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Leading Strategically Through a Crisis

by B. Keith Simerson, Ed.D. and Cathy Lieberman, ACC

A central question executives must answer during this COVID-19 public health crisis is, “First, how do we get through this and then how might we take advantage of the Lessons Learned that have emerged during the turmoil?”

We surveyed over 100 CEOs, Presidents, COOs, and senior-level executives across the U.S. representing a slate of industries and professions to investigate their perspectives on the immediate and future impact of the COVID-19 health crisis on business. We received insights from a dozen CEOs and Presidents, thirty-five COOs, and two dozen executives responsible for operational and functional areas including marketing, manufacturing, talent, and technology. We received information on how leaders should:

  1. Prepare their business and workforce for another future crisis.

  2. Lead (themselves, their team, their organization) through a future crisis.

  3. Return to business as usual or a new normal following this or some future crisis.

The leaders also shared the one most profound thing they have learned during this crisis likely to impact how they lead in the future.

Preparing for a Crisis

Perhaps the most disruptive element of the COVID-19 crisis is the “shelter-in-place” requirement. A majority (74%) of the survey respondents reported that technology played a significant role in helping employees transition from their traditional office or cubicle to their home office, with an IT team member being available to assist with the move 85% of the time.

One of the most important insights of our survey is the importance of organizations having a disaster recovery and business continuity plan in place to support their people and programs during disruptive times. The leaders reported that having a Business Continuity Plan in place helped them make decisions during the onset of the crisis and that while a majority (59%) of the reporting organizations had such a plan in place, fewer than half (44%) had an individual responsible for business continuity planning prior to the crisis.

Leading Through a Crisis

A majority (85%) of the respondents reported that the COVID-19 crisis changed their leadership team’s perspective or priorities. In many cases, the crisis magnified long-standing perspectives, e.g., around the importance of helping ensure the health and safety of employees. The crisis also changed previously established priorities, e.g., product roadmaps, technology enhancements, availability of IT support, and digitization of records.

The COVID-19 crisis magnified leadership’s commitment toward ensuring the health and safety of employees: a clear majority (77%) have taken steps to protect and care for their employees. For example, almost half (44%) have relaxed policies relating to sick leave, PTO, and/or vacation leave. Surprisingly, even with heightened sensitivity in helping employees physically and emotionally deal with uncertainty and disruption, only a relatively small number (28%) of leaders have changed the way they receive the advice and counsel of others and fewer (23%) have changed how they keep themselves in good condition through exercise, diet, and rest.

The respondents reported that having a competent (88%) and self-motivated (83%) workforce contributed to their maintaining consistent performance throughout the public health crisis. Cultural norms emphasizing personal responsibility, accountability, and meritocracy were cited (81%) as being key in setting the stage for consistent performance. Even organizations having such a solid foundation in place reported that leaders must help employees at all levels remain focused so they continue meeting their goals and objectives in accordance to previously established quality, time, and cost expectations. Being open and remaining realistic were both emphasized in our survey responses: for example, executives—along with managers and supervisors—must “acknowledge the difference between working from home and working from home in a pandemic.” Words and actions must reinforce to employees that you realize these are stressful times and that you will do all that you can to help them manage through relatively unscathed.

Interestingly, information from our survey strongly reinforces the absolute importance of trust when it comes to operating in a disrupted and ambiguous environment. To bolster and reinforce trust, it is important for leaders to communicate frequently with each other and to their direct reports in open and honest ways, perhaps showing vulnerability and human authenticity that may not be typical within the formal organizational setting.

Information we received from our survey suggests that today’s leaders recognize the importance of establishing trust. A clear majority (91%) understand the important role “transparency” plays in helping members of the organization put things in the proper perspective and many (70%) bolstered unity and alignment by changing the manner and frequency in which they shared information with other members of the leadership team. Similarly, in 79% of the cases, the manner and frequency in which information is shared with direct reports and other members of the organization have changed to reinforce confidence. A clear majority (83%) of the respondents reported taking additional steps such as one-on-one conversations, daily check-ins, and lunch discussions to bolster the confidence members of their organization have in them and other members of the leadership team.

