Leadership in Uncertain Times: Advice From the SF Tech Scene

by Quinten Dol
March 25, 2020
san francisco empty streets ferry building
Photo: Shutterstock

When a business selects its leaders, a “proven ability to lead an organization during a global pandemic” is not a traditional prerequisite. 

But as the novel coronavirus rattles families, healthcare systems and economies across the Bay Area and the wider world, that’s exactly what executives and team leads are being asked to do. During times of crisis or heightened uncertainty, traditional leadership qualities — communication, influence, team- and culture-building, decisiveness, resilience, problem-solving, curiosity — become more important than ever. 

One thing we can learn from this unfolding crisis is that none of us — as individuals, professionals and companies, but also as communities, nations and economies — are an island. It’s a reminder that, as with all things, humanity is in this together. 

In that spirit, we checked in with four San Francisco tech leaders to learn how they and their teams are faring, how they’ve adapted and what advice they have to share with other leaders in the Bay Area. 

 

Neal Narayani
Chief People Officer

As a leader, you are the person people in your company turn to for answers. Who are you looking to for motivation and support? What advice do you have for other leaders who are walking into a world of uncertainty?

Listening closely to our teams helps us better understand their needs and how we can help improve the day-to-day experience, both at work and at home. Successfully navigating these uncertain challenges requires two things. The first is keeping a close pulse on how people are feeling and what they need. The second is clearly and constantly communicating how you’re thinking about a problem and what you’re planning to do. It’s okay if you get a decision wrong as long as you’re transparent throughout the process.

 

San Francisco is a strong tech community. How do you think we can help each other in times of uncertainty? What specific advice do you have for the tech community — not just to other leaders or your team, but to our industry at large?

In uncertain times, the best solutions come from a wide diversity of thought. To find better outcomes, it’s important to seek outside perspectives, whether that’s from peers, old colleagues, friends or experts who have dealt with tremendous adversity before. Don’t be afraid to collaborate with people outside of your organization and ask for their opinions or support. We’re all in this together and want each other to succeed.

 

Over the coming weeks and months, what concerns are you anticipating from your team? How are you addressing them?

At Brex, we’re learning to navigate a new way of working in a fully remote environment. And since our company continues to grow, we’re primarily focused on how to welcome great engineering talent to the team, all while completely virtual. We want to make this a positive onboarding experience, so we are experimenting with new approaches and iterating constantly.

Joining a company already comes with its own obstacles, like meeting new people, learning a new business and establishing credibility with your teammates. We want to minimize any additional stress and allow our “virtual new hires” to feel comfortable, confident and set up for success from day one.

 

Jey Balachandran
Chief Technology Officer

As a leader, you are the person people in your company turn to for answers. Who are you looking to for motivation and support? What advice do you have for other leaders who are walking into a world of uncertainty?

Every day, but even more so now, my colleagues and the clinicians we build products for are my motivation and inspiration. The dedication of healthcare professionals who treat patients and help contain COVID-19 — often without sufficient support and resources — reminds me why the work we do at Doximity is important.

During this uncertain time, we must do everything we can to keep each other safe and healthy by adhering to the recommendations from public health officials to stay home and avoid social gatherings.

 

San Francisco is a strong tech community. How do you think we can help each other in times of uncertainty? What specific advice do you have for the tech community — not just to other leaders or your team, but to our industry at large?

The San Francisco tech community is known for having great meetups that educate and foster a sense of community. Continuing these meetups remotely can help people feel supported and focused on opportunities to continue learning and building.

 

Over the coming weeks and months, what concerns are you anticipating from your team? How are you addressing them?

Even though our company’s HQ is located in San Francisco, a large part of our workforce is remote and we’ve had a “work from home Wednesdays” policy for local employees since the company’s inception. This has made our transition to shelter in place relatively easy.

Nonetheless, we are aware of COVID-19’s impact on everyone’s lives, including our employees’ extended families who may be experiencing layoffs or business closures and parents whose routines are now altered. We are trying to address each of these situations on a case-by-case basis to provide flexibility and the care and attention our employees deserve while also trusting them to do the best they can under these difficult circumstances.

 

As a leader, you are the person people in your company turn to for answers. Who are you looking to for motivation and support? What advice do you have for other leaders who are walking into a world of uncertainty?

