Skip to Content

Empowering people: Leadership lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic

December 2, 2022 Article 6 min read
Jim Proppe
Almost three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, most organizations have adapted to its myriad challenges, but some have thrived. What gave the most successful organizations their edge? Listening to, communicating with, and empowering their people.
Business professionals in a conference meeting.At Plante Moran’s recent Executive Forum “Learn from Leaders” panel, I was joined by three exceptional business leaders: Tanny Crane, president and CEO Crane Group; Patricia Mooradian, president and CEO, The Henry Ford; and Steve Swinney, co-founder and CEO, Kodiak Building Partners. We discussed lessons learned during the pandemic and some key leadership decisions that impacted their businesses.

In this article, they’ll share stories, reflect on how the challenges changed them as leaders, and share some of the pivotal decisions that not only helped their organizations endure the darkest moments of pandemic but, in hindsight, positioned their organizations for a stronger future.

Tanny Crane: Listening to our associates

During the pandemic, we looked for “silver linings,” and we found them in our people. Productivity never dropped, and our positive experience working from home morphed into a flexible work schedule for our people. Today we encourage headquarters staff to be in the office three days a week, and we invite them to work from wherever they choose for the other two days. For our front-line staff who need to be on the job five days a week, we’re providing special opportunities for career development.

One of the biggest things we learned during the pandemic is the importance of listening to our associates. As a family business, we can be a little paternalistic, so we learned to let go more and find opportunities for everyone in our organization to step in and lead. For example, we recently redesigned our office and, through listening to our associates’ ideas, we’ve created a much more collaborative environment.

One of the biggest things we learned during the pandemic is the importance of listening to our associates.

Our associates also emphasized they want to be involved in the community and give back. We have a program called “Crane on Board” where we provide financial support and encouragement for our leaders and associates to go out in the community and participate on boards, coach a sports team, or participate in church activities — whatever it may be. We know that it brings back a better person to the workplace and helps the company because our people have been enriched and feel good about giving back. 

Looking to the future, I’m excited about our young leaders. We have the most talented and diverse workforce and leadership group in our history, and they have tremendous ideas. Furthermore, the potential business partners we’re talking to are speaking the same language we are — their values are our values — and their end goals match ours in terms of our focus on equity, culture, and how we view people.

Patricia Mooradian: Empowering talented people

The Henry Ford is a complex organization — we run restaurants, retail stores, a museum, and school. At the beginning of the pandemic, there were a lot of decisions that had to be made, and there was no way the senior management team could make them all on their own — things were just moving too fast. We had to empower our people to make critical decisions, and it had to happen almost overnight. We just said, “Go,” and our team made things happen. It’s amazing what talented people can do when they’re empowered and given permission to just create and do. That was a big lesson for me personally — just let leaders lead and let the team shine. Surround yourself with great talent, and let them do what they do.

Let leaders lead and let the team shine. Surround yourself with great talent, and let them do what they do.

Staff retention was a major concern during the pandemic, so we put a lot of attention into keeping people connected. We adopted new technologies and had frequent communication from our senior staff. People told me how much they liked hearing from me personally about how the business was going and the new things we were doing — not just what we’re doing but why decisions were made. This communication strategy was successfully extended to our membership base. Pre-pandemic, we had around 40,000 member households; now we’re up to 50,000, and we’re hearing a lot of the increase was because of the regular, more personal communications.

Looking forward, there’s a lot to be excited about. We’re in a really good place strategically, and what we’ve learned over the past two years has not only given us a great foundation to continue to improve but also to continue to change and not be afraid to let go of some of the old ways of thinking.

As a history organization, we look at the past to make a better future. We look at the lessons we’ve learned around innovators — their habits and actions — and how we can take them and move forward to get to a better place. Not just for the organization but for all the people we touch and all the people we impact.

Steve Swinney: Being purposeful about people and culture

The thing that’s been top of mind for me throughout the pandemic is how critical and important our culture is. We have a young staff at Kodiak, and we’re being purposeful about how we develop and engage and grow them professionally. This is particularly important in our decentralized, locally driven culture.

When we started Kodiak, we found ourselves in an industry that was built and populated heavily by family-owned businesses, so we wanted to create a culture that’s very family-like. When the pandemic came along, we expanded on this by establishing an employee assistance fund. The company seeded the fund, we opened it up for our employees to donate to, and the company matches their donations. Over the last two years, we’ve built that into a self-sustaining fund that’s granted out about $250,000 to employees. It’s been a tangible way for all of us to say, “We appreciate everything you do at work, we know that from time to time some of us are going through some tough situations, and as a Kodiak community, we want to support you.”

There’s never been a time when I feel we’ve had as strong a team as we do today. To see what our people have done and accomplished during the pandemic — and to see how they’ve succeeded and improved and grown the businesses and the culture — I can’t wait to see what they do over the next two years.

In conclusion

During the pandemic, there were constant reminders of how a successful outcome would be tied to the health of an organization’s staff. One of our founding partners, Frank Moran, often said, “The whole person comes to work.” What he meant was if something impacts a staff member personally, it’s going to affect them professionally, and that impact will be felt in the organization. 

These outstanding leaders recognized the whole person early on and responded. They asked their staff what’s important to them. They recognized the importance of regular communication and let their people know what was happening and why. They came up with creative ways to help ease the financial burden during stressful times. But most importantly, they empowered their people with new responsibilities and opportunities and trusted them to make good decisions. 

Related Thinking

Business professionals standing in an office while wearing protective facemasks.
February 11, 2022

How four different leaders have excelled in challenging times

Article 8 min read
Close-up photo of ice cream.
October 13, 2021

Chilling out: Jeni Britton Bauer leads an ice cream revolution

Article 6 min read
Close-up view of a machine operator operating a machine.
June 25, 2021

Keats CEO Matt Eggemeyer: Manufacturing a strong culture

Article 6 min read