Best Practices to Help Management Teams Get Through the COVID-19 Crisis

Dan Hawkins

By Dan Hawkins, Founder and CEO, Summit Leadership Partners

We are living through unprecedented times. The COVID-19 pandemic is causing worldwide public health concerns and widespread disruptions in the global economy, our businesses, and schools. It has caused us to put a pause on public gatherings, professional sports, the arts, restaurants, and nightlife, which otherwise would have provided relief during difficult times. Our way of life is under threat, and it is now more important than ever for management teams to collectively lead by example and keep driving the business forward while managing the risks and impacts along the way.

Our team at Summit Leadership Partners has been engaged in conversations throughout the past week with client management teams, CEOs and CHROs at a variety of organizations across several industries, working closely to help them navigate their decision making during the COVID-19 crisis. We’re hearing that management teams are going through significant levels of duress and uncertainty as the crisis evolves by the hour.

Regardless of the industry, management teams are facing their own set of unique challenges due to the COVID-19 crisis. Now is the time for us to learn from each other and strengthen our management practices.

From our conversations with these leaders, we have identified a few key strategies, best practices, and insights that we believe will be helpful to your management team during this turbulent period. Some of these tips are specific to how organizations are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and its unique challenges and scope; other tips are applicable in any kind of crisis or situation where your organization is confronting extreme volatility.

 

Establish your Mission-Critical Priorities

In a time of crisis, everyone is feeling uncertain. Employees, vendors, and suppliers might be worried about getting paid or concerned about their job security. Business partners might fear disruptions to the supply chain or shortages of resources.

Decide which stakeholders need to receive the highest priority. During this crisis, we believe the management team’s obligations need to start with prioritizing the organization’s employees, customers, and the community. The concerns and priorities of shareholders need to be a lower priority for now. One of our clients mentioned, “Right now I don’t have to worry about investors. Shareholders will ultimately be rewarded if we do the rest of this right.”

In addition, a priority for most management teams is protecting cash to ensure business continuity and avoiding drastic actions, such as layoffs and shutdowns.

Reassure your employees and be accessible to customers. Manage your revenue-generating channels and activities. Care for your community. Maintain your business continuity. Many management teams are engaging in customer ‘call arounds’ to check-in and demonstrate support and empathy.  Some are dividing calls across all executives and reaching out to critical customers to ensure their needs are met.

 

Adapt Your Strategic Mindset for Volatility and Uncertainty

Management teams need to start by approaching this situation with the right mindset. The whole country and much of the world is in crisis mode. At times of extreme volatility and uncertainty, leaders at all levels, but especially top management, need to adjust their strategic mindset in a few key ways:

 

  • Agility: Be willing to think on your feet and adapt quickly to new information and changing circumstances. We are all having to respond in the moment.
  • Focus: Focus on what is within your control. It’s easy for people to feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what’s going on in the world; however, leaders need to focus instead on what decisions they can make right now.
  • Decisiveness: Be able to make decisions quickly. It’s better to be proactive than to be inactive. In these moments of volatility, the risk of making mistakes is often outweighed by the risk of waiting too long and then being overtaken by external events.
  • Courage: Now is the time for courage from our leadership and management teams. Be willing to make the tough choices, take accountability, be visible, and keep showing a good example for the rest of the team.

Most of our client management teams are holding at least two, brief but critical, decision meetings daily to address the above. The goals are two-fold: Inform with the latest information and decide on how to handle. All have reported that traditional organization lines are eliminated, and certain leaders are temporarily appointed as decision-makers on critical items such as how to treat employees, working rules, customer issues, supply chain, etc.

 

Collectively Lead from Four Vantage Points

Once you’ve shifted your mindset and decision-making approach, it’s time to focus your leadership on four critical areas, starting outside your company and working your way in:

 

  • External/outside the company: Follow the news and public health updates. Stay in contact with your customers and suppliers and invest time and energy to manage your business-critical relationships outside the organization. Now is the time for transparency and constant (frequent, but brief) communication. This can’t be done by one person on the management team – you’ve got to divide and conquer.

Also pay attention to what your peer companies are doing – you might want to get on the phone with your competitors and offer to share information and insights.

 

  • Horizontal/across the management team: Good management teams are communicating every day and are in constant contact throughout the day with brief, informative and decisive calls. Try to come out of every call with clear contingencies, specific ownership of action items, and 100 percent alignment on next steps on what is the messaging to employees.
  • Inside/within the organization: When dealing with your direct reports or the broader organization, it’s more important than ever to be proactive with communication. Get in front of employees and share information with them as soon as you can with transparent, simple, and frequent messages. Nearly all our clients have an all-employee internal communication update released at least once a day. Reinforce your long-term commitment to the employees but focus on short-term actions for now. Don’t feel forced to have all the answers and don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know yet.”
  • CEOs and CHROs need to keep a pulse on the management team: CEOs and CHROs need to remember that not everyone thrives in times of crisis, and not everyone is handling this well emotionally. Take some time to keep a pulse on the management team. They are struggling with a lot of stress and uncertainty right now, and they are the face to the employees. Make sure they have what they need.

As a CEO and company owner, I am also experiencing the emotional ups and downs myself.  Despite the uncertainty, we will survive and eventually thrive past this crisis. Management teams have a unique opportunity to be part of the solution. Focus on staying informed while being calm and decisive. Recognize that we don’t have to be perfect, but we must act. Remember that our first obligations are to our communities, customers, and employees – the shareholders can wait as we navigate this challenging situation together. I truly believe that times of crisis tend to bring out the best in people, and our corporate management teams can lead the way.