Over the last 12 weeks I have had dozens of interviews, discussions, coaching calls, and exchanges with leaders from all over the world about the Covid-19 crisis. We discussed everything from how to deal with the crisis to its medium to long-term impact on leadership and business. The following are some of my key leadership lessons from the discussions so far.
Lesson 1 – The Covid-19 pandemic is, first and foremost, a human crisis.
The Covid-19 pandemic is first and foremost a human crisis that affects people and their loved one’s health and well-being. Most peoples’ immediate reaction is the fear of getting infected, or having loved ones infected, followed by the uncertainty surrounding employment and their financial situation.
Some leaders reinforced loyalty and the bond of trust between employer and employee by taking a moral stance and dealing with the human side of the crisis first. They understood that the right thing to do was to reassure people by making commitments on workplace safety, health care, wages, and benefits.
Many people spoke to me in glowing terms of CEOs who quickly took very strong stances on employee health and financial security and decided to forgo some of their own pay before cutting jobs or other people’s salaries. Many leaders told me that employees and consumers are paying attention and will reward those companies that are attempting to safeguard the health and financial security of many, if not all, of their stakeholders.
Employees do understand that without revenue it is very difficult to sustain a business, but they appreciate efforts made by leaders who are willing to sacrifice profitability before peoples’ health and financial security.
The lesson here is that leaders who took a moral stance and decided to think about people first will likely come out of the crisis with a more loyal employee, consumer, and supplier base.
Lesson 2 – Most leaders and businesses were not ready for this crisis
Many leaders argued that it is impossible to anticipate a crisis of such magnitude. However, in our own work with senior leadership teams we often conduct Political, Economic, Social, and Technological (PEST) analysis and issues such as global pandemics do come up as potential catastrophic threats to the business. Moreover, businesspeople and scientist from Bill Gates to Infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm have been warning of a devastating global pandemic for years. There is even a 2011 American thriller entitled Contagion that is eerily similar to what we are living through with the Covid-19 pandemic.
These warnings are often met with a shrug or a nervous laugh. Yet the value of having some sort of plan to mitigate such an eventuality in now undeniable. Leaders have been scrambling desperately to come up with plans to find cash, figure out how people can work from home, develop new health and safety procedures. Many such plans could have been conceived well in advanced at times where people would have had more time to think about the best course of action.
Part of future discussions must be about planning for a similar event to the Covid-19 pandemic and to have a strategy on the table that considers situations where 50 to 90% of the business is shut down, or for a situation that created exponential growth to the business.
The lesson here is that leaders must take some time once or twice a year with their senior team to plan for events that may have significant impact on the business.
Lesson 3 - Virtual work is not such a disaster after all
Many, if not all, of the senior leaders we work with have reported some amount of surprise at how well they have survived and managed the crisis despite the lack of face to face meetings. Cheap video conferencing software has allowed teams to hold meetings, leaders to have 1 on 1 conversations with their direct reports, and even opportunities for company wide town hall meetings. Many leaders have also been pleased by how productive employees are when working from home.
People have reported that virtual meetings are more efficient because, for example, they tend to start on time (no one is fighting traffic to get to the office) and people are more disciplined about not speaking over others during video calls. Some leaders have welcomed the lack of disrupting sidebar conversations while others argue that such conversations sometimes lead to creative ideas.
Leaders and direct reports alike have also reported that they are now closer to each other as they have put more of an emphasis on 1 on 1 catchups to manage through the unprecedented crisis and to check on each other’s mental health.
As we move forward, it is very clear that there will be major changes to the way work is organized and the possibility for many employees to continue to work for home either part of full-time.
The lesson here is that virtual work has proven to be a viable alternative to office work so leaders and their organizations must now decide on how that will work in a post-pandemic world.
Lesson 4 - Digital and e-commerce will accelerate
All senior leaders mentioned that the one bright spot during the crisis was the acceleration of e-commerce. In my interview with Jordan Berke, an e-commerce expert, he suggests that retailers should expect 50% of their sales to come from e-commerce in the coming years. Therefore, those that cannot ramp up their e-commerce capability will suffer as other players will be able to come in and take market share.
In the service industry, leaders report the same. There is now very little doubt that the move to virtual will accelerate. Everything from having meetings with clients, to facilitating discussions can be done on virtual platforms. Even personal fitness training is now moving, in part, to virtual platforms where trainer and trainee can be thousands of miles from each other. There will always be a need for face to face, but virtual is already playing an increasing role.
The lesson here is that leaders will need to spend time thinking about the implication of a ramp up of technology, digital, and e-commerce capabilities.
Lesson 5 – Virtual work will diminish the need for office space and business travel.
Leaders I spoke to were unanimous on these trends. The first is that more people will be working from home which means that the need for office space is likely to diminish. The second is that because of the efficacy of virtual work, leaders are planning to significantly reduce business travel in the years to come. Global and regional leaders who used to have numerous in person meetings with their team members will reduce the number of face-to-face meetings in favor of virtual ones.
This also holds true for people used to travelling for client meetings. Many will now have some of those meetings virtually as they are far more cost efficient and equally productive.
The lesson here is that leaders and their teams will have to carefully review office space requirements and budgets for business travel, as both will be very different soon.
As many places in the world are slowly deconfining and as we hold our breath to see if cases will, once again, increase significantly, we continue to scan to horizon to try to understand what the post-pandemic world will be like. For sure many more lessons, trends, and changes will take place. Some predictions will hold true while others will be quickly forgotten. However, there is no doubt that Covid-19 will force us to continue to learn, change habits, and adopt new practices well into the future.