The coronavirus has hit…what now for business?

UCT GSB's Timothy London shares key points leaders can use to manage the Covid-19 crisis and recover from it.

Years ago, I co-wrote a book on that was targeted at leaders of educational institutions who might need to lead during crises; the core of the book, however, was built on research from a variety of different fields in order to figure out what was common across crisis and crisis leadership. While I don’t have the space here to go into all of the takeaways and impacts, the growing pandemic that is coronavirus has certainly brought it back to the front of my mind. As leaders in every type of organisation try to deal with managing the crisis (for now) and hopefully recovering from it in the not too distant future, there are a few key points that I think are deliverable in this space.

The bad news first
The research we looked at, and the interviews we conducted, made one thing incredibly clear: organisations that minimised the impacts of crises and were able to bounce back the strongest and quickest from them, had done a huge amount of work building a strong organisational culture in advance. This was, in many cases, years of work that was everything from constantly referring back to shared purpose and values, to smaller steps like considering how people referred to each other in the hallways. When times are good, this can often seem like a waste of time or a “nice to have”; when crises hit, however, it’s too late to try to build these strong connections that will see you through.

So, what does that mean in the current context of coronavirus? If your organisation has done a good job of building a strong internal culture, leaders need to refer back to that, and do so frequently. When discussing plans, next steps, or emerging concerns, always link them back to the shared values and purpose and about how collectively you have been working to deal with this for a long time now. Each step is not just a step, but a way of reinforcing your shared connections to each other through the organisation’s values and purpose.

I’m sorry to say that, if you have not built that strong organisational culture, it is likely too late to do so now. What you can do, however, is speak to that failing as a way of refocusing on it now. In other words, if your communications during this time are simply about financial losses, job changes, new ways of meeting, and other such technicalities, you will be contributing to a sense of disconnection. Instead, when talking about these necessary steps, tie them back to shared values and purpose for the organisation (you know, the ones that you probably have on your website somewhere but haven’t talked much about!) and be explicit about the fact that, while these may not have been leveraged as much as they should have been in the past, you recognise that these are the factors that will see the organisation through this crisis.

Communicate frequently and widely (even if there’s no new information)
Crises are a time of great confusion and desperation. In that environment, it’s easy for misinformation to spread rapidly, even if it’s not done intentionally. Leaders need to regularly communicate with stakeholders in a variety of ways, both formal and informal. It is similarly essential that information is shared widely: even if you have brilliant people in your senior management team, if no one else knows how they’re working on the problem, fear and mistrust will grow. It is essential, therefore, to regularly communicate not just decisions that have been made, but also the processes and factors that have led to those decisions.

One common trap leaders fall into in crises is thinking that, if they have no new concrete news to pass on, they should say nothing. Actually, it’s essential to communicate on a regular basis, even if it’s just to say what particular issue you’re working on or what new information you’re studying. This helps keep people informed and also allows for new insights to be given from people who, now that they know what you’re working on, can actually provide insight into that specific issue. Remember that communicating isn’t just about giving answers, it’s about engaging stakeholders in a shared dialogue.

It’s OK to not have all the answers (and even better to say so)
Related to the previous points, getting through a crisis is going to require many people leveraging their different skill sets at different times. A real crisis cannot be solved by one person, no matter how great a leader they are or have been in the past. If you’re in a leadership position, it’s perfectly fine to ask for help: you’ll need your whole organisation to be working together to deal with a crisis and no one person has all of the right answers. So while many times leaders may feel like they need to be perceived as “strong and decisive”, you will get more support and buy-in for actually implementing decisions if you invite in the expertise of others where necessary.

Don’t necessarily try to “go back to normal”
One final note of caution that often gets overlooked in trying to deal with a crisis: the normal reaction to crisis is to try to get “back to normal” as soon as possible. For many people in crisis, that will be the end point they see for having survived a crisis. While it’s a very natural conception of dealing with crisis, it can also come at the great cost of going back to problematic systems and environments. Put another way, many organisations have problems like a lack of inclusivity, bullying, poor information sharing, disengaged employees, and other issues. This is why it’s so important to focus on a shared purpose and values in dealing with a crisis, as recovering from the crisis while focusing on those can actually help you to avoid going back to problematic behaviors. One example being raised frequently now has to do with meetings and now, meetings online: people are worried about how to engage people in online meetings, which is ironic as many face-to-face meetings are already creating huge amounts of disengagement! If this is an issue in your organisation, don’t go back to your old, disengaged face-to-face meetings when you deal with the crisis, but use it as an opportunity to rebuild your organisation to be better than it was before.

I wish that I had a magic wand to give organisational leaders to help them navigate this current crisis, and the ripple effects it is causing across society. The hard reality is that we must find ways to come together, as crises are most destructive when they push people into antagonistic relationships. If you’ve built and led your organisation around shared purpose and values, you’re in for hard times but have ultimately set yourself up well to come out of this crisis in good shape. If you have ignored your organisation’s shared values and purpose the last few years, you can still hearken to them now, with a renewed focus on them serving as an agent of engagement as you bring your people together to tackle this crisis.