Leading through COVID
As I transitioned out of Nuts.com this summer, where I spent most of my time as COO, I wanted to jot down some of the essential lessons I learned while helping lead through the COVID-19 pandemic.
For context, Nuts.com is a family-run business that primarily operates out of its warehouse in Cranford, New Jersey. In March 2020, New Jersey quickly became one of the epicenters of the pandemic, and we were faced with a life-changing and life-threatening situation. As an online supplier of so many household staples, we knew we had a responsibility to stay open through the pandemic; simultaneously, we were forced to navigate decisions regarding how to keep our employees safe.
This conflict of interests initially seemed impossible to overcome. However, because we had a solid foundation, we managed to successfully quadruple our capacity. We could only accomplish this through the joint efforts of so many people, especially our five-hundred warehouse employees, who placed their trust in us and allowed us to lead them through such a volatile time.
As I reflected on Spring 2020, I recall the following principles carrying us forward through the most challenging times:
# 1: Get the right people on the bus.
I remember reading Jim Collin’s book, “Good to Great” in high school. His message always resonated with me: the idea that you need to “get the right people on the bus” and then make sure they are in the right seat before you can successfully travel anywhere. At Nuts.com, we had spent the last few years hiring and building a solid team that could function in synchrony. When the pandemic hit, I was unable to connect frequently with each team, which honestly left them unsupported for considerable periods of time. Still, I knew that I had the right people on the bus. This gave me the confidence to prioritize my time and focus on the company’s more pressing challenges.
Lesson: Hiring the right people will elevate your organization and your ability to be an effective leader.
# 2: Don’t be a firefighter, be a smoke detector installer.
Do you find yourself putting out small fires on a daily basis? As leaders, we should help our team build tools to catch a spark before it can spread further.
At Nuts.com, we had always placed great importance on such detectors, designed to monitor changes in supply/demand that would benefit from immediate recognition and response. This was best exemplified by the tools employed by our flour business during the pandemic. Our buyers, through their detectors, noticed a spike in flour sales early in the pandemic and immediately secured supply when others were not considering flour supply. This resulted in our flour business, which was initially a small % of our sales, experiencing a 100x growth.
Lesson: Don't assume the position of a firefighter. Empower your team to build the tools needed to be successful.
#3: Simple metrics are almost always better than complex models.
When leading a team, the simplest metrics, without the extensive glitz and glam, are those that often drive results. It is most important for team members to understand what is being measured and why. For example, we had two clear objectives during the pandemic:
Keep our employees safe
Effectively scale our operations
These objectives were translated into a few simple metrics that could easily be measured and distributed to the entire organization. The speed of delivery and simplicity resulted in complete alignment, a scenario where we all spoke the same language. Teams were able to easily come together and drive value when focusing on our two key objectives.
Lesson: It is most important for everyone in the organization to embrace a few simple metrics. From a leadership standpoint, you need to ensure you are fleshing these metrics out regularly. Once you do this, the morale of your employees will improve, and your output will correspondingly increase.
#4: Getting consensus is valuable but should never prevent leaders from making the ultimate decision.
Being at the epicenter of the pandemic meant our understanding of the situation was changing by the hour. This made it difficult to make decisions as everyone’s perspectives were varied. As leaders in this pandemic, we were responsible for making tough decisions with confidence and speed, even when there wasn't consensus. While this may occasionally lead to the wrong call, ultimately, it is a leader’s responsibility to effectively and efficiently move things forward.
Lesson: Leading effectively is predicated on your ability to make decisions. At times of duress when consensus cannot be obtained, be sure to confidently make the ultimate decision.
#5: Find your Yoda.
I am thankful to have a father who has had his own experiences with building a business. Having a person with insight relevant to your situation can be a lifesaver. When I felt “stuck in the weeds” and unable to see the finish line amidst the gloom, my dad’s outside perspective allowed me to get to the root of the problem far quicker than if I had done it alone.
Lesson: We tend to blow our own issues out of proportion, but a good mentor can provide invaluable support in helping you grow. Don’t be scared to ask for help.
This inventory of reflections is by no means comprehensive, and I only played a small role in the tumultuous year we endured together at Nuts.com. Each of these principles helped me navigate through one of the toughest years of my life, both personally and professionally. While I hope we are never again faced with similar circumstances, I believe these tools are relevant and can be applied to various leadership challenges. I hope you find them valuable as well.