A year of crisis: Nancy Duarte’s successful leadership story

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Written by

Hayley Hawthorne, Ph.D.

In times of crisis, good leadership is displayed through empathy and authority. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Nancy Duarte invited employees to contact her at any time with questions or concerns. She also gave us permission to do what we needed to feel healthy, safe, and supported — whether that meant taking extra vacation or sick days or using a wellness stipend for stress relief. She also reassured us that our executive team would find a way to navigate us through the treacherous journey ahead. From the very first communication about the pandemic until now, Nancy has showed up as an empathetic and authoritative leader.

In Duarte and Sanchez’s book, Illuminate, they share how leaders can visualize and create a new future and guide us toward a better reality. They emphasize that during even the darkest moments, leaders are “those who light the path [and] are the ones who change the world” (Illuminate, p. 5).

According to leadership and crisis management research, during a crisis there are at least three different leadership principles: Expectation management, resolving a crisis and communicating a clear response plan, and transformational leadership. During Women’s History Month, we share more about these leadership principles as put into action by one of our favorite leaders, our CEO, Nancy Duarte.

Recent research from HBR and Zenger/Folkman found that women who were assessed using a 360-degree assessment, tended to have higher effectiveness ratings than men and that the data may indicate that women perform better in a crisis. Nancy has been a longtime leader here in Silicon Valley, and we can confidently say that her leadership has been extremely effective in guiding our organization through multiple economic downturns and crises. Throughout this most recent crisis, Nancy’s leadership strategy and tactics were not only effective, but empathetic and transformative.

Expectation management

First, crisis management takes time and resources, and thus includes the need to manage expectations. At the start of the pandemic, Nancy knew we’d have to work together and take some risks, and she worked to both manage expectations for the journey ahead and inspire us to come along. In mid-March of 2020, shortly after many of us got the orders to stay at home, Nancy, and her husband, Duarte founder, Mark, shared with the company over Zoom five stories of their personal experiences leading Duarte through uncertainty and crisis. The stories included lessons from the Loma Prieta Earthquake, the 1993 Apple Layoffs, the Dot Com Crash, the 2008 Recession, and lessons already learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.

These stories were a way to rally everyone around our values — Belong, Lead, Innovate, and Serve (BLIS). In fact, Nancy shared that these values were formed during times of hardship and crisis. When forced to make hard choices, Nancy and Mark made their decisions based on empathy towards others.

Using speeches and stories, our leaders helped us cope with the tough realities and uncertainties of the time and come together as a community that supported one another. They helped build trust, because they highlighted how prepared we were to face worldly changes as a company. Duarte, Inc. has pivoted eight times over our 30+ years in business, and we will undoubtedly pivot again. These stories reminded us that in business — and life — uncertainty is one of the only things that is certain.

In one of the stories, Mark shared, “What it taught us, was that at the time we weren’t really prepared for something like that, and it began a process of being prepared for the unexpected in the future.” Nancy added that they had to be prepared because “the unexpected will hit us all the time over and over again.”

Clearly communicate crisis responses

Second, during a crisis, leaders must focus on solving the problem(s) and communicate regularly and often about action plans. Throughout the pandemic, Nancy communicated regularly to the company. Understanding the urgency to provide leadership with a personal connection, she often communicated using video conferencing and recorded videos.

In one of the first video memos, she shared that because anxiety creates uncertainty, she wanted to make sure to talk to us about things we were uncertain about, and to be transparent and share what she knew and didn’t know, so, we could be privy to the health of the company. Throughout the pandemic she met this standard and kept us informed. She communicated frequently, with empathy, authority, and vision.

At times throughout this journey, she shared with us the seemingly insurmountable roadblocks and tough choices that she and the executive team were faced with. The COVID-19 crisis was full of tough times, and Nancy didn’t sugarcoat the struggles and grief. But she didn’t leave us in the pit either. Instead, she rallied us to fight, mustered in us the resolve to keep going, and motivated us by sharing accomplishments and praise.

