Having lived successfully through two previous crises as the founder and director of a business in Russia, the 1998 financial crisis and the 2008 economic crisis, it stands me in good stead to work through this current economic, business and health crisis caused by actions and directives taken by governments globally, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The tendency, rather than embracing the situation and the opportunities that a crisis presents, boards and senior management very often go into "shutdown" mode by cutting as many costs as quickly as possible in order to protect share value and shareholder dividends.
What does this mean?
It means that the 80:20 rule kicks in and the 20% of costs that impact 80% of the results will be addressed first as they have most impact on the bottom line. Invariably, this equals redundancies. The labour laws in this country, due to the obligatory notice period and other requirements, do not help organisations in this matter, as they encourage a decision to be made very often before all the facts are known. In the current crisis an interim option has been made available through furloughing of employees. This helps organisations in reducing the financial burden whilst keeping the most valuable asset – it’s employees.
Effective leadership and the benefits that this brings has to be "emotionally intelligent". In other words, how can we use the current situation to the advantage of the organisation and the advantage of the employees? This requires using both head and heart when making any decisions in relation to both company and employee wellbeing in the short and medium term.
Employees especially, in such times, when subjected to decisions that are explained and that show both head and heart involvement will likely respond in extraordinary ways to help both their employers and themselves weather the storm. Once the storm has passed because of the trust, respect, care and empathy shown them, they in turn are likely to show greater loyalty and willingness to do what it takes to deliver what is necessary to get “the show on the road”, as well as to generate ideas in the pursuit of new opportunities. Those who have been made redundant when understanding why and how the organisation proposes to assist them in moving on to their next job will also likely show loyalty whilst speaking positively about their employer.
The CEO of Airbnb, Brian Cesky is a superb example of balancing head and heart. He clearly explained in his email to all employees, copying clients, why redundancies were being made, how employees leaving and staying would be cared for and above all thanking those leaving, genuinely from his heart, sharing both inspiration and his own sadness.
“As I have learned these past eight weeks, a crisis brings you clarity about what is truly important. Though we have been through a whirlwind, some things are more clear to me than ever before.
First, I am thankful for everyone here at Airbnb. Throughout this harrowing experience, I have been inspired by all of you. Even in the worst of circumstances, I’ve seen the very best of us. The world needs human connection now more than ever, and I know that Airbnb will rise to the occasion. I believe this because I believe in you.”
The approach I adopted both in 1998 and 2008, with my teams at the time came from my heart, with the back-up of logical thinking. Of course, when the money in the bank account was de-valuing faster than you could think, the immediate response was to cut staff numbers. However, I knew that every multinational and local organisation was making redundancies. I also knew that these unfortunate people who were then without jobs had no way of feeding their families. Why would an organisation deliberately choose to lose their well-trained and valuable assets? Why would I lose my well-trained, effective employees if I could find another way?
Was I willing to do the same to my team?
After much soul searching, I brought the team together and explained a situation that I myself did not fully understand. At the end of this explanation, I made an offer to keep them employed for as long as I could on a vastly reduced salary, but one I knew they could survive and feed their families on. In return I asked for commitment in certain ways. Each person was given 24 hours to think about the offer and decide if it was acceptable or not. The only other option was unfortunately to lose their job. A harsh choice, but a humane one. All, but one opted in.
How did we adapt to a situation that went on for over 12 months?
Guidelines and expectations were clearly laid out for each person, and within this framework due the challenge ahead our teamwork grew stronger. To keep the atmosphere conducive to the goal of staying in business, we shared many ideas, developed new product as well as helping each other with the stress of what we were all going through by having some fun. The lack of knowing when this would all end led to feelings of inadequacy, dissatisfaction, fear and anger. Each one of us experienced some or all of these emotions at different times as we went on our own journey, but together, through the Kubler-Ross change curve.
Time was used wisely in clearing out, streamlining and improving systems and most importantly building a close-knit team of people who supported each other, laughed together and relieved each other of stress that we all suffered in our day-to-day life.
What does it take for a leader to succeed through these times?
In my own personal experience, it takes a level head, a strong sense of intuition, the ability to listen to your team and listen to your heart. Keeping the goal in mind is important. Listening, guiding and directing, encouraging, supporting, trusting, nurturing and empathising both yourself and individual team members.
It is important to be grounded and realistic with yourself through self-nurturing, avoiding the frustration and perhaps anger that surrounds a decrease in your own productivity, roller-coaster emotions and the new balancing act required to live up to all responsibilities in new and very different working conditions.
What about the customer?
In all economic crises there will be companies on both ends of the continuum, those that do extremely well as demand for their products increases overnight and those companies that go bankrupt. Perhaps they were unable to make changes fast enough? Perhaps they already had market or cash flow issues or other internal difficulties, that made them more vulnerable to the harshness of the situation. Additionally, in the same scenario, there are new opportunities and those that see them, take the risk, and grab the opportunity will leap into action to make the most of the situation either during the crisis or once everything has resumed.
Under the current lockdown circumstances, the promotion of training as a service is now is out of the question, only falling on anxious or deaf ears whilst everything is so unclear. Of course, this will change at some point and the point is to be ready. Customer support at this time is still important, but it is more moral support than providing a service. In my experience the following actions are valuable and more often than not well-received:
- Provide moral support by calling to genuinely enquire how your clients are doing with no intention of promoting anything. Simply to understand and lend a sympathetic ear, should it be necessary.
- Benefit clients and potential clients through developing new products and services that can be of value when circumstances change, anticipating that many budgets will be slashed.
- Provide grounding and a safe place to act as a sounding board for your clients who need someone neutral to talk to in order to share thoughts, challenges and emotions.
- Join in virtual networking events to meet new people and share knowledge of what some of your clients are doing that might be useful for those people in their current situation, observing GDPR.
- Introduce your clients to other people, who you think might be a useful contact.
- Share with clients, when the opportunity arises to inform about what you are working on, thus increasing awareness for when the situation changes.
- Remain positive by avoiding exposure to negative news and people who drain valuable energy, thus being able to show the light ahead to those that might be struggling to see it.
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Rachel Shackleton, Founder of Green Key Personal Development and Green Key Health is a leadership trainer, medical herbalist and naturopath specializing in corporate health through face-to-face, on-line and e-learning development solutions. For more information contact Rachel on firstname.lastname@example.org
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