Part I: Leadership Lessons: Leading During Uncertainty (a COVID19 motivated article)

Originally published on LinkedIn:

Reflecting on the past four months, many of us have been faced with a dose of extreme and unexpected uncertainty (health issues/concerns for family and team, organizational issues and working from home, deals not materializing, funding falling through, etc). 

When I think about the past 4 months in the context of Cyclica, while they have been very rough in many ways, I believe that the past 6 years prepared us for the COVID-19 environment. Of course not fully given the unprecedented nature, but definitely in terms of operating in an environment where we kind of expected the floor to fall from beneath our feet. For a long time, it felt like we were digging our way out of a hole (insert clip from a Simpsons Season 5 episode of Homer digging (out of) a hole). Resilience and obstinacy to failure has been inculcated in our DNA. 

Below are the most reverberating lessons that have been reinforced under the COVID-19 working environment (in no particular order besides that which came to my mind first).

i) During uncertainty, especially that which is highly unexpected and completely novel, it may feel natural to take control and create certainty through structure. But, rigidity in the face of uncertainty likely will be calamitous. It’s like being expectedly pulled in by riptide. Panicking and frantically trying to fight it will be futile and drain energy. Adjust the game plan, evaluate options, remain calm, and try something unnatural (i.e. swimming perpendicular to the rip tide) will likely yield better results. One needs to be nimble and flexible to a changing landscape, while also quick to create structure where required. Continue doing the things that worked well, but adapt and be willing to try new approaches.

ii) Achieving the first point enables one to try new things. If there’s ever a time to push the boundaries of discomfort, it’s probably now, when the whole world has turned upside down. At Cyclica, we have new people running meetings. We are trying new meeting formats. We’ve updated internal on-boarding processes. We’ve changed our decks and tried new ways of telling the story. This is not to say that it’s time to throw the baby out with the bath water (as they say), but instead to introspect on opportunities for subtle but potentially impactful changes, and give it a go. 

iii) Communicate, over communicate with your team. It has to be two ways - let them communicate back. As part of our effort to try new things, we’ve increased the number of all hands leadership meetings to 2x a week (from 1x), introduced a quarterly strategy meeting in May to ensure alignment, and maintained our monthly full company standup to preserve transparency (plus it’s wonderful seeing everyone together, even if just virtually).

iv) While a team is looking to the leaders of a company for assurance and confidence, constantly demonstrating confidence or positivity is not always reassuring and can come across as disingenuous. Be vulnerable and fragile. A good leader is not one who is infallible or invincible. 

v) It is important to have deep empathy for the personal challenges that your team may be facing, and truly be understanding to their personal circumstances (i.e. kids at home, significant others not working, general anxiety about the world right now, etc). The standard corporate catchphrases such “value the team, foster positive culture, etc” are put to work and stress-tested. During uncertainty, one's words get tested through actions, and that’s how a leader will be evaluated. That's how it should be. Walk the talk. 

Also, feel free to check out this article that StartUp Health wrote that highlights 8 learnings that I’ve had during the COVID period that I shared with fellow Healthcare Transformers during a monthly StartUp Health call.

Image credit:

Naheed Kurji, Chief Executive Officer

Naheed Kurji, Chief Executive Officer

Naheed Kurji is the Co-Founder, President and CEO of Cyclica. Naheed is passionate about building AI-augmented technologies that enable researchers to make more strategic and informed decisions in Healthcare and the life sciences. He spends the majority of his time obsessing over Cyclica’s culture, defining its strategy to best effect change in the pharma industry to achieve the company’s vision, and exploring opportunities for continued innovation.

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