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From 50-minute meetings to team talks: How to lead in a pandemic

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Matt Desch doesn’t profess to have all the answers about how best to run a company, even though he’s considered a pioneer in the global wireless industry and worldwide leader in telecommunications.

“I don’t believe there is one way to be a leader,” says Desch, CEO of Iridium Communications since 2006. “There's a million books on leadership — and they’re all mostly right, but they can’t tell you the best way for you to be a leader.”

Desch, who graduated from The Ohio State University in 1980, considers learning to be a lifelong process, and the last year has been educational for him, as it has been for anyone trying to maintain a business and facing challenges due to COVID-19.

“It has been different,” says Desch, who has been working from his home in McLean, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. since March. “You got to use some different muscles.”

Desch, founder and steward of the Ohio State student program Buckeye Leadership Fellows, shares lessons below that he’s learned in 2020 from leading a company worth $4 billion with 500 employees during a pandemic.

How challenging has 2020 been for you in your role as CEO?

We’ve had to learn how to work in this environment, had to create new rules that are relative to our culture. But a lot of things haven't changed: the basics of integrity and decency, showing respect, communicating effectively, motivating and inspiring, and strategizing.

You can still project yourself and organize people and create plans and have meetings.

Being a leader means you still set the culture and expectations, even in this kind of new environment.

What is the main lesson you’ve learned?

One of the big theories about leadership is that the best leaders are the best storytellers. Communicating an idea and a vision — and getting people motivated and excited — isn't something you just tell people or make people do. You must have them understand and believe.

I learned really quickly, early on, that communication was a really critical aspect of adapting to this pandemic. You’ve got to stay connected because it’s easy to not be able to see people for extended periods of time. You’re not talking at the water cooler anymore or running into people making coffee in the kitchen.

You have to communicate even more effectively. If you’re a lousy communicator, this is not a good time. You have to be able to find ways to connect individually to people.

How have you adapted in communicating?

About a month or two before the pandemic, I had no idea why they put Microsoft Teams on my desktop. I didn’t know what the tool was. I thought it was extraneous. Once I sent everyone to work from home, the tool was a game changer to keep us connected.  And then I started thinking, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool: I can just click a button, record and become a content creator, too.’

I’ve been doing what we call 'Team Talks' with all of our employees, about once a week. I try to keep them to 15 minutes or less. I just talk from my heart. ‘Here’s what I think's going on. I wanted to catch you up on this.’ I’ve had interviews with different people I brought in as guests. I ask them questions. I feel like I’m the host of a show. I’m spending a lot of time in the affinity business.

Being a leader means you still set the culture and expectations, even in this kind of new environment.

Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium Communications and 1980 graduate of Ohio State
How has increased screen time forced changes?

You have to project yourself in a different way. I can’t just be tall and have a deep voice. I have to project through a screen out to people.

And I told everybody their meetings were to be no longer than 50 minutes. If you run over, everybody has to take a break for five minutes. You get tired of doing this for hours. It’s like Groundhog Day. It sucks the life out of you after a whole day.

Have you set virtual meeting protocols?

I noticed there were a lot of people in meetings with their cameras off a lot of the time. I said, ‘Frankly, I can't keep you from doing your email while you’re listening, but I want you to keep your cameras on.’

You show respect to the other people by leaving your camera on. In the old days, you couldn’t go into a conference room and throw a sheet over your head and do your email.

Has not working in the office been beneficial in some ways?

There’s been some things I wouldn't have expected.

In some ways, it has been even better for some people here in the D.C. area because they no longer have a commute of 45 minutes to one hour. You really have more time. This has given us additional flexibility, and people appreciate the flexibility.

I think we’re all going to redesign the office environment so that 50% of the people is the most that are probably ever going to be in at one time.

There’ll be a lot of meetings that won’t be happening after all this. Click a button, you see everybody and, bam, you’re done in 40 minutes. It’s a lot more efficient than traveling for a day to attend one meeting.

It's going to change the way we work a lot of times. We’ve all learned we can live this way, from now on.