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"Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself.
It is precisely that simple and also that difficult.”

– Warren Bennis

Compassion During Times of Change

14 September 2020

The Engaged Leader Part 2

Written by Gretchen Dobson

Gretchen Dobson is Engagement Counsel at The Argonauts.
She is a accomplished Global Engagement Specialist with over 27 years of experience in global constituent relations.
Connect with her on Linkedin

ngaged leaders wear many hats. Last time I wrote about the importance of leaders  demonstrating a keen awareness of their organizations and the types of skill gaps that may exist within their workforce. In addition to assessing the talent landscape, leaders may cultivate others by providing formal and informal opportunities for individuals and teams to gain the professional skills necessary to perform and thrive today. 

Current challenges in the workplace call upon engaged leaders to be compassionate, especially during times of transition, restructuring, new business modeling and more.

To illustrate these points, I would like to tell you two stories: one about Liza and one about Stella. 

Liza’s story

Liza is a leading academic and a Dean at a small college in the United States. For the last seven years, she has been building a program that, from its inception, has been online, meaning it is likely to be in better shape than other academic programs of its kind.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Liza was asked to join a Zoom call with the Senior Dean and VP of Human Resources. She immediately knew this was not going to be good. “Why me?” she asked herself. “I’ve been the backbone and vision of this program for so long.”

Liza’s seven years of investment and professional passion were taken away from her in a 15-minute Zoom call. She was told the college was terminating her position and that, effective immediately, she would have no access to her college email. She would have to change her LinkedIn profile within 24 hours and come to the college that coming weekend to clean out her office. Oh, and she would be escorted onto campus.

Liza didn’t sleep that night. Instead, she wrote emails to her students, her fellow faculty members and other friends from the college to let them know how much she valued their work, commitment and friendship. She wanted them to hear from her as she expected the college to issue some kind of official announcement and she wanted her voice to be heard at least one more time.

Unfortunately, stories like these may sound familiar for you (or for a friend or family member) and might have had a severe impact on your life. But what can you as a leader learn from these types of events?

The world has changed

According to research from the Society for Human Resource Management more than 30% of businesses in the US have laid off people due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and unfortunately the impact of the coronavirus is far from over, so businesses have to take action. But how do you make that decision and what if you’re the one having the conversations with your employees that they are let go?

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Stella’s story

I spoke to fellow Argonaut Stella, who, in her time as a seasoned HR and Executive Search Officer, has spent her career managing change. She and I caught up to talk about her work in the midst of COVID-19 as, in recent months, she has had to deliver bad news.

She told me, “As a leader, I first need to know what the business needs to survive – knowing what I and others have to do as an organization. Then the next part is how to take care of our people, both those who will stay and those who will be laid off. This is not only hard for the people getting laid off, but also for HR leaders and CEOs as we don’t know how to approach our people during this difficult time and our current policies do not feel appropriate for today’s situation.

Stella went on to describe how she’s handling these challenging times by embracing more compassion in her approach and by taking these two steps:

“First, we must ‘stop the boat from sinking’ and we need to know what to do to survive – how to keep everything operating. We also think about our organization’s survival with a compassionate heart and head. That means, for example, that in all our situations with our team members, we give them time to process this and support when needed.” 

“Second, we [Stella and other Executive Team members] knew that in order for the company to survive, they needed to let go of some colleagues. We took some time to reflect on these decisions, also to be as clear as possible about the next steps, so our team would know what would happen and when. We wanted to help them as much as possible and we reminded them that if not for COVID, they wouldn’t have to go.”  

Without a formal process in place, Stella decided to meet with each team member and explain the situation and provide them with time to process the news.

“In the case of laying off a very senior position, we took a different approach as she is a mature contributor and a professional. We wanted to offer her a chance to help us figure out how we can help her exit. She offered to resign as it would be better for her career if she voluntarily leaves. In Asia, there is stigma in being laid off and when she interviews in the future, she needs to be able to talk about what happened. The conversation became a very confidential conversation with this person; she was going to “serve out her notice,” and we worked out her transition.”

What do these stories tell us about contemporary leadership?

With the knowledge of what the organization needs to survive – and who needs to be involved – can engaged leaders create a more compassionate bridge of transition for a portion of the team? 

Engaged leaders may pride themselves on the personal relationships they forge with their team members. I asked Stella, “how do you feel about staying in touch with those you’ve just delivered bad news to?”

I stay in touch, for me my relationships are paramount. For example, I can offer to be a professional reference, I can write a testimonial for my colleague on LinkedIn – it can be basic or can add my impressions to support them in their next job search. .” 

Another point that I found interesting in Stella’s story was about being empathetic and acknowledging others’ anxieties and fear. Part of that is communicating the facts, but also giving room for a conversation on the future, and someone’s fears and anxieties. Returning to the story about my friend Liza, for her being laid off was very abrupt. Her institution had undergone a leadership transition in the last two years and the community was experiencing some organizational changes before COVID-19 hit. The last thing Liza expected was to be made redundant. I shared Liza’s story with Stella who could empathize:

“When we do not communicate transparently, we are injuring the health of the organization – and others. We communicated facts and figures so people can process and put themselves within the mix; if we don’t put the right info out there, people will spin the story…create assumptions and the stress and anxiety continues.”

*the names of Liza and Stella have been changed for this story


Pre-COVID-19, we were at work, having fun, and feeling empowered to advance our mission and, all of a sudden, our organization is required to change and some of our team is no longer with us.  

Stella’s personal playbook has changed since COVID-19. Her story shows us engaged leaders need a plan for taking things one step at a time. By employing a phased-in approach to addressing personnel changes – and involving others in the discussions about their futures – your team will grow their faith and confidence in your leadership – and humanity. 

If you are not an Argonauts Member yet but would like to know more about our Membership, please read more here. 

Take care,


Compassion During Times of Change

Do the exercises

Questions to consider:

  • Has your organization laid off people during COVID-19?

  • And what practices have you implemented to do so? 

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