Readying and Steadying for Business Recovery

Leadership expert Ian Chisholm made such a positive impact during his appearance on Conversations in Crisis, a CHEK TV feature in partnership with Douglas magazine, we asked him to write an article about his approach to leading their teams through crisis and into recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet

We heard a lot of feedback after our Conversations in Crisis interview with CHEK News and Douglas magazine on April 12, 2020. I’ve been invited to go a little deeper into some of the key themes that came up in the interview, to share with our business community some high-level ideas for bringing organizations back to a state of robust health.


A few years ago, Roy Group did some work with Jason Dorland, a Canadian Olympian who now specializes in high-performance coaching. Dorland recommends responding to any destabilizing blow, whether personal or organizational, with a counterintuitive question:

“How might this be the best thing that ever happened to us?”

The question winnows attention: Where will you put your focus? Where will you invest your time? How will you deploy your cash? And how will you come out of this stronger?


By definition, the difference between a complicated situation and a complex situation is that there are experts in first, but not in the second. The economic recovery will be complex: there are no experts to give us clear direction, like there have been for “flattening the curve.” 

  1. Zealously Assess.

In a complex system, the most important thing for a leader to do is to constantly assess. What is required in the midst of complexity like this economic recovery is for leaders to sense what is…and then experiment.

Send out little probes that just might work … and then, as Cognitive Edge CEO David Snowden admonishes, zealously assess. Fuel the experiments that are working. Put a bullet in the experiments that aren’t. Then experiment some more. (Intelligent experimenting is not the same as flailing around trying different stuff. Be rigorous in your assessment of whether your experiments are working. Like we’ve learned from FuckUp Nights and other explorations of failure, you might have to pilot five experiments to find the one that works.) 

  1. Entangle Yourself with New and Trusted Networks. 

In an acknowledgment that solutions to complex problems arise from a multitude of points, you are going to spin a wide-ranging web that crosses sectors and boundaries. 

Surround yourself with four or five people whose thinking you trust, and who can share ideas that will allow each of you to gain ground. Choose conversation partners from different sectors and backgrounds — even people with whom you disagree. Invite some disruptive thinkers — people who aren’t typically in your social circle, of your ethnic or gender background, or from the same socioeconomic strata. Convene conversations you wouldn’t normally have. Challenge your thinking. 

  1. Protect Your Momentum. 

Take an objective look at what your team is capable of. Put that undeniable evidence of your team’s capability in front of them to keep the momentum. This is not cheerleading, it’s giving proof. It’s saying to your people, Yes, the reality of what we’re facing is daunting, but let’s not forget what we are capable of, together. 

From there, get honest about where your organization is at, and what’s getting in the way of your momentum. Put together a survey, asking what your people love and what’s not working in your organization. 

Your job as a leader is to protect those things that your team loves about your organization. It is also your job to eliminate the friction points that get in the way of your team’s momentum.

  1. Focus Your Team 

In a recent study, Gallup showed people have four universal needs in their leaders: Trust, compassion, stability and hope. Help your people focus on how their work connects to the bigger purpose of your organization. 

In times of crisis, there are two directions human nature can take us: fear, helplessness and victimization — or self-actualization and engagement,” writes Gallup author Jim Harter. “On the latter, if leaders have a clear way forward, human beings are amazingly resilient. There is a documented ‘rally effect’.”

Focusing your team also means recognizing where individuals are at, mentally and emotionally. Figure out who on your team needs to call a ‘time out’ for themselves, and who’s doubling down with a serious appetite to work. Don’t judge any of it. Your work is to be conscious of where people are at, then provide them with opportunities to re-engage. Watch your team members for decision fatigue. 

Focusing them also means breaking your plans into manageable pieces to make ground little by little. Zealously assess how to use the weeks in front of you to make sure you come out of this better than you went in.

  1. Focus on the Horizon 

Crisis mode is compelling — even addictive. Be careful.

Regardless of what COVID-19 is asking of you, remember that you were hired to do a job — to deliver on a mandate — and that mandate still exists. No matter how tempted you are to jump into the trenches with your people, you have work to do.

As leaders, we were responsible for big things two months ago. The fact that we are still responsible for progressing those things may not be as compelling as responding to this crisis, but that is the work we must do.

  1. Control the Controllables

Another fantastic Jason Dorland phrase. 

You can’t control the pandemic, the economy or the future. But you can control:

  • Where you place your focus. Put somebody on your team in charge of your organization’s COVID response. You stay focused on your team’s wellbeing, and on your big work.
  • How you spend your time. Make calls to your most important clients. Develop partnerships. Reformulate your offering. Ask yourself: if you were just starting your company, how would you take it to market given the needs that you see now? 
  • How you manage cash. Cut anything that is not required. Renegotiate anything that can be renegotiated while still keeping partnerships strong. Apply for government grants. Lower your expectations about how much money you’re going to put in the bank this year. Call 2020 an investment year.


COVID-19 has been a little like showing up at the doctor’s office with an unfamiliar ailment, and learning that it’s a warning sign for something bigger. We’ve been given the gift of a wake-up call — an opportunity to course-correct. It’s hard, it’s uncomfortable — for many, it’s downright scary. But without the early symptoms, we’d have raced right past the warning signs and straight into the arms of full-blown disease.

Just might be the best thing that ever happened.


Ian Chisholm is a Partner at the Roy Group, which works to develop leadership at all levels of schools, colleges, government departments and ministries, start-ups and small- to mid-sized companies, and social impact organizations. Read more about Ian in Douglas magazine’s In Conversation column.