Letting Go of Normal

I have the honor of owning a 1915 Ford Model T that was delivered new that year to its first owner in Traverse City. It is painted black (the only color Ford offered back then) and it has the last of the brass radiators that Ford put on Model Ts. It does not have an electric starter, so there is quite a ritual and effort to get it started.

Whenever I drive it, I think less about its intrinsic qualities as a car and more about what it has been through since 1915 – World War I, the Spanish Flu and countless other epidemics, the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, dozens of recessions and crises, and so much more. And yet, 105 years later, that car still starts, runs and brings miles of joy.

I am sure that during the lifetimes of that car and its owners, some of the challenges in the world seemed insurmountable. I am sure there were dark nights and stress-filled days. And yet, here it is and here we are. The car has survived. So have we. The car has been repurposed as an object of fun and contemplation for me. I, too, am gaining new perspectives and ways of working.

Because I am working at home, my time has been greatly amplified with family, my fitness regime, my house organization, my writing and my gratitude for and intentionality with my team and customers. Despite the challenges and changes of these trying times, I am a better person and leader for all of this and am more resilient. And our business will survive and flourish, though not in the same way.

Crises have a way of accelerating changes in business, both positive and negative. The best leaders fight for the clearest possible perspective about what is really happening and then adapt to the new reality. Our focus should be on letting go of old practices and ways of doing things that suddenly don’t fit the new reality and embracing what does.

In my business, for instance, that may mean working more from home is the norm and meeting together in person is a rarity, maybe a treat. In the early days of the crisis, we moved 900 employees to work-at-home status in just four days, which showed the incredible resiliency and adaptability of our workforce.

Our meetings are all on Zoom now and they are working pretty well. In fact, meeting virtually has leveled the playing field with those who work near our headquarters and those who don’t. We have new humor around quarantine haircuts and kids running in and out of the shots. We are settling into this routine and will likely never go back.

Eventually, many of us will return to the office. But many won’t … at least not every day. Through internal surveying, we’re finding that some workers are more productive and happier working at home, especially in families with small children or elderly relatives to take care of. If that’s the case, why would we not accommodate that? For others, they need the office environment to be productive. And we will find the safest possible ways to provide that, as well.

Another big change has been with marketing. We attend and sponsor lots of events to promote what we do — more than 2,000 per year. Most of them have been canceled for the rest of summer if not the year. So now we are doubling down on video content and social media. Our Ann Arbor team is cranking out some great stuff and our visibility is growing rapidly.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson we have learned as a company is that our past investments in building a strong work culture were worth every penny and every ounce of sweat. Employees have stuck with us and most have thrived in a time of chaos and disruption, which is amazing.

Some of that resilience, I think, has to do with our long-standing emphasis on a “growth mindset” that helps people view challenges as opportunities to grow. To reinforce that message, one of the first things we put in place after sending everyone home was a new daily communications package that we call The Driven Daily. In short videos, managers share details on how the company is doing along with links to fitness and wellness tips. In my videos, I focus on common experiences and human truth. I talk about how we can thrive as individuals despite the crisis.

In my first video, when everyone was on the edge of freaking out, I led a short breathing exercise with people because I could see – even via Zoom – that they were in fight or flight mode. The first task of any leader in a crisis is to get people breathing again, metaphorically and literally.

In others, I talk about using this time to actively build healthy habits and resilience. An excerpt follows:

“Hard times are, yes, hard, but they’re also an opportunity. Life is all about choices, and we can choose to use this time to do something really powerful. Ann Landers, the advice columnist, was once asked for the single most useful bit of advice she knew, and her answer was, ‘Expect trouble as an inevitable part of life, and when it comes, hold your head high, look it squarely in the eye and say, ‘I will be bigger than you. You cannot defeat me.’”

The response to these video messages has been profound. People have felt understood and valued. They’ve been able to set aside fear and use this time at home to grow as people and professionals.

To me, this crisis has been a valuable lesson that whether we’re a business leader, a teacher or a parent, we lead hearts as well as minds.

When the weather finally warms up, I can’t wait to take that Model T for another drive and be reminded that we are responsible for more than right now. We are also responsible for the next 105 years. Let’s be the leaders in the room that make that next century even better.

Onward and upward.

McKeel Hagerty is the CEO of The Hagerty Group.