Startup leaders regularly pivot and evolve in response to both challenges and opportunities, but usually, these challenges are unique to the company or industry. The COVID-19 pandemic was different: it hit every industry, in different ways and with varying severity. One year later, as vaccine distribution continues across Canada, leaders are starting to take stock of lessons learned through the early days of the pandemic.
In a recent BetaKit Live with Cisco Designed for Small Business, Laura Buhler, CEO of the C100; Ami Shah, CEO and co-founder of Peekapak; and Erin Hipp, Meraki Country Leader at Cisco Canada, spoke about how they lead their teams and companies through change.
A key feature of the COVID-19 pandemic was that it forced many industries into remote work. While this was a challenge for any organization used to in-person operations, Buhler said the tech industry was the most well-equipped to work remotely, since many operations in that space happen via technology already. But despite the potential to work remotely because of lower technical barriers, Buhler noted that “it doesn’t mean everyone just knew how to go remote.” She also said tech did not escape the challenge of navigating remote management.
“The management barriers are still just as potent,” said Buhler.
Beyond remote work, every company also dealt with a significant period of uncertainty if business as we knew it would continue at all. Shah had this experience with her edtech startup, Peekapak. The CEO said the first three months of the pandemic was filled with “an eerie quiet” as governments throughout the US and Canada – the funders of schools that buy Peekapak’s social-emotional learning curriculum – figured out how they were going to support schools.
Hipp, on the other hand, saw business challenges from an administrative and infrastructural perspective in her role as Meraki Country Leader with Cisco Canada. She mentioned many clients that relied on Cisco for onsite solutions suddenly needed help with that same infrastructure at home as things people took for granted in the business world – like a stable Wi-Fi connection – became massive gaps that needed to be filled immediately. In addition, Hipp mentioned that essential stores needed novel technologies like automatic capacity tracking to keep people safe and comply with lockdown orders.
Leaving it all on the field
Similar to the challenges of remote work, the mental health challenges of the pandemic have not affected everyone in the same way. For Shah, it was about introspection and preserving her own mental state so she could be there for her team members.
“Burnout is a big risk for any founder,” said Shah.
“The more explicit you are [with your ask], the better-equipped people are to help.”
As the CEO of a social-emotional learning company, Shah encourages her team to follow the same lessons Peekapak teaches students regarding self-awareness, noting it’s important to first understand how emotion shows up in your body and attitude. Then, you can take the next step, which is calming yourself down with techniques that are effective for you.
Hipp encouraged those watching the stream to find their unique traits, noting that many mental health conversations that she observed or took part in focused on the idea of finding common ground. However, in an extreme stress situation that affects everyone differently, she found that thinking about your unique needs is more helpful. This doesn’t mean you find ways to be different from other people, simply that you check what you actually need instead of working to appear like anyone else.
When you do this, said Hipp, it makes asking for help easier.
“The more explicit you are [with your ask], the better-equipped people are to help,” said Hipp.
For Buhler, the pandemic was not so much a cause of mental health issues as an acceleration of trends she already saw in the tech industry.
“There’s a lot of mental illness in our industry,” said Buhler.
As CEO of the C100, a nonprofit built to connect Canadian tech to Silicon Valley and each other, Buhler regularly interacts with dozens of founders at any given time. Buhler noted that while many in the industry struggle with mental health, the pandemic made it worse by removing many people’s primary coping mechanisms: time with friends, time outdoors, or having a new experience like dining out or going to a movie.
“You leave it all on the field Monday to Friday,” said Buhler. “You need something on Saturday and Sunday to perk you back up again.”
A new baseline
The pandemic brought with it significant change, and it’s unclear exactly how the next few months – or years – will play out. For example, some business leaders are calling for diametrically opposed outcomes in the ongoing all remote vs. all in-office debate.
For leaders struggling with go-forward planning, the key is not to worry about what others are saying, said Buhler. Instead, lay the groundwork now to be able to accelerate into the curve of change when it comes.
“If you’re optimistic for how the world will look in six to eight months, you have to start prepping now to get things in place that you need to take advantage of the positive change,” said Buhler.