Leading in a pandemic: Tips from Sprout Social's founder

NEW YORK, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Like many other CEOs, Justyn Howard, who founded Sprout Social Inc in 2010, has faced a plethora of new challenges in the past year. The Chicago-based company, which helps more than 25,000 brands manage and optimize their social media platforms, became a publicly traded company in 2019 - and then COVID-19 hit.

A big lesson learned by Howard is that “people are extraordinary,” he said. “I’m in total awe of what our people have been able to accomplish with everything going on, and of the will of people generally to manage a situation like this. What I’ve seen in 2020 gives me total confidence that we’ll be OK.”

Howard spoke to Reuters about leading through a pandemic while working from home. Edited excerpts are below.

Q. You’ve talked about how creating and having a strong culture at your company lays the groundwork for being able to power through tough times. How is it working out?

A. When things are running smoothly, culture can be a force multiplier, but you don’t realize how powerful it really is until things get hard.

Our team had every reason to be distracted and overwhelmed. Instead, they’ve continuously showed up and delivered for our customers and each other.

We’ve also been mindful about supporting what our people are going through. Childcare is a concern, workspace is a concern, burnout is a concern - we moved quickly to relieve the pressure wherever we could, and we’re still actively adjusting.

Q. Everyone is communicating so much more virtually these days. Do you have any advice on balancing all that in your work life?

A. The move to virtual meetings has been net-neutral. It’s convenient to eliminate travel and downtime associated with in-person meetings, but being in front of a camera all day has its own challenges. The volume of meetings has also probably increased this year.

The most helpful “hacks” I’ve found are to be even more deliberate about which meetings are necessary, being really intentional with my workspace and to use the phone to give people breaks from the camera where possible.

It’s also been helpful to give people options about their preferred communication methods. We have to remember that we work with people across the introvert/extrovert spectrum, and some of the fatigue and communication challenges we see in this environment are counterintuitive. Choice and flexibility are really useful tools.

Q. What is your biggest work-life challenge?

A. It’s been hard to be in the next room from my kids, and avoid the urge to just go do a puzzle or make a mess with them. Pre-COVID, that struggle didn’t exist - they were at school and we were at work.

I’m really grateful to be able to break and get a hug in the middle of the day, but there’s a subtle struggle in compartmentalizing our work and family in this environment.

Q. What is your work-from-home setup?

A. I’ve got an office set up next to the kids’ play area, which can be a blessing and a curse. I threw away any sense of interior design and configured it to be comfortable for hours in virtual meetings.

I also made sure I have a place to sit that isn’t my desk. Focus work for me requires a different environment, even if it’s just a different chair.

The “breakthrough” upgrade I made was getting a DSLR camera to replace my laptop’s webcam. I can plug in and go without having to worry about the angle or lighting or all the other things we stress over. Totally worth it.

Q. What are some new work habits?

A. Changing my attitude toward breaks has been really helpful. In our old routines, some change of scenery or context was built in to our day. We’d walk across the office, go to lunch, take a call - there was variety.

We don’t really have that now, and adjusting to the idea of taking a “meaningless” break just to change things up was an important thing for me to figure out. (Reporting by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan Editing by Lauren Young and Matthew Lewis)