I look to fellow leaders, team members and external resources to gather critical data, drive clarity and focus on problem solving. This is a moment when there are a lot of variables coming at us and uncertainty will make decision-making an imprecise process. I am motivated by our dedicated team that is focused on making decisions in the best interest of our employees, members and customers despite imperfect data, adjusting our strategy as new information becomes available. As a healthcare company, our team’s dedication to our members and customers is absolutely inspiring.

Leaders must have an enterprise view of the organization and prioritize these three most important things: your employees’ health, business continuity and company performance. Ensure you regularly gather data and insights related to these three areas to monitor how things are changing and inform your decision making. Examine your practices to ensure they’re aligned with your priorities and make adjustments as things evolve.

 

San Francisco is a strong tech community. How do you think we can help each other in times of uncertainty? What specific advice do you have for the tech community — not just to other leaders or your team, but to our industry at large?

Share the programs you are trying and the unique assets you have. This is a new reality for all of our teams and by sharing our own best practices, we can help all boats rise. For example, we are fortunate to have extraordinary clinical leaders on our team, including a CDC-trained epidemiologist, and have been able to share our perspectives on how to navigate this crisis through weekly Facebook Live events to help people get the clinical answers they need from a credible source.

 

Over the coming weeks and months, what concerns are you anticipating from your team? How are you addressing them?

This will set some new precedents that will become our new normal. We need to continue investing in building community and enhancing productivity with the majority of employees working from home. For example, we are offering all employees an initial stipend of $250 per employee to outfit their home workspace to be comfortable and effective. We are researching new tools to support collaboration, such as whiteboarding, in new virtual ways. And we are looking at ways to adapt our cultural traditions to continue with a distributed workforce, such as moving our quarterly random group lunches to video lunch dates or 3 p.m. planking time to connect via Slack.

This is a time when investing in your internal employees is critical in order to weather the storm. Make sure they are happy, healthy and productive. That will make all the difference.

 

As a leader, you are the person people in your company turn to for answers. Who are you looking to for motivation and support? What advice do you have for other leaders who are walking into a world of uncertainty?

Two simple strategies I find valuable are to connect with other leaders and to over-communicate my team. I often look to trusted peers, other CEOs, board members and investors to seek advice and understand how they are handling different situations. Our board at Ginger is made up of tenured leaders who have been through cycles like this many times, and are able to offer great counsel. I strive to help the company understand how I’m thinking, provide confidence that the team is hard at work guiding the strategy and to ensure employees know my door (and Zoom account) is open when they have concerns.

I’ve also found support in our team of coaches and clinicians at Ginger. In addition to focusing on enhanced support for our members around the world, we are also focusing on our own mental health here. Guided meditations and counsel from our providers has helped me personally stay grounded.  

 

San Francisco is a strong tech community. How do you think we can help each other in times of uncertainty? What specific advice do you have for the tech community — not just to other leaders or your team, but to our industry at large?

We are lucky to be surrounded by so many incredible companies and leaders. Today I was pinged by the director of finance for a large national non-profit who shared that they had to shut down thousands of their sites, affecting hundreds of thousands of children. He asked if I knew any leaders at a webcasting company that could help — within minutes of a quick email, this CEO was connected with a free service for all of those kids. To me, this kind of support network and “paying it forward” is what San Francisco and the tech community is all about.

 

Over the coming weeks and months, what concerns are you anticipating from your team? How are you addressing them?

This event is such a sea change to day-to-day life that I anticipate all kinds of concerns, including questions like: How am I going to handle childcare? How will I manage keeping my high-risk parents healthy? Am I going to get sick? How long is this going to last? Are we going into a recession? Is the company going to survive? Am I going to have a job in a year?

Are all normal and completely valid concerns. I try to address these questions head-on and help employees understand how our leadership team is thinking about these issues. Three weeks ago, we very quickly began a consistent weekly communication, and have supplemented this a few times based on the evolving circumstances. We strive to be as transparent as possible about the uncertainty, but have also embraced the upside — as a virtual mental health service, we are in a fortunate position to serve the mental health needs of Americans during this challenging time.

We’ve also discussed how to anticipate and manage some of the chaos as we transition to a fully remote work environment, even standing up a virtual playdate for employees to bring their children together for an hour each week. Ultimately, we’re focused on over-communication, supporting our well-being as individuals and as a company and reinforcing that we’ll all get through this, together.

 

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