Lessons in Leadership Learned in the Pandemic

Kendra Davenport. Operation Smile photo: Kristen Zeis.

Much has been written about how the pandemic has changed the way we work, interact with colleagues, approach our professions and manage the new stresses it has created.

No matter your profession — whether it be blue- or white-collar — chances are you are not operating the same way you were prior to March 2020. For some of us, the changes brought about by the pandemic and our response to it may be subtle, while for others, it may be stark.

However, all of us have been forced to adapt.

In the early days of the pandemic, any talk about the positives it could create came with a sense of guilt, especially as more of us became impacted by COVID-19 and people lost their lives. But over the course of nearly two years, our reaction to the notion that some good has come out of the havoc wreaked by this lethal disease has softened.

Many of us can now admit — a little less defensively — that some positive effects have emerged, especially in the way we work and the way we approach our work.

For those touched personally by COVID-19, seeing anything positive in the wake of relatives and friends battling or tragically succumbing to the disease is immensely more difficult. Recognizing the reality of both perspectives and understanding why people feel the way they do has stretched even the most compassionate of managers among us.

While pre-pandemic, we may have thought of ourselves as compassionate professionals, imbuing understanding and empathy in day-to-day interactions with teammates, colleagues and the people we manage has recently proved more challenging.

No longer could we simply encourage colleagues and more junior employees to take paid time off if they felt overwhelmed or were coping with a family illness or death. At that time, there was nowhere for them to go. For much of the past year and half, many of us have been operating remotely, and with travel limited for months, it was nearly impossible for people to escape their troubles even briefly. There was, for many, no way to safely go home to family or visit friends in search of solace and comfort.

Kendra Davenport. Operation Smile photo: Kristen Zeis.

To fill the void, people turned to work for the support they needed. As a manager, I felt obligated to help my team cope with the weight, strain and sadness the pandemic brought into their lives. Even those of us spared from being personally impacted by the disease watched the toll it took on so many people we cared about, and that filled many of us with sadness and a sense of helplessness. And then there was the unending and, at times, all-consuming worry we or our loved ones could contract the disease.

All of this and more hung heavy in the air, making it difficult to enjoy even the smallest things. I thought about this a great deal and worried about the well-being of my people, but I also worried about how we were going to meet our goals and get our work done.

Keeping the team buoyant and thinking positively became my primary objective. I became a voracious consumer of all sources of information about how to work effectively at home, avoid burnout, manage competing personal and professional priorities, make the most of our new “home offices,” talk about COVID-19, empathize meaningfully, and so many other things we were suddenly forced to work through.

Almost overnight, there were endless issues to worry about and even more to try to understand. Yet amid all of it, work was a constant that never abated. If anything, it became more challenging as the uncertainty of what would happen to charitable giving loomed large over our development department and its charge to raise the money on which the organization depends.

Organizationally, Operation Smile struggled to work around the world as more countries became gripped by the pandemic. Just a matter of weeks after its onset, our cleft surgical programs were halted. Shortly after that, senior management began to weigh the possibility of needing to contract and reduce costs in the short term. We implemented layoffs, which inevitably heightened angst and uncertainty among our staff.

Just when I thought things could not get any more complicated, very soon after we laid people off, we were besieged by a wave of resignations that affected many similar business and NGOs.

However, in the face of the compounding pressure, stress and uncertainty our team was feeling, they amazed me by continuing to exceed goals on virtually every front.

“Adversity is a sage teacher, and that if we’re open to its lessons, there is much to learn.”

Despite the continuously mounting obstacles and vexing challenges, we were working optimally, and our results had never been better. Looking back, I think our success amid chaos all around us was tied very directly to our team’s cohesion. Through adversity often comes strength, and while the chaos seemed overwhelming at times, I think it compelled us to work more closely, enhancing collaboration, transparency and sharing.

Most of my staff began to recognize that, on any given day and at any given time, their colleagues could be overcome by events beyond their control — children needing their attention while they juggled homeschooling and work or by more dire and emotionally charged situations that demanded their attention. Recognition gave way to empathy and fortified the team’s penchant for helping one another. Paving the way for this new and improved esprit de corps was the knowledge that we were all in the same boat, coping with the same or similar issues and struggling to get through each day. That solidarity was powerful and fueled a palpable sense of goodwill and support among our entire team.

It’s been said that people don’t know their own strength until they are truly tested. Throughout the pandemic, we have all been put through some tests. At work, I can honestly say that a tremendous amount of good emerged, reaffirming my long-held belief that adversity is a sage teacher, and that if we’re open to its lessons, there is much to learn.

