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Jillian Lukas Rodriguez

Chief Storyteller | Small Giants Community

April 19, 2020

Stepping Up: How Leaders Are Rising to the Occasion

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Turn on any news channel right now and the headlines are dominated by the health and economic devastation inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s no denying the urgency of this moment, and the imprint it will leave on our lives and organizations. But behind the headlines, there’s a different story unfolding. 

For purpose-driven business leaders, now is the time to step up and make the right decisions to protect your organization and team members. We’re seeing leaders retool their entire business model in a matter of weeks — and pulling it off. Next-generation leaders are stepping up to the plate to do their part to ensure the business survives. And when it’s time to cut costs, these leaders are skipping over the obvious choices and letting empathy guide them to more creative solutions.

We’re excited to introduce Stepping Up, a recurring series that will highlight the incredible stories coming out of this moment. Throughout the Small Giants Community and beyond, leaders are rising to the occasion to do what’s right when it matters most. These are their stories.

Don’t Let a Crisis Hold You Back

It is possible to not let a time of crisis hold you back. Yes, it will be hard, yes you will be tired — but push through those hard moments and accomplish what you set out to do. I know I’m going to be a better person, partner, and mother for it.

Huddled in a closet in her bedroom, Christina Moore takes a video call in what has become her makeshift office over the past month. Like so many in this pandemic, Christina and her colleagues at the Atlanta-based law firm Taylor English were mandated to work from home for the foreseeable future. Although there are other rooms in the house she could claim as her home office, those rooms come with less privacy: her four children — an eight-year-old, a seven-year-old, and twin five-year-olds are also homebound and have a tendency to find their way into every room in the house.


Christina is a textbook example of how this crisis can impact every aspect of our lives. Suddenly, she has four school-aged children staying home all day, every day. At the same time, her husband is a physician working on the frontlines of the crisis. As her firm quickly entered crisis mode, the other partners looked to her to take on more responsibility. With that kind of pressure on all fronts, many leaders would be tempted to hide in their makeshift closet offices and never come out. 

But Christina is a self-described doer, and her partners gave her a new opportunity to step up and do something good to help out the firm. In particular, they asked her to serve as the point person for learning about the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) provisions of the CARES Act and determining what the firm could apply and be eligible for. Christina agreed and dove into the task of researching and preparing summaries and outlines for the firm.

“I stayed up after my family went to sleep and worked until two or three in the morning,” says Christina. “I did that for about two and a half weeks. I see it as a privilege to be able to develop these resources and provide value for the firm during this time.”

As she shared what she was learning, Christina didn’t realize that something much bigger was unfolding. Originally, she’d only set out to provide PPP guidance to the firm — but many of their clients needed help navigating the new provisions, too. Soon enough, people across the firm were asking for her help with their clients, and Christina’s workload quadrupled. Her knowledge was in demand, and Christina is the kind of person that always steps up, even when it’s tough.

“When I first raised my hand, I didn’t think it would lead to all of this,” says Christina. “But it turned out to be of value to our clients, and we’ve been able to retool and reinvent our approach so that we can help as many people as possible. It’s been incredibly rewarding.”

Most of us are next-generation leaders, and talking to them reminds me that I’m not alone.

During this time, the leaders making the most impact are the ones who are stepping up when it would be easier to pass the buck. Christina rarely says no to a new opportunity — and she’s not afraid to endure short-term stress and discomfort for longterm rewards. It helps that she has a strong support system: her family, her firm, and a community of leaders in the Small Giants Leadership Academy who understand her unique position.

“Most of us are next-generation leaders, and talking to them reminds me that I’m not alone,” says Christina. “It feels really good to talk about the challenges we’re all going through and how we’re dealing with the topics that are unique to our level of leadership.”

Back at home, Christina and her family have developed a routine that works for everyone. She and her husband raised their children to be responsible and independent, and those skills are coming in handy during quarantine. While Christina works in her office closet during the day, her four kids play together, do school work, and watch a little bit of television. They have lunch and dinner together, and when the kids go to sleep in the evening, Christina gets back to work. But no matter how busy you are, self-care should always be a priority — Christina takes a daily, hour-long run every morning while someone else gets the kids ready for the day. 

“My kids are incredible — they know I’m working, and they’re responsible enough to take good care of themselves. It’s already part of their routine,” says Christina. “Being a working mom is hard, but I want to tell every mom that children are resilient. This one moment in time won’t make or break them. There’s value in them seeing me as an integral part of an organization, and they know I’m here for them when they need me.”

The times we’re in aren’t easy, and the ripple effects of this crisis will touch every individual and organization. But the perspective that Christina is taking offers a sunnier outlook on the challenges we’re facing right now.

“This is a time to retool and reinvent ourselves,” says Christina. “It is possible to not let a time of crisis hold you back. Yes, it will be hard, yes you will be tired — but push through those hard moments and accomplish what you set out to do. I know I’m going to be a better person, partner, and mother for it.”

Taking Care of Team Members

All I know how to do is be flexible and show them I care — I try to check in with every single person every week.

