By: Suzanne Bates and Laura Fay

The first wave impact of the COVID-19 crisis is roiling. It is giving us pause. How long will my Purell order be backordered? Should I still fly? Should we postpone our family vacation?

For CEOs and executives, the questions are daunting and complex. Though data shows that deaths from the virus are primarily confined to an elderly population with underlying conditions, media coverage globally is generating fear and uncertainty. Supply chain and manufacturing challenges are very real, but it is an abundance of caution that is disrupting all public gatherings from sporting events to cruises. As a result, companies are now imposing travel and meeting bans and encouraging people to work virtually.

Bad news always heightens emotions. Good leaders must be concerned for their employees and customers, while trying to minimize disruption to business. You have an obligation to minimize general health risks and be sensitive to employee concerns. At the same time, you have a duty to manage the financial risks of business slowdown, which would of course hurt employees, customers, investors and shareholders, potentially over a longer term.

It’s critical to keep your eye on the long game. Here’s how we’re advising our clients during this time:

  • Encourage innovative, creative ways to do business: The best ideas often percolate when you’re forced into a corner. Foster an environment that encourages people to look for a different way forward. Engage people in finding a new path to business. Make sure people are set up to work virtually when possible. But go ahead and have those virtual meetings. Bringing people together generates innovation. Another source of ideas comes from your customers. Understand their pain points and see if you can help. Who knows, what you discover could become a new product or service you never would have developed. It could open new lines of revenue and ignite innovation and engagement among your people. It will get them focused on how to move forward.
  • Oh captain, my captain—manage the swirl: Help your team acknowledge and work through the angst they’re feeling, so that they can pull back and refocus. Distill what’s happening and provide perspective. This requires you to give thought yourself as to what to say and how to think about the current challenge. Show people how to rise to the occasion. And be transparent and authentic. Discuss how Covid-19 is impacting the business. Keep people up to date and communicate regularly through a variety of channels – live, in person, virtual, video, and in writing. Don’t worry if you don’t have much that’s new to say. Keep the channels open, and let people see you and hear from you.
  • Keep people focused on a healthy future: One big critique coming off recent earnings calls is that executives have a very backward-looking view regarding Covid-19 impacts. They are talking about how they are positioned right now – not in the future. The effect of Coronavirus is not fully known and will likely not be for a long time. Smart companies will look ahead and talk about a future that includes diversifying their businesses, introducing new products, discovering new markets, and more. Keeping a future focus ignites people’s energy and keeps the organization aligned to the goals. Thinking ahead will stabilize your business for your team, your customers, and your company.

One tenet of leading through crisis is that saturation of bad news can overwhelm people. It is your job to acknowledge the crisis that exists, and to put it into perspective. Your employees, like you, are listening to the media, talking with colleagues and neighbors, overhearing rumors. None of this prompts the thoughtful, intentional balance you want to have in your organization. Be out front, help people see the path forward, and let them rise to the occasion.

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