Stepping Up

How Leaders Are Rising to the Occasion

Throughout the Small Giants Community and beyond, leaders are doing what’s right when it matters most. These are their stories.


MICHELLE LAUWERS | Zolman Restoration

While many of us are confined to the comfort (and distractions) of our home offices, millions of essential workers are leaving their homes every day to do the hard work of keeping us safe. The team at Zolman Restoration is used to working in hazardous conditions: they are a full-service emergency restoration business specializing in fire, smoke, water, and storm restoration services. Helping people stay safe is at the core of who they are. But when they started getting requests for COVID-19 sanitization jobs, the risk felt more personal than their usual work.

“Whatever is going on in the world, our work doesn’t stop,” says Michelle Lauwers, VP of Finance at Zolman. “Our team is used to dealing with hazards, but this is different — the virus can’t just be washed off. It’s an invisible risk factor, and the fear was palpable.”


As fear and uncertainty swept through the team, Michelle found herself feeling differently. Although she understood their concerns, she isn’t a person who is easily scared away. This is the kind of work they do, and the show must go on. She thought if she led by example and the team saw her fight past her own fears, they would follow suit. For the first few days, they tried to keep things business as usual, but it was clear the team felt anything but normal. The usual chatter and playful energy of the office quieted. People stopped raising their hands to do jobs. Speculation and side conversations spread.

“You could just see it on their faces,” says Michelle. “I had to really step back and evaluate our approach. I tend to think I’m invincible, and I had to come to grips with the idea that everyone has the right to feel how they feel.”

Self-Aware Leadership

Michelle works at Zolman with her adult son, which makes it easier for them to accept the risk involved — they don’t have to worry about bringing the virus home to other family members. But she also has the self-awareness to realize that her personal situation can’t be the decision-maker for the rest of the team. It’s a skill she’s developed as part of the Small Giants Leadership Academy, where she’s learning the principles of purpose-driven leadership. Emotional intelligence is a key leadership skill: you need to have the social awareness to realize when there’s an issue, and the empathy to understand the thoughts and feelings of others.

“I started having individual conversations with everyone,” says Michelle. “Ultimately, we decided to shift to a volunteer basis for higher risk jobs. I would present every opportunity to the team, explain the risks, and if nobody is comfortable going, the other leaders and I will go instead.”


Michelle also addressed some of their job security concerns, promising full pay for anyone who’s willing to put in the hours. If they chose not to work, they could stay home and pursue unemployment.

When the next COVID-19 sanitization job rolled around, Michelle stuck to her new policy and asked for volunteers. Nobody raised their hand. The next day, she asked again — still no one. But on the third day, one person volunteered to go. Throughout the day, people volunteered one by one until they had more people than they needed for the team.

“The job was a success, and it gets easier every time,” says Michelle. “It was important to step back and let them process and make the decision for themselves. We want them to feel safe and understand that we’re all in this together.”

Showing Up for Your Team

Even though much of her work can be done at home, Michelle comes into the office every day, because that’s where her team is. But she doesn’t stop there – Michelle also suited up and joined the team for their very first COVID-19 cleaning. Wearing a respirator mask and with gloves taped to her suit, she worked side-by-side with her team for three hours to thoroughly disinfect every corner of a condominium building.


“We looked like a bunch of Martians,” says Michelle. “We were learning together and laughing about it — it’s important that I know what they’re experiencing out there. We did a great job and the residents were so relieved. We were able to go back to the team and tell them it really wasn’t that bad — we even had fun doing it.”

Stepping Outside of Yourself

Nearly two months after their first job, the team feels safe, supported and grateful for work in these uncertain times. Michelle is shifting her focus to the future and what’s ahead for Zolman Restoration. With the support of the Small Giants Leadership Academy, she’s using this time to look at the company from a strategic standpoint.

“I tend to get so focused on being in the business when I also need to work on the business,” says Michelle. “The Leadership Academy helps me take a holistic view of the company. We’ve even adopted an onboarding and recruiting program from what I’ve learned so far.”

She’s also finding support by connecting with other leaders. The Leadership Academy provides every participant with a buddy for one-on-one peer mentorship, and she’s relying on her buddy, Roy Hernandez, to navigate the ups and downs of this crisis. They work in similar industries, and they connect bi-weekly to share experiences and offer advice.

“He’s talked me through some significant personnel challenges and offers an objective standpoint,” says Michelle. “He’s helped me tremendously.”

This is a moment when the strength of our leadership is put to the test. It’s not a time we can get through alone, and Michelle looked outside of herself to find answers. She trusted her team to rise to the occasion, and she relied on her community of like-minded leaders to offer guidance and support along the way.

“Our passion is for helping people,” says Michelle. “You don’t work in this business long-term for any other reason. More than ever, we’re going back to who we are as an organization and why we exist. This is what we’re here to do.”

What do these leaders have in common?

These leaders are part of Small Giants companies — companies that prioritize their purpose and culture and invest in their emerging leaders.

One way Small Giants companies invest in their next generation of leaders is by enrolling them in the Small Giants Leadership Academy. This robust one-year certification program consists of virtual learning sessions with expert leaders and coaches, an extensive resource library, on-the-ground meetups with your cohort, a leadership assessment, and your event ticket to two Small Giants gatherings.

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