Quarantine Day #????

Captain’s Log: Day—I have no idea—of quarantine. The people of Earth are secluded in their homes, coming out only at night wearing gloves and masks to scavenge for food or stretch their legs….

Okay, I’m getting a little punchy—not because I’ve got nothing to do like so many of my friends and family, but because as an HR professional, I’m busier than ever with all the changes to workplace regulations and the challenges my clients face.

Until the end of last week, I went into my office every day. Don’t worry. I was the only one in the office, since my team has been remote from its inception. Not because I am that forward thinking, but because I didn’t want to pay for more office space.

In my office last week and now in my “home” office (the bedroom of my stepson, who moved to California for a new job a week before the lockdown), I am very busy with phone calls—checking in on my clients, fielding dozens of 20-minute consultations, attending one webinar after another to stay abreast of changes in the guidelines. I spend my days answering questions, to the best of my ability with the spotty information I have, writing countless articles only to rewrite them an hour later because something else just changed. My goal is to get people the best information available to make the tough decisions in the midst of chaos. As a result, my days are spent in frantic motion—texting one client, answering the phone from another, sending a new consult the latest regulations by email, scanning the websites of the Department of Labor and SHRM. Change is the only constant. Well, anger, too. Anger is the other constant.

Not my anger (well, maybe a little, but not at the people who need my help, more at the self-interested whack-a-doodles making my life harder), but just about every person I speak to is angry about something. And not just irked or peeved or irritated, they are ANGRY. They are angry because businesses they’ve built up over a lifetime are coming down around them; they are angry because they can’t take care of the people who count on them; they are angry because they don’t know what their financial condition will be in the short or long term; they are angry because they don’t know what else is coming; they are angry with fear. They need a target for their fear and anger and who better than their good ole HR lady? I try not to hold it against them, but man is it exhausting. I find myself saying over and over: “I’m very sorry. I’m just telling you what I know.” And of course, that just makes them angrier. Better me than their staff or their family, I guess—at least I have the virtual space to protect me.

I have to admit, it’s a bit of a flashback. I worked in leadership in the mortgage industry during the last economic collapse. I performed more RIFs and layoffs then I ever want to think about again. Each one ripped away a piece of my soul. Because I lived through this once before, though, I have gained some knowledge and tools for advising business owners and employees on how to proceed during this crisis, what to expect, and how to cope. I do this well. I offer a calmness during the storm as I stay professional, respectful, and present accurate facts in answer to their questions. It’s a good thing they can’t see my feet under the desk, though, tap-dancing like Gregory Hines.

The Stay-at-Home Executive Order came as a relief. I saw the writing on the wall and worked hard to prepare my clients for this next step, although I don’t think any of them really believed me until it happened. With this hard deadline, the frantic pace kicked up several more notches. By the time I got home I collapse in bed next to my solitaire-playing husband (though grateful he wasn’t on the other side of a Plexiglas window as is the case for many of our health care workers—bless them, bless them, bless them) only to be awakened by a ringing phone before the sun came up what seemed like minutes later. Like many others, I am bone-tired.

I am not telling you this for sympathy or to justify my fatigue. I write this because I know I am not alone. I know for a fact that every one of my clients, every one of the business owners who call out of the blue, and everyone reading my blogs feels the same way—exhausted, strung out. The employees who call me in tears with kids screaming in the background, asking me how to navigate the unemployment website or whether they qualify for FFCRA. The business owners terrified about paying their rent and their payroll—and buying food for their families. Disruption is exhausting. Change is exhausting. Fear is exhausting. We ingest this toxic mix every day.

As busy as I’ve been, I’m feeling the pinch, too. This frantic pace is resulting in little income. A wiser, more successful business owner lectures me on how I’m missing a golden opportunity. That I’m squandering a profitable opening and giving away too much for free. Maybe I am. But I’m okay with that. How can I charge these folks when no one knows where their next check is coming from? I gave a huge discount to my monthly clients for March and April. I choose servant leadership, and I am secure in my decision. My checkbook may not be, but my soul is. To ease the stress on the checkbook, I’m doing the same thing I tell my clients: applying for every grant and loan for which I even remotely qualify. We have no idea how long the crisis will last, let alone when the economy will bounce back. We need all the resources we can get.

All the RIFs I did in the in the mortgage industry more than a decade ago left scars but taught me powerful lessons about myself. The main one is that following orders I don’t agree with hurts my heart. And though I don’t wish these insane economic times on anyone, including myself, here they are, so I’m choosing to see the hidden gift they are giving me. I get a do-over. Now that I’m the owner of my own business and control my decisions and actions, I choose to act in my full integrity. Have I been perfect? Not by any means. But I have been 100% me. I help where I can, even if that is only to listen. I make myself available. I answer my phone every time it rings. I answer every email, and I follow up even when people tell me they don’t really need me. Especially then.

What has truly frustrated me over the last month isn’t the long hours and lost revenue, though, nor is it the tears and anger for and from my clients. It’s the lack of leadership from people and organizations who should know better.

This isn’t a political blog, so I won’t go there. But even in our relatively small-time business world (of course it’s not small time to us—to us it’s our whole world), there is good leadership and there is bad leadership (or no leadership at all). Maybe my standards are high, but now is not the time for selfish, self-aggrandizing nitpicking. Now is the time to lead not just with your head but with your heart. I’m on a crusade. Enough of this charging $10 for Zoom webinar recordings, enforcing membership requirements in business groups for people who don’t know if they have a business, auto-charging renewals without asking for permission. Sure, we’re all trying to survive, and I don’t know what is happening in their world.

But I do know this.

People are truly ill and dying, families are torn apart by distance and illness, and someone somewhere is quarantined with an abusive partner or parent and has no escape. Businesses are hurting, failing, and bleeding money. Unemployment is the highest it has ever been, and the government systems and agencies aren’t prepared for the onslaught. People are scared, cranky, bored, and tired. Life is not “normal” right now, so let’s quit pretending it is. Let’s not ignore the fear, let’s acknowledge it, honor it, and thank it for protecting us. Don’t tell me I am being too dramatic, and quit telling me how you have no control. Do you want to feel like you are more in control? Be a leader. Manners and dignity are more important than ever. You can smile, you can say thank you, and you can check in with people—whether your staff, your friends, or your family. Look for positivity wherever you can find it, and ask yourself how you want to show up. Who do you want to be?

Act like a leader, not a child. Give yourself one meltdown—okay, maybe two (but don’t take it out on people who can’t defend themselves, whether for social or financial reasons.) Then pick yourself up, dust off, and get back to work. I heard this great inspirational wisdom a long time ago and I’ve tried to follow it ever since. What does a pilot do when they face an emergency? They fly the plane. I’ve heard no more profound definition of leadership under stress than that. When things go awry, keep flying the plane. If you’re the leader—whether you are the business owner, the division president, the team lead, or simply the head of the household—you are the pilot. Fly the plane.

That would have been a suitably dramatic ending, but I have a few more thoughts on leadership. What do I mean when I say act like a leader? I mean own it, whatever it is. Accept responsibility. We are not responsible for the virus or other people’s sometimes questionable responses to it, but we are responsible for showing up every day. I am a firm believer in business karma, and this is a good time to accumulate it. Answer your phones, make it easier on your clients and workers. Guide others, be generous with praise and knowledge and time. Don’t snap at people and order them around. Work with others in a cooperative fashion, but don’t be afraid to make decisions. Give thanks, focus on gratitude, and lead others on the same path. Listen, think things through, and lead with your heart.

If we all learn to lead with our hearts as well as our heads, maybe we can heal more than this devastating illness. Maybe we can change the world.