Nothing reveals true leadership quite like a crisis.
It’s during times like these that we turn to leaders to help guide us through uncertainty. Some are able to rise to the occasion, while others falter.
Knotch CEO Anda Gasnca and MikMak CEO Rachel Tipograph recently hosted a webinar during which they talked with a variety of business leaders about how to lead during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The panel included goop CEO Gwyneth Paltrow, VaynerMedia founder and serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, CEO of US Wealth Management at JPMorgan Chase Kristin Lemkau, CEO of WW (formerly Weight Watchers) Mindy Grossman, and New Enterprise Associates partners Hilarie Koplow-McAdams and Jeff Immelt.
Here are the key takeaways:
Prioritization is Everything
When a crisis hits, your former plans must go out the window. It’s time to reorient around the core mission of your business and figure out how you can now execute on it.
“You need to communicate your priorities across the entire organization so that everyone knows what their focus needs to be and what they’re galvanizing against,” said Grossman.
The key to good prioritization is determining what you can control and what you can’t. Koplow-McAdams was a president at Salesforce during the 2008 financial crisis. When customers started cancelling their subscriptions and revenue began to plummet, she realized she needed to focus her efforts on something she still had control over.
“We started authoring whitepapers and hosting webinars around recovery strategies,” Koplow-McAdams said. “That changed the way our company was seen from a brand perspective.”
Show Customers You’re There for Them
Whitepapers and webinars are a great way to show customers they’re more than just a line item on your income statement. Paltrow said the recent crisis has caused her to prioritize finding ways to be of service to her customers.
“As a wellness business, people come to us to understand what they can be doing to protect themselves,” said Paltrow. “So we’ve changed our focus over the past few weeks. We’ve started having our scientists compile info on COVID-19 as well as putting out content on ways people can help with the relief efforts.”
Content can be a key component of showing customers you’re there to help them. It’s a way to add value without being transactional. Through content you can connect with your customers on an emotional level and provide them with comfort and reassurance.
“As a bank, people are eager to hear from us because they’re worried about their money,” said Lemkau. “So content is very important for us to be able to talk to our customers, let them know what we think, and provide advice.”
Ultimately, by showing customers you’re there for them you become a strategic partner, rather than just another vendor. You’ll feel the difference if and when your clients need to roll back their budget.
It’s Okay to be Vulnerable
Leaders should always exhibit a sense of calm and poise, but in a situation like this, it’s also okay to show your vulnerable side. After all, the world is facing an unprecedented challenge, and showing humanity can often be seen as a sign of strength.
By leading with vulnerability and compassion, you show your employees you feel their pain. This can help foster a sense of connectedness, which can unite your team to face the crisis head on.
“People want to feel that you’re real,” said Grossman. “It shows transparency, which actually gives people confidence in your ability to lead.”
“In times of peace, people want answers. But in times of crisis, it’s okay not to have all the answers,” added Koplow-McAdams.
Do Right by Your Employees
Being vulnerable is part of doing right by your employees. Vaynerchuk believes the most important job he has during a crisis is making his employees feel safe.
“I try to over communicate during times of crisis,” Vaynerchuk said. “I’ll send group emails, hop on Slack, do live streams—anything to be transparent and show empathy.”
Your goal as CEO during a time of crisis is to make your employees feel that every effort is being made with them in mind. When Grossman served as CEO of Home Shopping Network in 2008, she said understanding the pulse of her workforce helped her navigate through the financial crisis.
“I had 6,000 people and their families relying on me,” Grossman said. “So I made a point to ask my team what they were thinking. This ultimately made my employees feel they had a purpose in not only helping the company but in helping others.”
Unfortunately, millions of workers have already been laid off, and in the coming months more and more businesses will have to make painful decisions around cutting payroll. If and when that day comes for your business, it’s important to show empathy and honesty.
“If you have tough organizational moves to make, don’t have your HR leader do them for you,” said Immelt. “As a leader you need to own it and not hide from the truth of the situation.”
Innovation is Necessary
Part of prioritizing is finding ways to innovate in order to stay afloat. For some businesses this can be a blessing in disguise.
