Navigating a Leadership Transition in the Storm of a Global Pandemic We Never Saw Coming

I’ve always been up for a challenge. Even as a young girl, all someone had to do was tell me I couldn’t. Challenge accepted.

January 1, 2020, began a year of transition for Dixon Schwabl leadership. That month, our CEO and president announced an upcoming leadership transition after 33 years. On October 1, 2020, I humbly accepted the role of CEO alongside my trusted colleague of 17 years, Jessica Savage, who stepped into the role of president. We had close to one year to lay out our strategic plan and prepare our team for what our organization would become under our leadership.

Little did we know, a pandemic was about to hurl a tidal wave sizeable enough to check our strength and wily enough to test what we were made of. The world was telling me I couldn’t. Challenge accepted.

Calm before the storm
We were poised to have a banner year. Our leadership team had developed a strategic plan to carry us through the transition and beyond. We had a team of 100 best-in-class professionals all pointed in the same direction. Our plan was rolled out in February and the reaction from the team was palpable. They were excited and ready to take on the work to help us move a wildly successful business built by two legendary businesspeople into its next phase of evolution.

On March 16, everything shifted. The first of many disruptive moments was upon us as we moved our workforce to 100% work from home virtually overnight.

Batten down the hatches
There are a million and one adages describing how one weathers a crisis. Cool under pressure, steady as we go—the list goes on. I’ve been told I possess grace under fire. Perhaps that was engrained in me throughout my childhood while observing my parents run their restaurant business.

When our people moved to WFH, our leadership team instantly began making decisions about how we would get through this. The rate of decision making was rapid. There wasn’t time to overthink our decisions. And our managing partners sprang into action to address our staff’s well-being.

We began meeting daily at 8am, identifying ways to care for staff and ensure they were as comfortable as could be. We decided on weekly check-in calls to stay connected and ensure their sense of safety and security. We realized maintaining similar routines was important, so we continued to host our weekly all-staff meeting virtually. With our people cared for, we quickly turned to our partners. We found that constant and close contact with our clients and industry partners was essential. “We’re in this together” could not be more true: Were they safe and healthy? And then, what could we do to help them and their people? Many of our partners needed guidance on how to market in difficult times, and we worked through that together.

Our strategic plan received a lot of attention, too. With the ability to focus some of our energy on strategic initiatives, we found ourselves moving the plan forward faster than anticipated. Never has it been more evident that a strong team of well-aligned leaders is essential for a business to navigate something of this size.

Riding the waves
The COVID-19 storm has produced what seems like a career’s worth of unexpected weather. The foggy behavior of the virus, the constant rolling thunder of statistics and the lack of clear direction for where to steer the ship. It would be easy to feel like transitioning to a CEO post in these conditions is an insurmountable challenge.

I’m here for it. The well-charted path laid by Lauren Dixon and Mike Schwabl has me set up for success. I have the most capable co-captain at my side in Jessica Savage and an unmatched leadership crew steering 100 superstar shipmates.

So bring on the next test, 2020. Challenge accepted.

Kim Allen is the CEO at Dixon Schwabl, an integrated marketing agency in Upstate New York. She accepted this position on October 1, 2020.