For example, as 2020 was ending she shared: “I’m proud of you. I can’t say there’s been a season where I’ve been more proud of a group of people in my life. Your unrelenting will, sacrifice, and tenacity to move heaven and earth to make people stronger communicators has been humbling and moving. I am moved as I watch in awe your commitment to transform people’s lives.”

An external crisis demands transformational leadership

Third, research shows that transformational leadership is the leadership style most suited to handle external crises. According to experts, “The transformational leader is described as self-assured, adaptive, and logical. He/she (sic) consults with subordinates and seeks input to make consensus decisions. This type of leader thinks strategically, is detail-oriented yet able to see the big picture, and is capable of drawing from diverse experiences to connect the dots using cause-and-effect logic.”

As we all know, there were far reaching effects on businesses during the pandemic. In research we conducted last year, we found that many businesses struggled to move past crisis mode. And, as strong of a position as we’ve been in, Duarte wasn’t immune to the negative impacts of the pandemic. Tough choices were made in order to get us through one of the longest external crises businesses have faced in our lifetime. In a video memo to us, Nancy acknowledged the pain that businesses and employees, including ours, were experiencing. She shared the reasons for the strategic, and at times painful, choices being made to keep the business strong and prepared for uncertainty, as the pandemic stretched on and we witnessed small business closures around the country.

These times were hard for us all, and Nancy acknowledged such. She didn’t shy away from the hard truths. Rather, she stepped up and continuously and transparently shared information in an effort to keep us informed, which in turn increased trust between us. She also balanced the delivery of information that can be both hard to hear and deliver, with opportunities to keep the ship moving forward. Part of the culture at Duarte is to lead and to serve, and Nancy tugged on those values to empower each of us to create a supportive, collaborative, empathetic, and productive working environment.

As an example of the balancing act between compassion, tough choices, seeing the big picture, but also being detail-oriented, Nancy said, “For me it’s been an interesting season of contrasts, where I might work on something and have joy and passion seeing how undeterred you all are and seeing our company vision come to reality brings me joy and it humbles me. Then the very next day I might feel sorrow because we had to part with some of our dear friends and we know it hurt them. These contrasts of emotions are real. We can have a day of incredible accomplishments and wins, and the next day I’m tending to things that no CEO should have to do in a pandemic. It’s been like that for me and I can’t imagine how it’s been for you. I don’t have the pressure of having kids under foot going back to school. And, I want to give all of you parents permission. Permission to be a little bit harried, to not do everything perfectly, permission to have kids crawling all over you,… and I just want to give you permission to not even perform at your best. Because, it’s just been a really hard time and I want to support you… I want you to feel like you have any and all support from this organization. I am also excited how we are pulling out of this, but I also want to say I know it’s hard, and I know there’s drag, and friction and I just felt like I needed to acknowledge that. My hope for you is that you, and we, all emerge from this soon completely transformed from this experience.”

Nancy also relied on company values to demonstrate how we could use them, not just for work, but to care for each other generally. For example, in the late summer and early fall of 2020, California was suffering from the effects of the pandemic, as well as the raging California wildfires. Nancy never let us lose sight of what was most important, and this time it was our safety. She said in a video memo to employees, “Mark and I want to make one thing clear, our highest priority is for you to be safe.” She followed that statement with examples of how they have helped fellow employees flee from dangerous environmental disasters. “Don’t worry about how you might pay for getting out of a dangerous or unsafe situation, we will have your back..”

A lot of what Nancy built over 32 years came to light during the COVID-19 crisis. The intentional design of our company culture enabled us to ride the waves of uncertainty throughout the pandemic and allowed her to leverage those cultural values to lead us through dark times. It was the successful application of management leadership principles — expectation management, resolving the crisis and communicating clear response plans, and transformational leadership — in tandem with our company values, that contributed to our executive team’s successful handling of the pandemic response.

This pandemic has provided us with a lot of lessons, one of them being that we need leaders to show up for us and illuminate the path forward. The application of crisis management leadership principles combined with strong values grounded in compassion and empathy, will enable leaders to illuminate the path forward and your company to emerge from this experience transformed and more united than ever.


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