Leading Rwanda: Holding a Suddenly Dispersed Team Together

By Jeremy Solomons, Co-Chair IAC Global Committee

This is the second in a special series on how leaders should react, adapt and chart a new course as the Coronavirus pandemic shuts down most of Rwanda and the world. It was first published on 24 March 2020 in the New Times newspaper of Kigali, Rwanda, where Jeremy has been living for the last year.

Many people have been leading and working within global, virtual and remote teams for a long time. Coronavirus is presenting us with a new work challenge: how to direct and collaborate with co-workers, clients, vendors and other counterparts whom we know well; whom we have always or mostly worked with face to face; who are now suddenly dispersed; and who are trying to work efficiently from home with many unfamiliar concerns, distractions and frustrations.

Here are some practical, concrete steps that any leader can take,

Vision and mission – This is not the time for long-term strategic planning. Set simple short-term goals, defined tasks and clear deadlines. If you have time and energy, you can also do some scenario planning for the future, based on possible outcomes for the virus and how quickly things could get back to normal. Or not.

Selection – This is also not the time to hire new team members – or fire anyone – unless they have specific skills you need right now, such as crisis management or scenario planning.

Resources – Many people are not equipped technologically or even psychologically to work from home. If you can, make sure they have a working phone, a working computer, reliable 3G or 4G and, hopefully, a quiet room or place in their home to work from.

Systems – Lauren Nkuranga, board president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Rwanda says: “If you can, keep the routine and cadence of your normal work week with staff. This would include holding regular staff meetings.” They will just be by phone now. Check in briefly with every team member every day. And set up or maintain times to speak with each person for up to 30 minutes once a week.

Communication – Once you have given team members the resources and systems to work from home, you need to communicate in a very different way with them. While still focusing on the work to be done, you will also spend a lot more time really listening to and helping individuals to come to terms with this new indefinite reality, which can and almost certainly will evoke a lot of fear, anxiety and boredom. Update them regularly, even when nothing has materially changed as silence can lead them to assume the worst.

Trust – This is a time for explicit trust in all your team members to play their part without close supervision. You need to trust that your team members will do the right thing in the right way. But be vigilant, too. Trust but verify!

Delegation – This is not a time for long-term staff development. Try to assign work according to each team member’s duties, experience and expertise and supervise them, as necessary. Doutzen Groothof, country director of Mammoth Consulting Africa in Rwanda, says that when some of the regular activities can’t be performed, this may also be a chance for team members to dive into that topic that they were always interested in and that could add or contribute to the development of the business or of themselves.

Consultation – As well as being more available for and more connected with your current team members, consult regularly with stakeholders, advisers, mentors, coaches and other relevant counterparts outside the team.

Accountability – Virtual role modeling is paramount in this situation. If you are calm, transparent, communicative, consistent and productive, others will hopefully be so too.

Reviews – Review team and individual progress at regular intervals. Conduct team and individual reviews after each deadline or milestone. Verbally recognize any special contributions even if you can’t all go out for dinner or celebrate in other ways right now. Take each missed goal, setback or failure as an opportunity to learn, make adjustments and quickly move on.

I have been working from home for nearly 30 years but have never experienced anything like this collective, global rush to create and implement work continuity plans that require most people to work from home and leaders to lead in such a different way. But those leaders who can meet this challenge in a conscious and caring way will emerge with an even stronger team when the curfew is over.

We encourage you to leave your comments in the green “Reply” box below. Jeremy can also be reached at [email protected].