In addition to the above actions, information we received from our survey suggests that leaders have taken steps to reduce or mitigate risks associated with the COVID-19 crisis. A majority (88%) of the respondents reported that their organizations are actively engaging with clients, customers, suppliers, and distributors. Financially, 71% reported taking steps to conserve cash, and 35% are changing payment terms pertaining to their clients and customers.

An important implication of the insights executives shared with us revolves around the importance of leadership teams closely monitoring and remaining set to “pivot” when changing circumstance necessitates. Not only might a crisis change your priorities, it may sensitize you to the importance of setting contingencies to implement when unanticipated impediments, obstacles, or barriers to your current plans materialize.

Returning to Business as Usual or a New Normal

Leaders must recognize that a significant disruption like that caused by the COVID-19 crisis will impact the entire organization: its strategy, structure, systems and processes, technology, people capabilities, capacity and culture.

Survey respondents reported that the COVID-19 crisis will change (1) how members of their organization interact after they return to their office, (2) how decisions are made and how problems are solved, and (3) future investment decisions on facility utilization, space, and/or technology planning.

Our survey results also suggest that COVID-19 will have long-lasting and far-reaching influence on management and operational practices. Access to facilities will likely change in the future: expect entrances and reception areas to be restructured and operated in a way that limits general population access to and mobility within the facility. Along those lines, business continuity planning responsibilities will undoubtedly include monitoring patterns and trends to determine if and when emergency actions or changes in policy or practices need to occur. Finally, organizations will likely adopt practices relating to risk assessment and management, and such strategies will play a central role in strategic and operational planning.

The Most Profound “Lessons Learned”

In addition to the previous findings, conclusions, and implications, here are five select “lessons learned” taken directly from our survey results:

  1. In an attempt to prepare for times of crisis like this…leaders need to maintain a sense of hope for the best, while planning for worst case scenarios, and of course, expect that the unexpected will inevitably happen! Strong communication both internally and externally to constituents is key to keeping a community together during uncertain times.

  2. Leading with empathy, transparency and flexibility have been profoundly important and impactful during this crisis. Regular communication and employee outreach have been effective to reassure employees they are supported, and we hear their concerns.

  3. The COVID-19 crisis reinforced the importance of playing offense and pivoting to new ways of thinking and doing and to taking advantage of new opportunities quickly…most likely without having complete or perfect information on which to base decisions.

  4. Truly understand the strengths and weaknesses whether it be technology, equipment, locations, etc. Lean into individual strengths for assignments; even if it means putting aside hierarchy. We had a business continuity plan, but we had to pivot fast when every office was simultaneously impacted. Operating in a more flexible way and playing to strengths has allowed us to manage through all the challenges to date.

  5. My most profound learning is that a crisis tends to amplify everything. Things that you and your organization were doing well are pillars that support you through the crisis. Things that were challenges are amplified and take more attention than before. Our focus on access, equity, and social justice have impacted our COVID-19 approach as we do everything possible to ensure our staff, partners, communities stay safe, healthy, and productive.

It's “And” vs. “Either/Or”

It became obvious to us while analyzing our survey results that the most successful and influential leaders are those who treat the COVID-19 disruption as both a threat and opportunity. They are the ones most likely to take decisive action to:

  1. While hoping for the best, prepare their business and workforce for a future crisis.

  2. Lead—themselves, their team, their organization—through the crisis.

  3. Prepare their business and workforce to return to business as usual or a new normal following the crisis.

We consider the lessons learned outlined above to be exceptionally thought-provoking; we are confident they will help position you and your organization to (1) reduce, avoid, or mitigate crisis-related threats against which you must defend and (2) take advantage of crisis-generated opportunities upon which you must seize.

As you tackle crisis-related issues and challenges keeping you awake at night and strive to leverage the opportunities before you, remain positive and lead strategically to help propel your organization toward the successful future it deserves.

B. Keith (“B.K.”) Simerson, Ed.D. is consultant, advisor, and author and Cathy Lieberman, ACC is a consultant, advisor, and executive coach. Both reside in Chicago, IL.



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