What the Pandemic Taught Me About Leadership

Private Sector

Jen Easterly is Head of Firm Resilience and the Fusion Resilience Center at Morgan Stanley.  She is also the Biden Administration’s nominee to become the next Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) within the Department of Homeland Security.  Easterly previously served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism and as Deputy for Counterterrorism at the National Security Agency.

PERSPECTIVE — Looking back on my past four and a half years at Morgan Stanley, there are many highlights and many valuable learnings. Among some of the most valuable experiences included building a new team and helping to lead the Firm’s response to COVID-19. In December 2019, we established the Fusion Resilience Center, building on the Cybersecurity Fusion Center, with the mission to understand, prepare for, respond and recover and learn from any operational threat or risk that could impact the Firm. The expanded Center brought together groups across the Firm from eight countries around the globe, including the Business Continuity Management and Technology Disaster Recovery Teams, the Global Intelligence and Cyber Event Management Teams, the Cyber Exercise Program, and the Enterprise Command Center, responsible for technology incident management.

A welcome message to the new team sent on Friday, 13 December 2019 noted, “As we approach the dawn of a new decade, we recognize that the world is a highly complicated and dangerous place; our ability to operate effectively across the globe with minimal disruption will be critical to our long-term success. In that context, I’m incredibly excited about our opportunity to create a capability to effectively deal with the broader landscape of threats which may impact the Firm, from cyber and fraud, to technology incidents, weather, natural disasters, geopolitical unrest, and such low-probability but high-impact events as terrorist attacks or pandemics.”

While not expecting that such a low-probability, high-impact event would be on our doorstep in a matter of weeks, by Friday, 13 March – just 3 months later – Firm personnel who could work from home were directed to do so, and a little over two weeks later, over 90% of the Firm would in fact be working from home, much like the rest of the country and other parts of the world.

Sixteen months later, as we now begin to welcome more of our teammates back to the office, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on some key lessons learned or perhaps more appropriately, lessons reinforced. I suspect most of this will seem fairly obvious, but thought I’d share it in case there are points that resonate.

Leadership vs. Management: Early on in the event, it became clear that effectively navigating a successful response across the Firm would require people leadership, not program management. As cases and deaths began to rise, as people we knew became infected; as we worried about our children, our parents, our friends; as a walk outside or a subway trip began to feel dangerous; as our favorite restaurants & bars began to shut down; as some of us found ourselves alone and isolated; as fear, anxiety and uncertainty became the norm, we recognized that we would be called upon not just to manage our team, but to lead our people – with empathy, with compassion, with honesty & authenticity. The normal lines between the personal and the professional inevitably blurred as some of us tried to focus on work while also taking care of young children or as we worried about our elderly family members or sick neighbors. They blurred even more in early June, as we confronted a second and much more long-standing pandemic of systemic racial injustice. Never before had inspirational leadership, active listening, kindness, and instilling a sense of psychological safety & belonging been so important, so relevant, and so necessary. As the saying goes, your title makes you a manager; your people make you a leader – something to keep top of mind as we welcome our teams back into the office.

“It’s the Data…”: I spent part of my career at the National Security Agency, working with some incredibly brilliant technologists. The heart of the Agency is rooted in its cryptologists, a group whose motto is, “Look at the Data.” It has struck me on more than one occasion that this could also be the mantra of our COVID-19 experience. If the North Stars of our response were keeping our people safe and our businesses resilient, our compass was calibrated by constant analysis of the data, particularly as seen through the expertise of our Chief Medical Officer Dr. Dave Stark and the continual updates provided by our Global Intelligence team. This involved daily assessment & synthesis of multiple sources of information, close review of the trends around the world, and predictive analysis of what was on the horizon that enabled us to anticipate impacts and respond proactively with measures to contain the virus and mitigate its spread. While this approach ultimately proved of value, it did at times collide with misinformation & disinformation, as well as the hope that the flu would go away or not impact us significantly. And while we all optimistically hoped for the best, we realistically planned & prepared for the worst, at all times guided by the data.

