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Michele Siekerka

NJBIA President & CEO Michele Siekerka, Esq.

Leadership skills are being tested by the COVID-19 pandemic, as many CEOs confront difficult decisions on budget cuts and staff reductions needed for their business to survive and emerge stronger on the other side. But implementing difficult changes without the losing the confidence of the organizations they lead is an even greater challenge.

In a virtual discussion with NJBIA President & CEO Michele Siekerka on Tuesday, Steve Adubato, who is the creator and co-host of the TV show “Lessons in Leadership,” noted his own struggle as a leader of a nonprofit multimedia production company who had to make tough decisions for the greater good of his organization because of the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.

“We want to show great concern, but at the same time, we have a bottom line,” Adubato said. “And we made a decision very early on to make significant cuts – big savings that had to, in my view as a leader, be done, and one of them included some staff changes. And when some key people were let go, it wasn’t as if people are going, ‘Wow, Steve is really looking to save the company – isn’t that great?”

Siekerka said employees are more likely to buy into difficult changes if the CEO has already built a culture of trust and open communication. CEOs cannot wait until a crisis forces the company to reduce staff, reassign jobs, implement a new business model or take other risks.

“These are tough decisions,” Siekerka said. “But if you’ve already built a culture of trust and good communication with your employees, they’re going to follow you. They’re going to stay on the bus with you. And they’re going to say, ‘I’m really nervous, but I trust where you’re taking me.’”

Adubato asked what leaders driving the proverbial bus should do if they’ve had to change the seats where their employees sit, and now face resistance from workers who say they didn’t sign up for these new roles and job responsibilities.

Siekerka said it comes back to company culture and the need for leaders to set the tone for an organization that works cohesively as a group, adapts to change, and holds itself accountable. CEOs also need to build teams with agile job descriptions so that people with strong skill sets can move easily from one job to another within the organization.

“That’s going to make it easier for you to pivot people around your organization,” Siekerka said.  “It takes communication, it takes teamwork, and it takes a leader who believes in horizontal leadership.”

In times of uncertainty, businesses need to lean into change, but still remain focused on their core values and their mission, Siekerka said.

“You can’t just work for a result, you’ve got to work to your values that you have held true to all the time as a leader,” Siekerka said. CEOs who make the mistake of trying to reinvent themselves in the midst of a crisis risk losing their organization’s confidence, she said.

Uncertain times also require strategic planning – not just one plan but multiple alternative plans that take into account the various scenarios that may occur, she said. For example, there should be a budget to follow if businesses can reopen at full indoor capacity in three months, one that assumes businesses can reopen fully in six months and one if occupancy restrictions continue beyond that.

“If we’re sitting with one finite plan right now, in an uncertain time, we’re going to get caught off guard,” Siekerka said. “And this is where agility and ability to pivot is more important than ever.”

Excerpts from Tuesday’s discussion will be featured in a future episode of “Steve Adubato’s Lessons in Leadership with co-host Mary Gamba,” which is broadcast on Sundays at 10 a.m. on News 12+.