Andrii Yalanskyi, Adobe Stock.

How to Lead Amid Crisis

There is no coronavirus manual for CEOs. But we rounded up tips that may help you forge ahead.

Don’t panic.

How could you not panic? With more than 181,000 coronavirus cases and a rising death toll around the world, the coronavirus is crushing the economy, crashing the stock market, shutting down businesses and schools, flooding hospital emergency rooms, and spreading fast. Meanwhile, your business and the health of your family, friends and employees hang in the balance.

No doubt, today’s business executives face enormous pressure, and there is no coronavirus playbook. For many of them, COVID-19 has been a crash course in crisis management.

What made sense a week ago no longer applies. Executives must continually decide where people work, how to communicate and what—and what not—to change. We asked experts how to manage a sudden remote workforce and how to lead amid a confusing and scary time.

“There is this combination of paralysis and panic because every day it’s changing,” says Jocelyn Kung, a leadership coach who has worked with some of the world’s leading technology companies including Google, Apple, Oracle, and 23andMe.  

Yet this crisis is the prime time to shine as a leader and will likely create a significant divergence between the good leaders and the great, says Kerry Goyette, CEO of Aperio Consulting Group, a leadership consulting firm.

“I tell people, suit up. Here we go,” she says. “Really step up.”

How you respond as a leader to the crisis is everything. And no decision is easy. Some CEOs have taken bold decisions to calm fears.

Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian, for instance, promised to forgo his entire salary for six months to ensure there were no layoffs. Taco Bell CEO Mark King promised to pay all employees no matter what. And Bank of America’s CEO Brian Moynihan said the company would defer payments by people who were hit by COVID-19.

CEO decisions could change literally overnight. Adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted sent an email on Monday saying retail stores would stay open, offering this philosophy: “Closing down is easy, staying open in a healthy environment requires courage, persistence and focus.” Less than 24 hours later, the company said it would in fact temporarily close all outlets.

The decisions could also have backlash. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, meanwhile, took a compassionate step to promise full refunds to customers who booked within certain dates, but then he drew the ire of angry hosts.

How you communicate directly to your team is also key. People will mimic how you, as a leader, respond. Not freaking out should be step one for every leader. Employees need someone to project confidence and hope.

“You can have butterflies in your stomach, but don’t let your employees know about them,” Dinesh Paliwal, CEO of Harman International Industries, a provider of audio and infotainment systems, told the Wall Street Journal last week.

If you under-react, it’s perceived as a lack of empathy and will lead to people feeling disconnected and feeling as though they’re not understood. Goyette says she has had clients cry because schools are closed and suddenly they’re supposed to work from home with four school-aged children running around—but their CEO doesn’t take it seriously. She just wants the work done.

On the other hand, if you over-react, you create a sense of panic, which will lead to burnout, poor decision-making and ultimately, lower immune systems. “You’ve got to find that balance in the middle,” says Goyette.

Part of the challenge is deciding how and where to work. By now, most companies are asking employees who can to work from home. That creates a whole new dynamic for teams—especially large ones that span various departments—and changes how people connect, how they work, how they communicate and if they can band together.

For those who have never done it before, remote working can be daunting. Leaders must pave the way so that employees become a lot better at it—and fast. They also must recognize that in the COVID-19 crisis, people suddenly are going to see the whole human and their lives on display, ranging from extreme panic and emotions to seeing parents with crying children on laps during Zoom conference calls, says Goyette.

Ultimately, it will change how organizations work in the future, driving more of them to feel comfortable with remote workplaces.

“This could have huge positive repercussions for the way we work in the future,” says Alex Hirst, cofounder of Hoxby, a virtual agency with 1,000 members, all of whom work remotely.

So how do you lead in this new coronavirus economy?

  • Simplify. In scary times full of unknowns, it’s important to simplify as a leader. When we get overwhelmed and stressed, it’s hard to prioritize and our IQ actually drops 75% in a stress state, says Goyette. Leaders should eliminate non-essentials and make it easy for people to take the next steps forward.
  • Inspire hope. Hope is directly tied to problem solving and if you inspire it, you’re getting your team to band together. That provides meaning and purpose. “If we really want people to be using their prefrontal cortex, we’ve got to get them out of the stress state,” says Goyette. “Hope does that.”
  • Balance compassion with conviction. Executives must help people through this time, get to a place of calm and keep moving things forward. Being dictatorial won’t work, says Kung.
  • Do more to connect.  Remember that it’s social distancing, not social isolation. You need to still find new ways to foster connections. People will need emotional support, now more than ever, says Kung. And teams will need new structures and rituals for maintaining closeness and productivity. Take the pulse regularly and set up channels for consistent updates.
  • Lean on community. The job of a CEO can be a lonely place, especially amid crisis. Draw on the support and ideas from your community, whether its peer groups, mentors or an affinity group, says Jeff Hayzlett, who runs the C-Suite Network, which offers events, speakers and networking for c-level executives. Stay connected. “Virtual has become the new face-to-face,” he says.
  • Read signals and test new ideas. With so much ambiguity and rapid change, CEOs must create forums for their leadership teams to think together about what they are seeing, feeling, and how they want to move forward together, says Kung. Old ways of planning may need to be thrown out the window for now. Rapid response to the right signals requires speed, agility, and fast failing. This may mean being explicit in how you come up with short-term interim strategies.
  • Stay cool when others panic. Being in touch with your own hot buttons and how you handle pressure is critical. Finding that center point to ground yourself helps you weather the turmoil with grace and confidence. Presenting a non-anxious presence while being brutally honest is the goal.
  • Manage misinformation. As rumors spread on social media about magic cures, government plots and national quarantines, it’s important for leaders to remind employees regularly about the spread of false information. Provide a resource sheet for people with credible sources for information, such as the Centers for Disease Control and state and county health departments. You can also tap the Acoer Coronavirus Hashlog, which tracks school closures, the number of cases, Twitter activity, clinical trial data, and more.

  • Don’t expect your workforce to be ‘always on.’ People may catch up on emails on a Sunday evening so they can go for a walk on Monday morning, says Hirst. Lead by example and state which hours you will be working and what your location will be. Recognize, too, that productivity is an individual thing. Work isn’t always done at a desk. Plenty of research suggests that our best ideas come when we aren’t sitting at a desk or in an office, but instead wen we’re out on a run or perhaps in the shower. Measure by output, rather than time spent online.
  • Don’t be paranoid. People will still be doing their jobs, and you can use tools like video conferencing and communication channels like Slack to maintain a presence and sense of community, says Hirst.

Today, the mantra for every CEO should be to not freak out, and instead project confidence, compassion and calm to their teams, customers and communities. “It’s tough to be a leader right now,” says Goyette. “There will be opportunities hidden in this. But we have to lead and navigate people through it.”