Here’s a plan for dealing with a global pandemic: Step 1: Pull out the playbook. Step 2: Apply playbook to dynamic situation requiring quick decisions based on incomplete information. Step 3: Tear up playbook.

Welcome to the work life of Michelle Dilley, Chief Operating Officer for CJ/DSC Logistics, who oversees the intricate, high-speed flow of goods through multiple global supply chains for an international roster of companies. It’s a job that was complex before the outbreak of COVID-19; today it is like flying an airplane while building it. 

“This thing changes every single day,” she sighs.

There’s something karmic about becoming a leader in your profession because you’re skilled in analysis, control, and process management only to be in charge during a situation that doesn’t bend to the skills that got you to the top. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a massive disruptor of many things, supply chains included. In response, logistics experts like Michelle have had to call upon equally non-traditional ways of managing, teaming, and inspiring.

“We focused on doing what was needed to keep people safe.”

At CJ/DCS Logistics, changes to the management playbook began early, as initial indicators of the pandemic’s impact started pouring in. One of the first steps was to replace vertical thinking based on departmental roles with a cross-functional leadership team that pulled together people from Operations, Safety, HR, Legal, and Marketing. The team’s mandate was to make sense of news that was changing by the hour; then establish procedures to run a rapidly shifting business.

“In a situation like this, you need a tight team,” says Michelle. “That first week, we gave ourselves the job of coming up with all the ‘what if’ scenarios we could think of: What if employees started testing positive? What if people don’t show up to work? Then we started building out protocols and communications to handle those scenarios.” 

The next challenge was to manage the unforeseeable. Because many of CJ/DSC Logistics customers are in the CPG (consumer packaged goods) sector or healthcare, they were deemed essential businesses whose products had to keep flowing. But a different problem arose: For some clients, traffic volume mushroomed 200% overnight. How does a third-party logistics provider staff up for that—assuming employees are even willing to do what’s needed?

“It’s one thing to lead an organization where the workload has doubled overnight,” says Michelle. “It’s another when the employees you need to handle that workload are nervous about leaving the house, much less coming into work.”

This twist called for a new set of skills: Empathy. Creating security. Being a “mama bear” for employees. 

“We focused on doing what was needed to keep people safe. Then they could feel okay about coming in and working long hours,” says Michelle. “Even before we had to, we were requiring protective equipment and checking everyone’s temperature. And we also went to customers and talked about giving special compensation to support the employees doing that work.” 

Another skill: Communicate. There was no time to carefully craft messages and control what came out when. Michelle and the team focused instead on sharing as much information as they could, with everyone, and often.

“We decided we could not over-communicate,” she says. “So we used every medium: Emails. Robo-calls. Town halls. Video conferences. And not just with employees; we were sharing constantly with customers, too. We’d just say, ‘This is what we know at this point in time. And here’s our current thinking.’”

All of which brought Michelle to embrace one more aspect of leadership that’s not always in the playbook: Vulnerability. It’s been different to have to admit all she didn’t know in the face of COVID-19. But Michelle thinks doing so has allowed others to do the same. 

“I have this bi-weekly call with the top 200 leaders in the field,” says Michelle. “And I'm using the time to really speak from the heart. I notice the men doing that more, too, in their organizations. Maybe that’s something that just comes more naturally for women. Maybe that’s one of our gifts. But I sure think it’s what’s required right now. And for women to claim that leadership role, helping us all manage through this COVID crisis—that’s a really, really positive thing.”

Click here to learn more about Michelle and her story. 

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