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COVID-19: Leading Through the Crisis [Part Two] COVID-19: Leading Through the Crisis [Part Two]
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March 04, 2021

COVID-19: Leading Through the Crisis [Part Two]

Businesses were thrust into turbulent operating conditions and economic uncertainty when the pandemic broke out, unsure if they would survive the crisis. As we shift from survival and safety to recovery and reentry, the question is not if businesses can return to market but how they can do it.

Leaders still must contend with disruptions that impact their businesses and employees. Understandably, the uncertainties that continue to surround the coronavirus will affect employee productivity, motivation, and performance even as the “new normal” takes shape and stabilizes.

To successfully pivot their businesses toward recovery amid these challenges, leaders must practice open communication. They must show their teams that no matter the situation, the company will remain agile and adjust — whether by creating new action plans or hiring new talent.

In part two of our three-phased framework for leading through the crisis, we have curated the best and brightest thinking and the pragmatic steps leaders can take to stabilize their businesses. “Survival mode” has passed, but there is still plenty of work to be done. We must now pivot to face the latest challenges and opportunities head-on, setting the new standard for brilliance along the way

Phase One: Pivot

Engage to Unleash Potential

Again, we begin with people. A human response to leading and managing your workforce remains a central theme regardless of which phase of the pandemic your business is in. Once immediate priorities have been addressed, pivot your focus from protection to productivity. A culture of engagement is the gateway to unleashing your team’s full potential. According to internationally renowned psychologist Daniel Goleman, an organization’s culture determines up to 30% of its financial results.

To engage your team and drive productivity, start here:

  • Boost morale

    Use what you learned from monitoring employee sentiment in the protection phase to boost morale now. Does one area or person need special attention? Who can be challenged, and who needs to be supported? Reset goals based on the scenario plans you developed. Failing to achieve goals kills motivation, plain and simple. To confront feelings of powerlessness, get expectations in line with reality.
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    Encourage managers throughout the organization to support virtual team-bonding initiatives that boost morale. The possibilities are endless: themed happy hours, Strava running clubs, #watercooler Slack channels, Zoom lunches with randomized breakout rooms, content creation contests, etc. People model leaders’ behaviors, so your participation is imperative.

    Recognition is another great tool to motivate others. Celebrate team wins, anniversaries, and birthdays through virtual events, e-cards, shoutouts, or handwritten notes. Even a simple “thank you” to acknowledge team members’ hard work goes a long way in boosting morale.

    People want to sense that leaders care. And the only way to care is to show up.

  • Optimize performance

    Another way to maximize productivity is to minimize distractions. Right now, people are bombarded with both information and misinformation. Don’t let fake news — and the fear and uncertainty that it brings — permeate your workforce. You are in a unique role to serve as an authority of truth and counsel by providing informative articles from credible sources like the WHO, the United Nations, and the CDC.

    When everything seems urgent, think like an emergency room doctor and ruthlessly prioritize. Address “life-threatening” tasks first, then move on to critical assignments. To remain highly agile in their grueling schedules, effective CEOs delegate duties to ensure only important tasks hit them. They also create clear accountability, continuously set and reset goals, streamline workflows, and make the most of technology.

    Leaders always set the tone for their organizations, and this is only more important during a crisis. As Goleman notes: “The most effective executives display moods and behaviors that match the situation at hand, with a healthy dose of optimism mixed in. They respect how other people are feeling — even if it is glum or defeated — but they also model what it looks like to move forward with hope and humor.”

    To make emotional contagion work for you instead of against you, be a beacon of hope, character, and truth for your team.

Make Smart Moves

You have run scenarios and developed action plans. Now it’s time to make smart moves. A good framework is McKinsey’s pause-assess-anticipate-act cycle. The key takeaway: Leaders should frequently pause from crisis management to assess the situation, anticipate what might happen next, act, and repeat.

Iterate action plans

COVID-19 changes businesses and lives daily (if not hourly), so it’s imperative to keep a finger on the pulse of the global climate. Pay attention to changing consumer behaviors and vaccine and treatment development advancements, which can help indicate the right steps and timelines.

Also, observe how effectively your responses work to protect and pivot the business. While there is no such thing as perfect data, collect what you can without sacrificing speed. You will undoubtedly uncover new vulnerabilities and opportunities in the process.

Use what you learn to revise ideas, improve forecasts, correct problems, prevent new issues from arising, and modify action plans.

Apple, for instance, has taken a series of iterative actions during the pandemic. The retailer closed stores early on, and it allowed Apple Card customers to defer payments when the virus worsened in mid-March. Every month since then, Apple has extended its COVID-19 Customer Assistance Program for Apple Card, allowing users to skip payments without penalty.

Apple has also worked to transform itself into an even bigger e-commerce empire. As the pandemic unfolded, it launched a new online shopping hub to give customers an easier way to shop from home. The hub provides useful info on no-contact delivery options, chat support with device specialists, trade-in products, and more.

The tech giant also made a series of changes across its supply chain to protect workers. New measures include health screenings, PPE requirements, deep cleaning protocols, shift staggering, and floor plan adjustments to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

For Apple — and countless other businesses — the common denominator is putting people first. Leaders must continuously make decisions from that position as new information comes to light.

Deploy contingency plans

Many areas of the business need adjustments during a pivot phase.

First and foremost, continue to think through the financials with your CFO and finance department. Focus on the bottom line. It’s more predictable than the top line, which means it’s one of the best ways to mitigate risk.

