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Google’s Simon Kahn: reflections on leading in the time of Covid-19

Over the last several months we have been caught in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. I have led teams through two other global crises—the September 11th attacks and the 2007-2008 financial crisis—but nothing on this scale. Markets have closed their borders. Economies have scaled back. “Lockdown” is a part of our global vernacular. Life has changed dramatically and we are all adjusting to a new state of normal that will have lasting effects on the world as we know it.

The pace of change has intensified and there is a tension between the need to make a fast decision and the consequences of that choice. This is hard. In some ways, operating in crisis brings me back to the culture shock I experienced when I first moved into the tech industry nine years ago. The transformation was happening at lightning speed and I had to adapt to higher degrees of uncertainty. There was no roadmap to tell us where the digital revolution was going just as there is no roadmap to tell us how this pandemic will unfold. While the COVID-19 crisis is not the same as the digital revolution, I have found that the lessons from the past have helped me cope with the unpredictability of the present:

Be mission-driven

A core element of my job is to create a north star mission that helps my team understand why our organization exists and why we should take action. In a crisis, the need for a clear and focused mission is more relevant than ever. The north star acts as a source of inspiration and once the team has that mission, how they achieve it is up to them. Under normal circumstances, my team might wait until every stakeholder aligns on an approach before moving forward. However, this is not a luxury we can afford in an environment that is dynamic and changing quickly. In a crisis, there is absolutely no way I can know everything and nor should I. By equipping my team with a few principles, I can then trust them to fill in the gaps, exercise good judgement, and do what is right.

Embrace the uncertainty

Once I establish the mission, I empower my team with the authority to make decisions and pursue their ideas (so long as they contribute to the mission!). With a limited amount of time and information, risk is unavoidable. The reality is that we need to move swiftly and stay agile. As we pivot our in-person events to digital-first formats, we have an opportunity to experiment with alternative forms of engagements and find new solutions for us to stay connected while apart. Creativity can thrive in constraint. Agile teams, with the ability to adapt to new challenges and arrive at decisions despite imperfect information, will help the organization get to better outcomes more quickly.

Be open by default

In the past few months, we have all had to make hard decisions. From cancelling important campaigns to delaying launches, we are all learning how to operate in an ambiguous environment. As a leader, I have a responsibility to be as transparent as possible about the context of my choices. It is important for me to keep the channels of communication open by encouraging my team to share their feedback, ask questions, and express their concerns. I try to spend time with my entire marketing organization at least once a month with dedicated time for candid Q&A. Not only do these sessions help me gain a better understanding of how the team is feeling, but they also offer valuable input that can be a starting point for change.

Invest in people

Above all else, the crisis is a reminder to be kind—to others and to ourselves. As human beings, we are all connected to a common planet with common problems. As we have adjusted, we have found ways to stay together while apart. However, feeling anxious or afraid is not only normal, but it is also realistic. We should give ourselves the permission to deal with our emotions and to take a breath when we can—for me, it means binging on Netflix and chocolate chip cookies.

It has been a difficult and extraordinary year and it is likely that there will be more curveballs to come. We will be talking about 2020 for decades—all the more reason to reflect on reference points from the past and leverage our learnings to shape the way forward.

Simon Kahn is chief marketing officer, Asia Pacific, at Google.