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Leading Through Abnormal Change

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Recently, much attention has been spent hypothesizing about how the final phase of recovery for COVID-19 will manifest and impact the future in the New Normal. That focus on the New Normal, however, is premature. In fact, the next phase of the COVID-19 crisis will be the New Abnormal.

This New Abnormal will occur between the moment when lifting of lock-down restrictions begins across communities and when viable treatments, vaccinations, or antibody tests become readily available. It will be marked by continued feelings of anxiety and uncertainty: as communities begin reopening, new “virus hot spots” may emerge, keeping people on edge. Through the New Abnormal, the global economy may need to weather several iterations of opening up communities only to lock them down again, and business leaders will need to absorb oscillating levels of anxiety through this phase of the crisis.

Managing Yourself

Leading effectively through the New Abnormal requires a high degree of empathy and personal engagement as you seek to support others through uncertainty. This crisis is akin to an 800-meter sprint—long and fast and requiring a high psychological and cognitive fitness level. Anxiety is contagious, and leaders will be responsible for off-setting anxiety across the employee population by absorbing it themselves while projecting as both calm and transparent. This requires leaders to recognize and manage their own “cognitive and psychological load” through their own stress release processes, including exercise, scheduled breaks from work, etc.

Managing Employees

As we push towards the New Abnormal, it is critical to recognize that the health and wellbeing overlay amplifies instability employees feel in the face of COVID-19. Each employee will view the developing crisis differently. As a leader, it is important to recognize the personal journeys unfolding throughout the crisis and remain focused on doing what is right for the business. Some employees will freeze, becoming increasingly unproductive. Others will struggle in the transition to working remotely. On the other hand, a select group of employees will maintain ambitions for the business and continue driving outcomes. It will be critical to identify your “wartime leaders” quickly, so you can support and empower them to continue driving outcomes.

High levels of ambiguity within the New Abnormal will translate into individual and group-level demands for certainty from leadership. This means as a leader, you must set a tone of certainty while maintaining a transparent perspective that nothing is fully guaranteed. To do this effectively, set context and communicate with your audience at an increased rhythm, be cautious of what you commit to, and ensure you continue to view your employees as your most valuable asset, because once you lose their followership in a crisis it will be nearly impossible to gain back their trust.

The anti-social nature of COVID-19 is apparent in public, where people’s fear and anxiety are resulting in new social norms. When the world begins to unlock, this fear will likely have real implications for company cultures, as employees will be afraid of coming to work and of interacting with each other. To combat this fear and encourage social connection, it will be important for leaders to shift the narrative from “Social Distancing” to “Physical Distancing.” Leaders must communicate that shift while retaining safety and well-being as the focal point. People should and need to be able to socialize and engage with colleagues.

Managing the Business

Leaders must recognize that the old order will not return quickly and should reprioritize their business imperatives to fit within the context of the New Abnormal (not to be conflated with the “New Normal”). Adjusting the go-forward strategy for the New Abnormal will require leaders to remain highly attuned to the global patterns and reactions of their suppliers, so they understand how ongoing business interruptions will affect and shape the flows of commerce and consumption. Additionally, this time offers companies an opportunity to fast-track digital solutions to meet the most urgent demands of the business. This crisis has shown that digital connection is essential and achievable for all organizations, so use the New Abnormal to position yourself for digital success that will carry through the crisis to the New Normal.

Customers are the lifeline of any business, yet many may not engage as readily in the New Abnormal as they used to. Leaders must adapt to find new ways to drive engagement by increasing touch points through various communication channels. Customers will be on their own personal and company journeys, so leaders must be prepared to “go the extra mile” to problem-solve. This means identifying customers’ immediate, most-compelling needs and spotting early warning sights to preempt their demands. If customers are engaged correctly, they will undoubtedly remember how you served them in a crisis, which results in greater connectivity, trust, and business opportunity than before.

As a crisis unfolds, the number one job of a CEO and leadership team is to preserve the company by managing the business for cash—cash is king in the New Abnormal. Navigating the New Abnormal will require tough trade-offs, possibly requiring you to shrink your business, but the goal for all leaders is to manage through this uncomfortable phase by positioning the company for strength heading into the New Normal. Many companies have faced dire crises before and emerged as some of today’s most iconic brands. Through CV-19 and the New Abnormal, leaders must continue to lead with the conviction that better days are ahead and that changes made now will position them for optimal performance when the New Normal arrives.

The shelf-life of “Normal” is getting shorter. We will undoubtedly experience more crises in the future, so use this New Abnormal to fortify your leadership strength and mental determination, preparing you for even greater success in the future.

About the Authors

Stephen Miles is a distinguished C-Suite executive coach, global adviser to Boards, CEOs and CHROs. He is a renowned authority in leadership development, author, and Founder / CEO of The Miles Group.

Ram Charan is a world-renowned business advisor, author and speaker who has spent the past 35 years working with many top companies, CEOs and boards. He is an advisor for SSA & Company.


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