In February 2020, I took my first C-suite role at TXI, a digital product innovation consultancy. I assumed my biggest challenges would be expanding my influencing skills and improving my delegation. A few weeks later, the United States began COVID lockdowns. Since that time, we’ve navigated racial justice uprisings, an intense national election followed by an insurrection, a surging tech market followed by a maybe-maybe-not recession, and multiple international wars, to name only the ones burned most indelibly into my brain.
David Shariatmadari, writing for Collins Dictionary when it named “permacrisis” its 2022 word of the year, described it as “the dizzying sense of lurching from one unprecedented event to another, as we wonder bleakly what new horrors might be around the corner.”
As Chiefs of Staff, we can’t get thrown off course by every new crisis that hits our inbox or news feed. We’re trusted to prioritize what’s most important for our principals and our organizations, regardless of what urgent things vie for our attention. In my tenure as a Chief of Staff, I’ve found several key methods to maintain focus and prioritize effectively amid permacrisis.
Be consistent in your vision.
As a Chief of Staff, you’re often the one conveying the organization’s vision, ensuring it’s communicated consistently at all levels and threaded throughout all of your organization’s work. This clear, consistent communication is even more essential during permacrisis.
When a new urgent issue hits, ask: Does this change the thoughtful work we’re doing to build toward our vision? Think clearly about whether your big-picture priorities need to change in response to this specific issue. Occasionally, it might, but if you’re reprioritizing constantly, that’s an indication that your vision isn’t as clear or powerful as you hope it is.
Block time to think strategically.
Days as a Chief of Staff are dense, especially if you work remotely and are mostly in front of a screen, getting endless pings from multiple devices. This intensifies during permacrisis, when news seems to break around the clock.
As leaders, we must take a step back from this onslaught to look at the bigger picture and think strategically. At TXI, we run on EOS, which recommends “clarity breaks.” These are times alone and away from your typical office space to think about where you’re going and what really matters.
The cadence will vary person to person, but it needs to happen on a regular basis. I’ve found that our leadership team likes the idea of these clarity breaks but doesn’t consistently prioritize them. They either fail to put breaks on their calendars entirely or book over them as urgent issues arise - which they always do. A couple of tactics that have worked for me:
- Put recurring calendar blocks on your principal’s or LT’s calendars and then check in the day or week before (depending on how often the blocks happen) to ensure that they’re holding the time.
- Make the meeting appear to be synchronous time with another person (for example, your principal and you) or a private event. This makes it less likely that others will book over the time. I’d rather model taking the time to step away and think strategically, but sometimes a little subterfuge is more effective.
Name the crisis and its impacts specifically.
There’s a big difference between “The market is in chaos!” and “We’re seeing a 20% decrease in inbound sales, and interest rates are holding high which makes a new capital infusion unlikely in the next 12 months.” If your leaders are coming in with anxiety around broad situations, ask specific questions around what evidence they’re seeing, what they’ve experienced, and what data they have.
Once you’re specific about what’s happening, dig a bit deeper. Get clear on how and why this matters for your organization. This thing may be happening in the world, but you need to understand the realistic impacts for you: your employees, your customers, your competitors, your suppliers, etc. This gives you a clearer picture of what types of mitigations or solutions you need to prioritize, and what work can continue unaffected.
Facilitate an “even over” exercise.
“Even overs” force you to clearly prioritize one outcome even over many other desirable outcomes. This isn’t so different from the kind of card sort exercise that a product manager might run with users. As a Chief of Staff, to some extent you are the product manager of your organization, and your leadership team are key stakeholders.
When a new issue emerges, ask: Does this take priority even over the other thing that we already prioritized? Because there is only one top spot on the priority list, it forces the conversation around why this new issue suddenly takes precedent. Depending on the crisis, making it the new top priority may be the right call - but you should only do that after thoughtful conversation about the rationale and the tradeoffs.
Separate the needs of individuals and organizations.
As crises hit, they may have multiple levels of impact: on your people, on your product, on the broader market, and so on. Handle these different impacts separately, starting with the individuals. If certain people within your organization are particularly affected by a crisis (for example, Black employees in the wake of the murder of George Floyd) prioritize what they need. Ensure they’re supported with resources like an Employee Assistance Program and flexible time off. This includes your leadership team, and yourself. It’s easy to dive right into the organizational side of a crisis and ignore your own personal, emotional response, but that will be to the detriment of yourself and your ability to respond effectively. This is the organizational equivalent of putting your own oxygen mask on first.
We can absolutely hope for a time beyond permacrisis. But in the meantime, smart Chiefs of Staff can use these techniques to stay calm and steady and keep their organizations and principals focused on the right priorities, no matter what news breaks.
Claire Podulka is Chief of Staff at digital product innovation firm TXI, where she supports the organization in delivering engaging experiences and custom software to companies ranging from startups to Fortune 100s. She serves as a trusted advisor to senior executives and owns organizational results for a team of 70+, ultimately making TXI more effective, sustainable, and transparent. Prior to joining TXI, she spent the majority of her career in education and led content development as managing editor for ThinkCERCA, an award-winning edtech literacy product.