It Takes a Network to Defeat a Network: Retired Army General Stan McChrystal who rebuilt Joint Special Operations Command to ultimately defeat al-Qaida in Iraq, talks about building a network of trust, purpose and shared consciousness among thousands of teammates across multiple time zones to defeat a formidable terrorist network. Our daily Coronavirus calls began in late January 2020 with a group of 15 leaders across Human Resources, Corporate Services, and Asia Regional Management and grew to over a hundred senior leaders across every Region & Business Unit, into what ultimately became a platform for ensuring real-time shared situational awareness, transparent communications, global policy alignment, and a collaborative forum for problem solving in response to rapidly emerging issues. Over the weeks and months, through those group meetings and through the development of other regional-led coronavirus calls, we effectively became a globally connected network of leaders and subject matter experts collectively focused on protecting our teams & our businesses from a vicious and virally networked disease. As Fusion was a relatively new organization, this also necessitated hours of offline phone calls focused on building new relationships to instill trust and confidence in our overall response – further reinforcing the importance of building & cultivating a strong network of partners.

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Diversity Wins: Even amidst the crisis, we were constantly seeking feedback and looking for opportunities to continually improve our response process. While our initial efforts got us successfully to a place in late March where over 90% of the Firm was working productively and effectively from home, we recognized that our Return to Workplace efforts would be far more complicated and would necessitate a Task Force approach to enable our collective readiness across multiple key functions. The Task Force we established in mid-April was comprised of several workstreams: Medical Readiness led by Dr. Stark who was later joined by Dr. Kim Henderson; People Readiness led by Pattie Gould and later Cheryl Palmerini; Facilities Readiness led by Ekene Ezulike & Caroline Nicholls; Technology Readiness led by Olga Zeltser and later Chris Mann; Vendor Readiness led by Charlie Chasin; and Communications led by Amina Elderfield. While this team came together organically based on experience, expertise & responsibilities, its collective composition is striking: a group comprised of different races, genders, national origins, sexual orientations, backgrounds, and education levels. In sum, an incredible example of diverse leadership working together dynamically to create an effective strategy to enable the safe return of those willing & able to do so in a phased, deliberate way.

Never Waste an Opportunity to Innovate: A key lesson learned from my time as an Army officer deployed to Baghdad during the surge was to take advantage of every opportunity to rapidly innovate during a crisis: urgency often breeds greater willingness and ability to take calculated risks and try new things. Throughout the last year and a half, we took advantage of the crisis to create several new capabilities. These included the rapid establishment of a COVID-19 Hotline and associated Coronavirus Case Management (CCM) system to enable effective contact tracing and monitoring of both probable and confirmed cases throughout the Firm. They also included the development and implementation of a Firm-wide symptom-checking app known as HealthCheck, built and deployed in less than two months as a critical element of our layered defense to keep our personnel safe & healthy. In addition, they included the creation of an Active Indicator Dashboard that brought together the key medical and economic indicators around COVID-19 to provide a composite picture of its trajectory around the world, down to the country, state, and county level. As our data was most comprehensive in the US and the decision most complicated given our 580+ branches arrayed across the country, we spent hours working with our Wealth Management colleagues to iterate updates to the dashboard on an almost daily basis in what was a truly hyper-agile development process.

Look for the Silver Linings: Even amidst all of the sadness and horror of the past 18 months, I tried hard to intentionally focus on what ‘good’ emerged from the pandemic. From a mission perspective, it accelerated the operationalization & connectivity of our global team during a real-world crisis. On a deeper and more important level, however, it meant more time with my husband; a closer relationship between my son and his grandparents; friendships from years past revived through the “new norm” of video calls (though thankfully, we’re going back to in-person); new friendships built across the Firm; a ton of learning; a renewed emphasis on the importance of empathy, inspirational leadership and intentional acts of kindness, as well as a focus on mental health; and perhaps most importantly, a recognition of what truly matters most in our relatively short lives on this planet: the quality of our relationships.

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