the information we have and we plan to continue to do so.

The best advice I can give everyone is to be understanding when it takes a moment for people to respond. Many times we are considering a lot of conflicting information and verifying with stakeholders to make sure we provide the best possible response. At the same time, be cognizant that people need to make decisions based on your guidance — it’s a good thing to say, “I hear you, and we are working through how to address this situation. I will respond as soon as possible.” Open communication both ways, proactive outreach and being open to new ideas are crucial.

 

Jeffrey Spector
Co-founder

As a leader, you are the person people in your company turn to for answers. Who are you looking to for motivation and support? What advice do you have for other leaders who are walking into a world of uncertainty?

Being confined in my house due to COVID-19 has made it even more apparent who I get my energy and support from — my wife, Rachel, an eternal optimist. She has an incredible ability to simplify a complex world, helping me focus on what is most important and most positive. I also feel very grateful for the strong partnership and friendship I have with my co-founder, Mo. Building a company is a tough, at times lonely enterprise and it’s great to have someone to share the work of processing, adapting and leading. 

I’ve spent time researching how leaders and companies I respect are handling this situation and the lessons they’ve learned from similar crises. I am in regular contact with my friends at the Gates Foundation as I know all their actions are grounded in data and science. Microsoft was also early to address the COVID situation and Satya Nadella’s steady hand helped provide comfort that some of our early decisions (like moving to mandatory work-from-home) were the right thing for our employees. 

 

Seattle is a strong tech community. How do you think we can help each other in times of uncertainty? What specific advice do you have for the tech community — not just to other leaders or your team, but to our industry at large? 

There is no playbook for what’s going on right now. Staying in regular communication with other tech leaders will help us all get through these times and keep our sanity. The other day I participated in a call with senior HR leaders from a number of leading tech companies about their response to COVID-19 and came away with several great ideas that we’ve since implemented at Karat. 

I also think it’s important for tech companies to do all they can to support the workforce beyond tech. I have friends who run businesses with physical assets and lots of hourly workers and they are making some of the hardest decisions leaders have to make. 

 

Over the coming weeks and months, what concerns are you anticipating from your team? How are you addressing them?

In this period of uncertainty, we’ve tried really hard to create a psychological safety net for our team. We now have a weekly meeting where all employees can discuss what challenges they are facing related to COVID-19 and how they’re dealing with them. Through these conversations we have a solid understanding of the issues that are bubbling up — health concerns, challenges of working from home, childcare issues, general anxieties and more — and can respond to them as they change.

 

Ted Hawksford
Chief Executive Officer

As a leader, you are the person people in your company turn to for answers. Who are you looking to for motivation and support? What advice do you have for other leaders who are walking into a world of uncertainty?

Our leadership team looks to each other for support. Through the year we have committed to practicing radical candor and transparency — why should now be any different? I have also engaged our board to solicit perspective and advice, and various CEOs and private equity firm leadership have offered their perspectives. I am consuming all I can, and learning along the way.

For leaders, I advise increasing communication to a daily cadence. We are leveraging various channels to keep interest, ensuring the team sees me and knows I am invested in piloting the company through these uncertain times. I also advise offering realistic assurance — for the vast majority of companies, there will be a period of economic contraction that many haven’t experienced in a decade. And finally, leverage technology to keep teams connected, enhance planning and pursue efficiencies. We can all emerge from this stronger, better connected and more productive than before, and the right technology can help.

 

Seattle is a strong tech community. How do you think we can help each other in times of uncertainty? What specific advice do you have for the tech community — not just to other leaders or your team, but to our industry at large? 

Let’s support each other. Is there an opportunity to share resources like a bookkeeping or HR professional to support company operations without the burden of carrying a full salary, or outsourcing to a vendor who applies material markup?

Informal consultation and advice between CEOs may also be helpful. Let’s use these circumstances to motivate gathering as peers to discuss topics facing each of us and help one another make better, more informed and confident decisions.

 

Over the coming weeks and months, what concerns are you anticipating from your team? How are you addressing them?

I’m anticipating uncertainty, which we’ll address via a very active and accessible forum to share, keep people updated and answer questions.

To maintain confidence in company stability, we’ll be transparent about our current financial health and make moves now that preserve our ability to serve customers and enable us to realize our aspirations for the future.

We’ll reiterate our plans for the direction of the company and invite the team to come together to achieve all we have underway. Rather than be distracted, we can leverage these circumstances as a rally point to enhance our focus, sense of team, capacity to collaborate and productivity.

 

Chien Chou
Vice President of Engineering

As a leader, you are the person people in your company turn to for answers. Who are you looking to for motivation and support? What advice do you have for other leaders who are walking into a world of uncertainty?

To stay supported and motivated, I look to the individuals who I respect and can learn from, whether it’s my peers, my manager, my friends or my mentors.

I highly recommend staying calm and having a clear understanding that all this uncertainty is normal. Many of the things that are happening right now are a repeat of previous events in history in different formats. I would also recommend they do their best to have a plan in place when problems and disasters arise. From a technology point of view, how can we ensure our system has high availability and is disaster recovery-ready? Periodically, we need to run fire drills to practice and build the muscle memory to be prepared when these situations arise. 

In addition, with all this uncertainty, there are also hidden opportunities. We need to not only react to the problem or crisis, but to also take a step back and work with our teams to see where the opportunities are. For example, if the global economy is slowing down, we should take the time to clear up our technical debt and prepare for the next phase of hyper-growth. 

 

Seattle is a strong tech community. How do you think we can help each other in times of uncertainty? What specific advice do you have for the tech community — not just to other leaders or your team, but to our industry at large? 

Supporting each other is critical right now, as is having a community around us that can act as a sounding board. For the overall tech community, I always recommend having a buffer in place. In the last 10 years, there has been an illusion that there is unlimited money in the market, but this is not true. When the money stops flowing, those without resources already in place will be left out in the cold. 

We need to return to the basic business model: Does my service or product create value? Can the revenue cover the cost and provide margins?

 

Over the coming weeks and months, what concerns are you anticipating from your team? How are you addressing them?

The major change we are adjusting to is the work-from-home model. Can everyone stay productive in the long-term? We currently don’t see anything dropping — except unnecessary meetings.

Based on the lessons we’ve learned over the past few months from our Asian offices, a longer WFH policy causes significant stress for our employees. We need to learn from this to create proper engagement and support. Our teams are implementing virtual lunches and coffee breaks, keeping cameras on during meetings so people can see each other and keeping regular daily routines. Hopefully, this will all help us get through these unprecedented times. 

 

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