One of the most important lessons that managing a development team through the pandemic taught me is that if kindness and compassion are championed, those values will only grow among colleagues. I saw this over and over as my team reached out to help each other, cheer one another up, support each other and overlook unintentional slights whenever possible — to give each other what I refer to as “space and grace.” The human capacity for kindness is tremendous and I found great comfort in witnessing it every day in our department.

Kendra Davenport comforts Katerin, a 16-month old patient, during the May 2021 Operation Smile surgical program in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Operation Smile photo: Rohanna Mertens.

I also internalized and began to more fervently believe that vulnerability in the office is not only OK, but also critical to creating an atmosphere of trust and respect. I truly feel the pandemic brought the human side of all of us into the workplace. As we negotiated the effects of screaming children and barking dogs on conference calls, we also got more comfortable seeing our colleagues — and ourselves — in a more personal way. Virtual work was an equalizer because even the most organized, buttoned-up and professional employee could be working in their pajama bottoms at their kitchen table.

While our video calls often looked like a hodgepodge of casual, professional, disheveled and workout-attired participants, the content we discussed, our diligence and our ability to process information and participate fully wasn’t compromised. Even though many of us adopted a more relaxed look, our work skills seemed as sharp as ever — maybe even sharper.

Soft surveys found that most of our team was finding it easier to work from home after the first six months of quarantining. People said that they were more focused, comfortable and productive working at home than in the office.

Again, this adaptation facilitated tremendous output and generated terrific results. This surprised me more than anything about the new normal to which we are adjusting and taught me that people rise to the occasion if they believe they’re trusted. All my preconceived notions about people being more productive when working from the office were obliterated, as we ended the fiscal year well ahead of our projected revenue goals in virtually every division.

The pandemic taught me that while titles and paygrades may separate us on an org chart, at our core, we are all human and our similarities far outweigh our differences. I found this out because, ironically, being apart brought us together. Virtual meetings had a way of facilitating conversation and meeting icebreakers quickly became unnecessary because people were eager to talk with their colleagues.

I found virtual communication, while not ideal for every conversation, had its unexpected advantages. Because we weren’t sitting around a table in the office, where professional hierarchy is typically obvious, the playing field seemed a bit more level, giving even the most junior or new employee the courage to share opinions openly and to speak up. It was refreshing hearing from otherwise quiet employees, and in every conversation, I found I learned things I never knew about many of the people I managed.

Throughout the pandemic, I have worked hard alongside my team to encourage, support and champion them as they worked to overcome their fears and unease about life in the mist of VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. It wasn’t always easy to play the role of cheerleader because, like all of them, I had tough days, but I received so much more from all of them than I gave. It was truly them who lifted me up and helped me navigate both professional and personal challenges made more acute by COVID-19.

In this aspect, the pandemic reversed our roles — they taught me, and I learned from them. In making me feel appreciated, understood and valued, my team helped me manage the VUCA created by the pandemic. They enabled me to become more effective professionally because I became stronger personally.

The past 18 months or so have tested all of us, and though we are still coping with the effects of COVID-19, we have learned life lessons as professionals that have helped us all become better humans.

Kendra Davenport. Operation Smile photo: Kristen Zeis.

Kendra Davenport, MPL, CFRE, serves as the chief development officer for Operation Smile, where she manages multichannel global philanthropy efforts, which include domestic and international corporate fundraising, mass market and direct response, digital fundraising, major gifts and planned giving, community engagement, special events and partnerships, private sector grants, and government relations.

Much of her career has been devoted to the cultivation of funding relationships with corporations, capitalizing on the growing commitment of national and multinational companies to meaningful, metric-driven corporate social responsibility.

Working closely with C-suite industry leaders, Kendra has designed and implemented a myriad of mutually beneficial national initiatives including point-of-purchase sales programs, cobranded marketing and advertising campaigns, and a host of special events. As philanthropy has evolved, Kendra has helped several nongovernmental organizations diversify their philanthropic portfolios to keep pace with change and growth by utilizing technology.

Kendra brings more than three decades of experience working exclusively in the nonprofit arena, specializing in development. She possesses extensive management experience, having overseen more than 1,000 African national staff across 18 sub-Saharan countries in a previous position. She has managed several complex national development and communications portfolios, served as president of a small nonprofit, and served as a philanthropy and communications consultant to several nonprofit and proprietary organizations.

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Through our expertise in treating cleft lip and cleft palate, we create solutions that deliver safe surgery to people where it’s needed most. operationsmile.org

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Operation Smile

Operation Smile

Through our expertise in treating cleft lip and cleft palate, we create solutions that deliver safe surgery to people where it’s needed most. operationsmile.org

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