Are women leaders more successful at managing a crisis? An interview with Ginger Dhaliwal

Female political leaders being heralded for their effective responses to the pandemic. So we wanted to know how women leaders in business have handled the challenges so far. Ginger Dhaliwal is the Co-Founder and CPO at Upflex, a New York-based B2B SaaS platform for on-demand workspace for businesses. We spoke with her about her leadership challenges during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. 

In times of crisis, great leadership is more crucial than ever. What were the biggest business challenges you encountered since we entered the “global crisis mode”?

As a seasoned business owner and entrepreneur, I have had the unfortunate experience of leading through several Global Crises. These include; the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the tech bust in 2000, 9/11, The SARS Epidemic in Hong Kong, the economic downturn of 2008, and now COVID-19. In all of these situations, it was essential to gather the facts. From them we can make decisive decisions, move quickly, and be agile to accommodate the uncertainties and volatility of the time.  

new york before shutdown
Photo by Ross Sokolovski on Unsplash

Upflex is a sustainable and flexible co-working booking platform for businesses. We provide access to over 8,000 workspaces in 200 cities across 65 countries. The pandemic crisis impacted our business severely as all movements of people stopped.  

My partner, Christophe Garnier, and I took the decisive action to close our office here in New York on March 10th. This was before the lockdown was mandated, and we transitioned our team to working remotely to keep them safe. As a company, we are firm believers that the future of work is remote. This meant it was a natural progression of growth for our team.  

Next, we focused on the survivability of our business. With support of our investors, we reduced our overhead by 30%. Fortunately, we were able to retain our staff and cut costs in other areas of our business.  

The daily impacts of the crisis reverberated throughout the world and the death count grew exponentially every day. It was essential to acknowledge the emotional toll that this had on our customers, employees, and our partners. We decided to prioritize the health and safety of our customers, employees, and partners and so we launched the Safe Spaces™ initiative. This helps our Space Partners coordinate the safe return of their communities back into their workspaces.  This initiative allowed us to rally our team to stay motivated and focused on a strong drive to help and provide credible hope to our partners.   

Communication with our partners and employees has been the most important tool through this entire crisis. Therefore we continue to evolve our processes in order to best meet everyone’s needs.  Through communication, we are learning from each other and acknowledging the new challenges of balancing work and home life for everyone. 

You have many years of leadership experience. Which of your existing leadership principles has proven to work well and which did you have to revise during this time?

marathon in paris before Covid19
Photo by Mārtiņš Zemlickis on Unsplash

We are in the first phase of this arduous marathon.  With limited resources, we recognize that we have to put our energy into what is the most urgent. As well as what will have the most impact in building a sustainable business without burning out our team. To achieve this, we have set a clear vision of where we want to be. We understand that to get there, we need to break down our milestones into small sprints. Thinking strategically and focusing on the immediate steps allows us to be flexible, iterative, and agile while adapting to this new uncertain world.  

We believe in moving fast, failing quickly, iterating consistently and learning forward. Mistakes are inevitable, and together as a team, we’re continually experimenting, learning, and growing. As a leader, it’s always essential to be decisive and honest about the current situation, creating a course for the team to align but also being inspiring and hopeful. 

Our team has migrated to working fully remote. We have embraced digital collaboration and communication models that allow us to move quickly and effectively. We have created systems and processes to communicate transparently while bringing the team together to garner everyone’s contribution.  

Every Monday, we have an all-hands meeting where we outline our strategic goals and the three micro-goals that we plan to achieve within that week. These help us to get closer to our vision.  We have “lunch and learn” every Friday allowing everyone to share progress. These include challenges, recap our week, what we learned, and how to adapt our goals for the following week iteratively.   Each team also has its daily touch-base call every morning for 15 minutes. It’s used as a check-in on each other both from an emotional level as well as priorities for the day.  

It’s important to ‘work hard and recover’. We each juggle the demands of work life and home life all in the same place.  All employees are dealing with the effects of Covid-19 differently.  We want to ensure our team has time to recover and put themselves and their wellbeing at the forefront.  We have created a recovery time from 12 pm to 1:30 pm during the day for everyone to take a break. They can get outside, exercise, be with their children, or whatever they need without being interrupted by work — “no Slack messages”. We are also mindful not to schedule calls after 5 pm, and we encourage our team to turn off their work devices from Friday night to Sunday.  

How do you deal with doubt and second-guessing your decisions? Is this something you struggle with? 

I am part of a very diverse team, both generationally and culturally, which contributes tremendously to our team’s success.  Our small team of 10 collectively speak seven different languages and come from 4 different generations and 6 different countries.  When we come together as a collective genius, we are better equipped to attack problems. Therefore being able to build solutions that address the diversity of our partners and customers.  I believe in genuinely working as a team, and this, for the most part, resolves any second-guessing.  The diverse range of experience, expertise, and working methods that my team can offer boosts our problem-solving capacity. These lead to higher productivity and great innovation in our ideas. 

According to recent studies, lockdown measures are more damaging to women’s mental health than men’s. Is this something you have observed in your team? How have you been dealing with your team’s mental health as a leader?

I believe the lockdown measures are equally hard on males, females, and our kids.  As a woman, we do take on the added responsibility. We provide the emotional strength and the domestic backbone to our families and our teams.  Adjusting to a new working environment with the added stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic would be hard on anyone.  I recognize that everyone will deal with this situation differently, and continue to offer support to my staff in any way that I can.  Prioritizing recovery time is just as important for my team and my family as it is for me.  

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