Thriving in Tough Times: Leadership Lessons with John Baird

This is part three of the Mayfield series, “Thriving in Tough Times: Expert Insights.” In this series, we will share key takeaways and lessons learned from experts across a variety of fields. Stay tuned for content on reputation management, leveraging marketing, leading in challenging times, sales strategy in times of crisis, pivoting field marketing to digital, and more.

Even in normal circumstances, leaders are constantly pulled in a million directions, and in challenging times like these, it’s even more difficult to keep a clear head and support your team. For this week’s installment of Thriving in Tough Times, we heard from John Baird, legendary executive coach, on how CEOs can address and lead through uncertainty. John has been coaching CEOs and founders in the valley for over 20 years, including through the dotcom bust and 2008 financial crisis. He’s worked with a range of companies – including both early stage startups, and Fortune 500 leaders from companies like Apple and Nike. 

Here were some of his key takeaways:


Leaders set the emotional tone for their organizations. 

There is an old Marine saying that “an officer never runs,” meaning that even in times of crisis, the officer always has to stay calm – if a leader panics, their team will panic too. Leaders have a huge impact on the overall mood of their organization, so maintaining a sense of calm is key in times like these is essential. As you communicate with your team, be mindful of your nonverbal cues – tone of voice, facial expressions, body movement etc – as only 7% of a message is conveyed with the words used.


Give your team a goal to rally around and keep them focused on the task at hand.

In times like these when morale is low and the current situation provides endless distractions, keeping your team focused on a goal bigger than themselves – and helping them focus on their specific task to achieve that goal – is crucial. Rally your team around your company’s mission, and repeat that mission-focused message consistently – as John says, what gets repeated gets remembered. Centering your team on the group goal as well as their individual role in it helps them focus on what they can control in this situation, rather than what they can’t.


Make sure your people feel heard.

As everyone tries to navigate these times, it’s important as a leader to “be the rock that a wave of emotion can crash upon.” Your team is likely experiencing a wide range of emotions related to the uncertainty of our current reality – for some it may manifest as fear; for others, anger; and some may shut down. It’s important as a leader to hold space for your team members to share these emotions. John encourages leaders to think about what they can do to make sure that all your employees are being heard.


Adapt the work environment to a new reality.

While some companies were already remote-first, many are experiencing work from home for the first time. Working remotely is not the same as working in a central office, and leaders need to address this change and figure out ways to support employees through this transition. Whether it’s new tools or shifting productivity expectations, leaders need to adapt work to the new environment, rather than expecting employees to figure it out on their own.


Communicate what you know when you know it.

This is a tip that keeps coming up from our experts in this series – and for good reason. Transparency and consistency in communications with your team are critical for maintaining trust across the organization. John notes that communicating what you don’t know is as important as communicating what you do know. It’s important to address issues as they come up, even if you don’t have all the answers yet.

As CEOs navigate their organizations through choppy waters, their leadership will be tested – but if they are able to support their teams like John has laid out, they’ll come out stronger on the other side. Thanks again to John for joining us and sharing some of his top lessons for leadership in challenging times. For more tips from John, read his blog, and stay tuned for more expert insights next week. 

During this time of turmoil and uncertainty, one of the most important things for startup Founders and CEOs is peer support. Velocity Group is offering free Founder Circles for the month of April to provide Founders and CEOs with a safe space to share and learn together. The Founder Circle will be led by Velocity’s team of Executive Coaches. If you or someone you know is interested in joining a Founder Circle next month, please contact Edward Sullivan directly at

For more expert insights on thriving in tough times, check out the previous posts in the series.

  • Originally published April 20, 2020