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Case Study

Crisis response and leadership: The difference between success and failure

How leaders responded to change in 2020

Quentin Sa’Lay


@Zev via Twenty20

How you show up in a crisis is a good indicator of who you are as a leader so plan your pivot tactically Unleash Your Leadership

  • Leaders have had to think innovatively in 2020 and throw out old norms.
  • We identified four ways some of the biggest global companies responded to COVID-19 in the first 48 hours.
  • Productivity in non-essential employees has increased between 13%-15% whilst remote working.

The response of organizations and leaders after the first 48 of lockdowns, set the stage for businesses to have either great success or crushing unrecoverable defeat.

The business success hung in the balance of the organizations ability to pivot, the leader’s capacity to innovate, work collaboratively across the enterprise and execute flawlessly in the time of great crisis. Conventional wisdom has it that how you show up in a crisis is a good indicator of who you are as a leader.

Nick Bolton via Unsplash

It is fair to say no organization or leader could have been 100% prepared for the unprecedented events of the first half of 2020. 

Organizations and leaders were catapulted into what I call a triple pandemic; first the rapid spread of COVID-19 throughout the world, the economic crisis that ensued, and the murder of George Floyd an unarmed black man by police which set off global social unrest forcing companies to go deeper in discussions of race in ways the annual Diversity and Inclusion training did not touch.

Specifically, racism in America and how that plays out within the walls of corporate America for black people, but also for women and the LGBTQ community.  

the murder of George Floyd forced companies to go deeper in discussions of race in ways the annual Diversity and Inclusion training did not touch.

Management of these escalating issues left no room for error. Business leaders had the added pressure in ensuring they were delivering stakeholder value to investors, customers, employees, business leaders, partners, and communities and regulators.

Failure to properly and effectively manage stakeholder expectations could result in a myriad of problems including the demise of the business. Business leaders were clear that management of these key value expectations to their stakeholders and under this pressure is no short order even for the most experienced executive. 

Cooper Baumgartner via Unsplash

Before March many US companies were experiencing growth, profits, meeting quarterly financial and EBIDTA targets in the longest-running U.S. economic recorded expansion. By June these same companies were concerned about the future based on the escalating effects of COVID-19 and how consumer behaviors were altered due to government lockdowns of many businesses.  

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The most important thing business leaders can give to all its stakeholders is a company that wins in the marketplace under any conditions. 

Over time we have learned to prepare for the unknown by studying models on how to manage the unforeseen and unpredictable. Any business worth its salt has a developed, practiced and effective business continuity to plans to ensure the business can run effectively and meet stakeholders’ expectations during inclement weather events or natural disasters. Studying these models and how leaders have responded successfully are great maps, Organizations are now better prepared to respond to a myriad of unexpected events such as natural disasters, inclement weather events,  and network disruptions, no plan can account for the unknown, now known to us as COVID-19.  

Think innovatively and use this time to challenge the status quo. 

Here is a look at what some of the leading business leaders did from some of the most well-known companies during the first 48 hours after they learned of the potentiality of COVID-19 impact on their business and the threat of government-mandated closures. 

  • Get the Right People in Room – Identify who are the most effective individuals to lead during a crisis and enlist them in the planning and ongoing crisis management efforts. Identify who can do the work, define accountabilities and responsibilities for getting the work done. The right people may not be your trusted staff you rely upon during normal operations. Reach across the enterprise and get the right people in strategic positions from each respective area of the business and identify the immediate problem areas and collaborate solutions. This selective group should include leaders from Human Resources, Finance, Information Technology, Cyber Security, Facilities, Operations, Procurement, Supply Chain Management and legal. Leave out of the room those who add to the chaos or seeking to seize the moment for self-promotion. 
  • Think Innovatively – Unprecedented times calls for unprecedented actions. Begin by identifying the most vulnerable areas of the business, recognize the challenges facing the business and be clear on stakeholder expectations and the appropriate course of action. Ensure you are not employing outdated tactics and your greatest hits towards unprecedented problems because they are comfortable or have worked in the past. Think innovatively and use this time to challenge the status quo. Many business leaders pre-COVID were not comfortable with remote working or distributive workforces, some leaders believed remote working was an unnecessary luxury for employees and would negatively impact productivity and collaboration. Being catapulted into a remote work dynamic for employees deem non-essential has resulted in productivity increases between 13%-15% in areas like software development and other engineering roles. Organizational sacred cows that get in the way of progress should be pressure tested and removed if they get in the way of apposite actions to meet business and stakeholders needs.  
  • Develop a Communication Cadence – You will have multiple communication audiences you will need to manage employees, shareholders, customers, vendors, the press, government agencies, et al. Assign this work to the best qualified your seasoned “Communications Team”, not willing volunteers. Provide strict guidance on corporate internal and external communications, and do not permit leaders to freewheel, craft and communicate their own messages to stakeholders, all messaging must be controlled, unified and well-coordinate. Any communication missteps can have dire consequences.
  • Two-Way Communication Channel – Ensure there is a two- way communication channel and loop that addresses concerns for all your stakeholders. Company messaging on websites should be updated daily. Your stakeholders take notice of communication channels you lead them to for critical updates. Any information that has not been updated in days sends the message your slipping. 
  • Publish stakeholder questions, statuses on open issues, and resolutions. 
  • Be transparent, open and honest. There are very few experts on how to handle a pandemic. It’s okay to say, “this is new for all of us, and we are figuring it out together.” 
canipel via Twenty20

Remember to show empathy and concern to your employees. They are balancing a myriad of emotions and concerns which includes fear of the future. Remind your employees of who you are as an organization, and your commitment to them as well as your customers. Be transparent and honest and communicate in ways that are clear and concise that allows employees to focus on their jobs and keep the company productive and meetings its strategic objectives. 

  • Be Visible, and mandate your team does the same 

Your employee’s and stakeholders need to know you are fully present and in charge, you cannot be the wizard behind the curtain pulling all the levers or shaking like a reed in wind. Being visible means, frequent video and written communication with status updates on the most important aspects of the business. Equipping your leaders with talking points and FAQs so they show up prepared to answer questions from all directions that are aligned to your key message with no deviation. Most importantly let all communications show EMPATHY! Let your employees and stakeholders know you care. Allow your HR team to do what is does best, in the words of Dave Ulrich “help you deliver a winning company to the marketplace.” 

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