“Can I buy you lunch?”

It’s a small gesture, but in a time of great isolation and uncertainty, it carries more weight. Elizabeth Glasbrenner, President and CEO of Smiley Technologies Inc., has been buying a lot of lunches lately. Although Smiley’s core business is stable – they work with banks and are deemed an essential business — their team of 40 employees is working from home and dealing with a myriad of personal problems in the face of the global pandemic.

“Everyone’s situation is different,” says Elizabeth. “One employee just had a baby last week. Some have spouses who lost their jobs. One employee lives alone in a 600-square-foot apartment, and another has preschool-aged children at home. All I know how to do is be flexible and show them I care — I try to check in with every single person every week.”

In the early weeks of working from home, Elizabeth had the idea to treat the team and their families to a week’s worth of lunches from a local restaurant of their choice. It was a way to help support team members while also supporting local restaurants. All week long, employees and their families enjoyed takeout lunches from local eateries, with Smiley footing the bill.

“The idea came to me after visiting our family’s favorite local restaurant,” says Elizabeth. “We walked in and I asked the woman working the counter how things were going, and she burst into tears. I wanted to find a way to support the small businesses in our community.”

The gesture inspired the team to start a #GoodNews channel on Slack where team members could share the pay it forward good deeds they were doing for others. Day after day, employees shared the ways in which they were paying it forward in their own communities: buying groceries for a veteran in the neighborhood, making and delivering craft boxes for local children, gift baskets with a roll of toilet paper to share with neighbors. Some employees even borrowed Elizabeth’s idea and bought lunch for another family.



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Our team members are showing up for work and putting in one hundred percent. I know they have challenges — I do, too. But we’re living our values and sticking together.

Though Smiley’s employees are physically isolated from one another, the team has never been closer. For Elizabeth, it’s the culmination of several years of work defining their culture, values, and mission. Seemingly overnight, all of that was put to the test.  

“This has sealed our culture,” says Elizabeth. “Our team members are showing up for work and putting in one hundred percent. I know they have challenges — I do, too. But we’re living our values and sticking together. Our employees will probably never be recognized as essential workers, but they’re keeping the banks running at night. I’m proud of them.”

 

Shifting Gears to Help Others

We wanted to find a way to help out rather than just sitting still. We’re good at systems and processes, so this is the best idea we had to give back to our community. Stuff like hand sanitizer can actually save lives now.

In the midst of a global pandemic, small businesses like the Detroit Bus Company are hit particularly hard. There are no tourists to show around town, no bar crawls for local revelers, and no kids to safely shuttle to schools. The Detroit Bus Co.’s signature hand-painted buses may be parked, but its team has shifted gears into making World Health Organization-approved, FDA-approved bulk hand sanitizer in the facility that usually houses its tour buses. 

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“We were shut down, we had to start laying off employees, and it was heartbreaking,” says Detroit Bus Co. founder Andy Didorosi. “We wanted to find a way to help out rather than just sitting still. We’re good at systems and processes, so this is the best idea we had to give back to our community. Stuff like hand sanitizer can actually save lives now.”

Andy got his team together to get to work transitioning their facility into a factory. Using the hand sanitizer recipe from the World Health Organization (WHO), they set up long lines of tables and laboratory equipment and started producing gallon after gallon of medical-grade hand sanitizer. In just the last few weeks, they’ve produced over 4,000 gallons of hand sanitizer for those who need it most. 

“When we started this project, I thought it was just going to be a few dozen gallons for a few friends who needed it,” says Andy. “We very quickly learned that the need for hand sanitizer is much greater than we could've ever anticipated.”

So far, they’ve supplied hand sanitizer to Detroit police and fire stations, first responders, grocery store workers, children's homes, homeless shelters, essential construction companies, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel crew, city governments, people with elderly parents at home, senior centers, and many more. There’s also an option for consumers to choose to donate their order to a local charity, medical worker, or first responder. 

We’re trying our best just to keep our head above water and stay in business so we can serve our community again after this whole thing blows over. 

Andy’s idea has become a seven days a week, full-time job — and they appreciate every order, because it’s helping keep their small business alive. The Detroit Bus Co.’s mission is to “Get every Detroiter a ride where they need to go,” which they fulfill in part through their Ride for Ride program that gives free rides to students who need them from the sales of their tours and experiences. The Small Giants Community partners with the Detroit Bus Co. every year for its annual Summit — every ride that leaders take during the event provides a safe ride to school for kids in Detroit.

“We’re a small business that can’t do anything since our buses are parked,” says Andy. “We’re trying our best just to keep our head above water and stay in business so we can serve our community again after this whole thing blows over. Once restrictions are lifted, we’ll be back to showing people the city we love.”

There are more inspiring leader stories out there, and we'll be telling them here over the next few weeks. Check back with the Small Giants blog next week, and if you have a story to tell, drop us a note at hello@smallgiants.org

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About Jillian Lukas Rodriguez

As our Storyteller, Jillian finds what makes Small Giants special and shares their stories with the world. Jillian is also the .gif-wielding voice behind Small Giants on social media.