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3 Ways to Tell You Lead a Responsive Team in Times of Crisis

By: Natalie Hall on May 4th, 2020

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3 Ways to Tell You Lead a Responsive Team in Times of Crisis

Organizational Leadership & Change Management  |  District Leadership

There is a strange contrast between moments during this time. I wake up with the sun, hearing the birds chirping and families playing with their young children outside. Then, during my near-daily walk around my neighborhood, I offer a timid hello to those I pass. Our eyes meet, and I see the corner of their eyes turn up while the rest of their face is obscured by a mask. We both move in our opposite directions down the sidewalks, and life carries on - and so does the work at Education Elements.

Every day, I speak with my co-workers and various clients about this very contrast: the eerie stillness of the world, marred with the daily chaos of the past month. During these internal and client-facing conversations, my teammates and I have noted a distinct trend in district teams that persist through the flurry of fast-changing information, frantic phone calls, the constant news-cycle relatively unscathed.

The following three trends are what we believe can help a leader better discern if she is managing a team that is responsive.

Your team addresses the community’s immediate needs, sometimes when it is risky - and sometimes executes imperfectly. 

Zoom - UT Video Conferencing, Web Conferencing, Online Meetings ...Recently, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan came forward to admit to the company’s mistakes and mass oversight in establishing security measures to defend against ‘Zoombombers’. In short, Yuan admitted that he had ‘really messed up’. If you are a Zoom user like we are at Education Elements, you may have noticed the platform now prompts you for a password before entering certain calls. This small tweak is having a major impact on users like me, and is making my user experience that much more secure.

DISTRICT CASE EXAMPLE: Districts have already begun to respond to this as well. One district in New Jersey has an entire web page dedicated to "zoombombing" resources. Quick links dedicated to disabling screen-sharing and chat features, and setting a meeting password for zoom calls are all the top of family, staff, and students’ fingers. Beyond this corner of their COVID-19 website, this district has a team dedicated to consistently updating community-facing information. This team was quickly formed, and meets consistently to determine national trends to share with the greater community. Want to learn more about forming teams during this time? Keep reading!

Related Reading: Aim for Safe Enough to Try

You form teams quickly, and adjust them often. 

When Education Elements realized that COVID-19 was going to affect us dramatically, we sprung into action. Our CEO Anthony Kim put out a call to action for those who were interested in joining a response team, to do so. Almost overnight, my peers began developing plans: Google spreadsheets documenting which clients had been affected and to what extent, drafting one pagers, webinar ideas, and launching new Slack rooms. All of these new streams of work required teams, and team leaders to ensure we are best meeting the needs of our district partners and teammates. 

Within a week we had a definitive look into how districts were impacted. We knew who wanted to continue work immediately, and who needed a few weeks of breathing room before resuming work as planned. This insight allowed us to better prioritize what to build for clients, and gave us the brain space to pursue passion projects to address this unique time in the education space. 

These teams have changed. Some who began the work have rolled onto other teams, while many teams have grown in size given the number. We now have an established ‘Pivot with Covid’ team, with designated leads that report out to other smaller teams focused on market research, virtual conference planning, and much more. 

Our company culture is one that encourages purposeful action - not action for action’s sake. For instance, when making decisions about what projects or teams to join during this time, Anthony, our CEO and founder, encourages us to consider the following: what would make us happy as individuals? What would serve the company overall? What would serve our clients? Using these guiding principles allows us to narrow down the plethora of internal initiatives and exciting client-facing opportunities that come our way, both during this time, before, and afterwards.

DISTRICT CASE EXAMPLE: One district in North Carolina, realizing that information was changing on a weekly, if not daily basis, has released a daily communications brief to all staff. This document not only keeps individuals informed; it also empowers teams to form (and reform) according to the fast-changing tide of information. In New Jersey, one district is thinking about how to repurpose existing teams to tackle immediate news, medium-term challenges (i.e. school close-outs, graduation, etc.), and long-term strategic planning. In doing so, this district is also considering the appropriate mindsets and skill sets necessary for various teams, at various times.

Related Reading: Define the Work Before the People

Your team takes many moments to consider: ‘What from this time can we take with us? What can we leave behind?’

Often while operating in crisis situations, we noticed teams neglect to pause and reflect on essential learnings they will take with them post-crisis. Internally, we sometimes struggle with this at Education Elements - the inertia of a larger project can sweep us into a frenzy of planning, booking travel, and scheduling meetings.

What we have learned from ‘The Great Pause’ is that while in the moment, a lull in constant action can feel like an inane and inefficient use of time - it is actually the crux of iteration. On projects, we schedule hour long internal ‘step backs’: protected time to reflect on progress made and challenges faced on projects. With clients, we host Retrospectives: sessions exclusively for reflecting and goal-setting.

DISTRICT CASE EXAMPLE: There are many districts who have moved through ‘crisis mode’, and are now operating in a space of building, iteration, and reflection. A distinguishing feature of districts who are in this phase is their intentionality about reflection, and forward thinking. One district that comes to mind is explicit in their goal of “[we are] not aiming to create online teachers; we are setting up systems to teach from home”. Knowing full and well that in a post-COVID world there will still be instances where students may need to learn from home (i.e. sick days, suspensions, etc.) this district is looking for the nuggets of learning they can take from this time to build long-term continuous learning systems. 

What does this look like in action? District leadership is actively brainstorming ways to engage with the community to collect learnings from this time. Online forums, VideoAsks, and other platforms have all been optioned for potential means of gleaning insight into what is truly sticking with the community and could work for students long-term.

Want to learn more about how other districts are functioning and managing a crisis? Be sure to check out our series, Educating Through COVID-19: Responding to Change, with webinars and resources that have a special focus on Leading Through Uncertainty.

Also deepen your learning and professional development while social-distancing with our upcoming virtual conference on Responsive Leadership and Team Habits in the age of COVID-19!

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About Natalie Hall

Natalie Hall is a Design Principal on the Design and Implementation Team. Natalie comes to Education Elements with experience as a middle school reading and ELA teacher, and as a consultant in the private sector. With the goal of marrying her passion for education with her well-established consulting background, she comes to Education Elements with an excitement to partner with school and district leadership to develop and implement strategies surrounding technology and curriculum implementation. Natalie graduated from Duke University with a B.A. in Public Policy Studies.

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