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The coronavirus crisis means we are currently facing extraordinary changes to the way we work, live, and interact with colleagues, friends and loved ones. As we adapt to this challenging period, the way you lead your organisation has never been more important. Not only do you need to find new and innovative ways to motivate your team, but you will almost certainly be dealing with the financial implications of the pandemic. Making tough business decisions daily, while ensuring the safety of your staff and customers, only makes matters more difficult.

We have significant experience in working with business leaders and coaching them on how to perform in times of transformation. Based on our experiences – and what we’re seeing today – we have outlined some key characteristics that are critical for leaders in these unprecedented times.

Communication, access and transparency

It’s impossible to over-communicate in a crisis. Daily check-ins and relevant updates to teams are essential. Throw in some ‘lunch and learn’ sessions, and don’t forget some time for fun. In this virtual world, a video call to shoot the breeze can be as valuable as a formal update.

It's impossible to over-communicate in a crisis.

We’re working with a global coffee brand that’s sharing its operational response and financial impact with staff so that they feel a strong balance between reassurance and reality. Co-ordinated messaging across different markets has allowed them to reset strategy in a coherent, consistent way. And despite huge operational stress, they continue to maintain their role in the communities in which they operate, as well as supporting the nation with charitable giving.

In times of crisis, it’s easy to become so entrenched in the matters at hand that either staff don’t want to disturb you or you become invisible to certain parts of the team. However, this is a time when employees need to see their leaders. Don’t hide from the problem or the difficult questions. Be open and honest with your teams. Make sure they know what’s going on and, if there are tough times ahead, don’t shy away from the facts and then ‘spring’ changes and bad news on them later down the line.

Be prepared

In China, the COVID-19 outbreak peaked in late February. New infections continue to drop, with forecasts suggesting that they will level off in late April. The Chinese Government continues to take prevention and control measures, while enacting a series of policies to support the economy.

The experiences of other countries and scientific modelling suggest that the virus will grow exponentially and then fade. The uncertainty is the magnitude and pace of this growth and when it will peak.

As well as the need for us all to understand the true facts about this virus, it is critical for business leaders to be aware of the consequences and potential risks for their organisation, whether this is an existential threat, e.g. imminent bankruptcy; a major performance impact, e.g. a significant dip in sales but with the probability of survival; or, for some, an opportunity to strengthen their business and test new services, e.g. retailers driving more online sales or organisations embedding effective remote working practices within their teams.

Regardless, nothing should be taken for granted and this is the time to adopt a crisis management mindset – act decisively, plan for the worst, streamline decision-making, protect your customers, people and your community – all while not losing sight of your core vision and purpose.

Nothing should be taken for granted and this is the time to adopt a crisis management mindset – act decisively, plan for the worst, streamline decision-making, protect your customers, people and your community – all while not losing sight of your core vision and purpose.

Connect at a human level

Remember that your staff, suppliers and customers are all going through testing times themselves. The human factor is important at times of crisis, especially now that all meetings are taking place online or by phone, and face-to-face interaction has been removed. Be available and listen when needed. But also think beyond your own staff. For example, are there gestures of goodwill that you can demonstrate that will not only benefit your staff but perhaps also the community, reinforcing the human connection?

A client in the pharmaceutical industry is allowing staff to volunteer for the NHS while continuing to receive full pay. Separately, the leader of a multinational oil and gas company is offering to supply free fuel to UK emergency vehicles. Much has been written on the difference between more traditional ‘alpha’ leadership approaches versus contemporary styles. Now more than ever is the time for compassion, empathy and honesty.

Be decisive and move quickly

The world is adapting to the current crisis at an accelerated speed. The degree and pace of agility with which organisations are responding could be the difference between significant financial losses and business survival. Establish new patterns of leadership meetings and decision-making. Remove ambiguity for your people and make those around you feel confident that you are taking steps to build resilience for the future.

One of our global clients in the hospitality industry is being hit hard as the mass quarantining of the population wipes out the use of its services. Yet making quick decisions and keeping staff on-side is helping to restrict the impact of this unprecedented crisis. Be clear on your hierarchy of levers to adjust should the time come, which can better protect your business.

Call in the experts

Many of today’s business leaders have operated through local or global crises, such as the 2008 financial crisis. Few, if any, however, have led through the conditions we’re seeing today.

Use all the levers at your disposal, which includes seeking help in a timely manner. Get the right advice on risk management, financial management, and health and safety. External experts can help you make decisions based on deep experience and data insights. They can also provide an important lens to your reactions and enable different thinking, while giving you a resource and capability that many organisations do not have internally, such as crisis management experts.

It’s also important to involve your own internal experts. They know the impacted functions in your business better than anyone else and can provide honest and relevant insights that you’re unlikely to obtain elsewhere. Using a mix of external and internal experts enables you to make informed and quick decisions.

Using a mix of external and internal experts enables you to make informed and quick decisions.

We were brought in by a large hotel chain in the UK to support their response to COVID-19 when it was a supply chain issue in China. Working together as one team we were able to respond rapidly to the fast-moving picture. What started as a supply chain issue quickly became a cross-functional crisis. By having external experts in crisis management closely working with internal functional experts, the team was able to mobilise responses and communications both efficiently and effectively, preventing what could have been a reputational and organisational disaster.

Use data wisely

A key difference in the current crisis is the abundance of quantitative and qualitative data universally available to track the impacts of the virus. Help your teams to leverage internal and external data to better predict what might happen in your markets, and to your clients and people. Most companies won’t have perfect information but collect as much proxy data as possible to inform your decisions so you’re not flying blind.

Purpose and innovation

It’s easy to spend 120% of your work time focusing on crisis response and immediate adaption. By thinking innovatively, you can support your business through this period while protecting and building for the future.

UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak recently introduced measures to support UK businesses and employees on a scale never seen before. Thinking differently enabled him to make decisions that supported the country and will mean many businesses can stay open. Similar innovative thinking by businesses may enable them to protect themselves and their customers in adverse times. For example, Universal made the decision to put customers ahead of revenue by releasing films online during the crisis. The key here is that customers will not forget those who supported them (and other key organisations like the NHS). By being innovative and market-leading, Universal is building for a future beyond COVID-19.

Businesses that want to gain resilience through this time need leaders who:

  • keep them focused on their ultimate purpose, i.e. what do your customers and people need most during this period – and as you move out of it?
  • create an environment in which individuals and teams can innovate to create new value, i.e. how is the context shifting in terms of what our customers need? How can we deliver new products and services to meet their shifting needs?

We’re sharing skills ranging from how to deliver workshops virtually, to assurance and mindfulness. We’re also working with a public sector client on an incubator concept to ensure that their new ideas and innovation are brought to the fore as we embark on this new normal.

Laura Fenton

We support organisations to adapt and respond to COVID-19 and beyond to ensure you are well positioned to take advantage of new opportunities as we recover from the pandemic.