A critical thing to understand is the split between fixed and variable costs. Once you’ve done that, calculate your new break-even point and determine your financial outlook. Then, work to reprioritize spend. Minimize or eliminate non-essential expenses and question variable and capital expenditures. You might also consider new vendors or work to renegotiate long-term contracts with existing partners. To conserve cash moving forward, commit to an ongoing cycle of reviewing, realizing, and reprioritizing.

You should also work with your chief supply chain officer to continue to infuse flexibility into the supply chain. Watch intently for demand signals to pivot strategy and execution. As you observe and learn more, you can work to design and redesign the value chain.

When immediate priorities are under control, turn your sales and marketing teams from offense to defense. Prioritize building new customer relationships, finding new ways to innovate and serve customers. In addition, look for opportunities to target new and important clients and markets.

Reevaluate Talent Needs

In a crisis, all team members must step up. Tough times reveal true character, so use this moment to unearth the rising stars across your organization. Give people who have the will and skill to tackle new challenges an opportunity to step up and shine.

To evaluate your talent properly, you’ll want to take several steps:

  • Redeploy forces

    At this point in the crisis, worker redundancies, skills gaps, and opportunities will reveal themselves, making reskilling and redeploying talent important considerations. Take a hard look at your organizational structure, charging your C-suite to do the same. Do you need to reassign, retrain, or retain employees to meet shifting or surging work needs?

    For instance, Bank of America used more than 3,000 workers from various departments to field an onslaught of customer service calls. Cisco took another creative approach, developing an internal project marketplace that identifies and matches individual skills with critical projects.

    If internal moves are out of the question, look beyond your organization to help safeguard jobs. Can you create or tap into any cross-industry solutions to facilitate redeployment? Companies in the food sector, for instance, created and launched a talent exchange to bring transparency to job openings and tap into the broader ecosystem of talent.

  • Identify talent gaps

    It’s also a good idea to direct your CHRO to identify talent gaps. Are you missing any skills critical to success in the COVID-19 era? We have seen a continued need for mission-critical leaders, for example, including strengthening the following members of the executive leadership team (and their direct reports):

    - Chief executive officers
    - Chief financial officers
    - Chief restructuring officers
    - Chief revenue officers
    - Chief supply chain officers
    - Chief operating officers
    - Chief information officers, chief technology officers, and chief product officers

    As you look at your business, consider whether you need more robust finance, digital, or restructuring talent to take on the complexities and challenges you face.

  • Access ‘A players’

    If you identify talent needs, know that there is availability in the market. We’re seeing the best opportunity in the past decade to secure senior executive talent. Primary drivers include:

    1. Executives’ availability to take calls amid stay-at-home orders.

    2. Openness to new opportunities due to the financial health/deterioration of some companies now or post-crisis.

    3. In the private equity space, a hesitation to wait out delayed or missed deals and jump to better deals now.

    We highly recommend this Harvard Business Review article that highlights these points.

  • Complete searches

    It’s possible to close searches amid COVID-19. Here’s how:

    Attract talent. In sectors highly affected by COVID-19, candidates are motivated to make a change. In more resilient sectors or those that have benefitted from pandemic lockdowns, however, candidates are more risk-averse to jumping ship. No matter the situation, capturing and sharing a compelling and transparent story about the opportunity — including how the company is positioned now and will be in the future — is key to securing the right talent.

    Interview creatively. We start by identifying whether any client stakeholders and candidates are in the same location. If that’s the case, we arrange in-person interviews while maintaining proper social distancing guidelines in empty office spaces whenever possible. If we can’t achieve in-person meetings, we to panel video interviews and, in some instances, outdoor interviews at a safe distance.

    Administer robust assessments. We continue to conduct rigorous validated, psychometric assessments to gain multiple data points. This helps predict future performance and ensure each candidate’s cultural fit.

    Get thorough reference checks. Our project teams double (and even triple) the number of unsolicited references checks on candidates. We also invite wide-scale participation among the executive leadership team and board of directors.

    Postpone relocation (as needed). We advise certain clients to extend relocation periods up to nine to 12 months in place of immediate relocation. Offering candidates flexible options, such as working remotely and/or temporarily commuting, helps with the transition as they navigate the pandemic.

Lead With Purpose

During times of crisis, all eyes are on the CEO. It’s paramount to continue to be visible, empathetic, and lead with purpose.

Pivoting to a customer-experience focus — if you haven’t already — is a winning strategy during a recession. For example, companies that focused on the customer experience during the 2008–2009 recession saw three times higher returns than others.

Part of that focus is that you must continually connect with key stakeholders, including employees, board and C-suite members, customers, suppliers, investors, the workforce, and community members. To do so, continue to use crisis communication best practices:

1. Be the main source of information.

2. Be proactive.

3. Be consistent, offering regular updates.

4. Be succinct.

5. Be transparent about what you do and don’t know.

As many as 64% of customers choose to buy from socially responsible brands. The way leaders step up for their customers, employees, and the broader community is likely to leave lasting memories in customers’ minds.

Practicing corporate social responsibility could be the difference between success and failure in the minds of both customers and investors. In his annual letter to CEOs, for example, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink said the company would be “increasingly disposed to vote against management and board directors when companies are not making sufficient progress on sustainability-related disclosures and the business practices and plans underlying them.”

Corporate social responsibility is not just about sustainability. It can also be your focus on putting people first, helping the community, building an inclusive and diverse workforce, and more. These kinds of initiatives ensure your reputation is one of goodwill and empathy, which can go a long way in times of crisis.

Agility is the key to maintaining productivity and making the right moves toward recovery. With strong leadership and talent in place, company leaders can successfully pivot their business strategies to set a new standard for brilliance in the next phase of the pandemic.