“A crisis is a good time to see if there are barnacles on the boat—things we can streamline to help us get back to what the core of the business is,” said Paltrow. “I feel excited and inspired by that particular aspect.”
Innovating means looking at all your processes and figuring out how you can do them differently. For example, as the threat of COVID-19 grew, the WW team worked fast to make their services available virtually, thereby mitigating the impact on their business.
“Purposeful speed and ingenuity is really important in a time like this,” Grossman said. “Don’t aim for perfection, just do what you need to do to get it done. Companies that do that are the ones who come out stronger.”
“I think there is an enormous amount of excitement leaders feel in times like these,” added Vaynerchuk. “I’ve been going through line items in preparation and thinking of ways we can drive down costs to clients while still driving measurable sales.”
Timing is Key
Innovation is as much about timing as it is execution. Crises are inherently uncertain, so most people aren’t sure what to do when they occur. Acting too late—or too soon—can have profound impacts on your business.
“Crises come in waves, so the best thing isn’t knowing what to do, it’s knowing when to do it,” said Immelt. “That’s called judgement. During the financial crisis, nobody knew what to do until mid 2009.”
If your business is looking to cut budget, it’s important to make sure you have all the information you need to make a good decision.
“If the economy is to recover quickly, you might want to hire soon so you can onboard them and have them ready,” said Koplow-McAdams. “But making that decision now is risky because nobody really knows what’s going to happen next. So timing is everything.”
Plan for the Worst
As difficult as it is to think about, every business needs to have a worst-case scenario in mind. Having a doomsday plan allows you to act decisively, which can ultimately be the difference between your business surviving or not.
“We’ve been building out our version of a disaster scenario, as well as a medium-impact scenario, and a low-impact scenario,” said Paltrow.
Your worst-case scenario should be created by a small contingent of employees to determine what your business options are if everything goes to zero.
“A worst case scenario helps you see what you can control,” said Koplow-McAdams. “That is where innovation will come from.”
Cash is King
Businesses that have cash in the bank are much better equipped to weather a crisis. By having cash on hand, leaders can delay eliminating operating costs, which enables them to keep their core business intact.
“It’s a heartbreaking time, and leaders may want to put their head in the sand instead of planning for the worst,” said Koplow-McAdams. “But if you do have a plan, if you train for the moment, things can go a lot better.”
Vaynerchuk said Fortune 1000 brands are going to have to find ways to save cash by doing more with less. On the other hand, smaller and mid-size businesses will fall into two distinct groups depending on how much they have in the bank.
“The brands that have their economics right can crush it right now because their customer acquisition costs have gone down,” said Vaynerchuk. “Others are in big trouble because they were burning too much cash, and so now they’re not able to take advantage of those low customer acquisition costs.”
“What I think a lot of brands will take away from this is that saving is cool,” added Vaynerchuk.
Have Your Outlets
Crises are stressful. During these times, it’s more important than ever to have outlets outside of work that can help take your mind off things.
“It’s important to maintain family life and have people outside the line of fire,” added Immelt. “Mentally you need to pace yourself. There is more tough stuff to come, and you need to stay at your best to meet the challenge.”
During a crisis, it’s also key to be able to compartmentalize your business life and your personal life. Paltrow said this is one of the key lessons she’s learned.
“All of us who are parents need to figure out where we can draw the lines between home and work and take care of ourselves,” she said. “Trying to hold these multiple aspects of ourselves together at the same time is tough because they don’t really pair. But we have a responsibility to our families and employees."
Do What You Need to Do to Survive
Ultimately, there is no cookie cutter approach to getting through a crisis. It’s simply about survival—do what you need to do to fight another day.
“Getting through a crisis is a pass/fail test,” said Immelt. “All you have to do is get to the other side. You’re going to make mistakes and you should be ready for that.”
“Nobody expects perfection, they just want progress,” added Vaynerchuk. “These crises make you better.”
This crisis will teach us many things. Good leaders will be able to internalize those lessons and use them to succeed long-term.
“Think of all the things we’ve been able to learn in just the past few weeks,” said Immelt. “New knowledge is possible.”
“Right now it feels like an abyss, but there is another side to this,” added Lemkau. “When we get there, there will be lessons learned.”
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