By Dinesh Weerakkody
Ex-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, “You should never let a serious crisis go to waste.” What the two-time Chicago Mayor tipped to become the US Ambassador to Japan underscored was that a crisis is an opportunity to do things you would not do otherwise, outside of a crisis.
Recently I spoke to a group at the Public Sector Accountants Association in Malaysia at an event organised in conjunction with CIMA on – how to be an effective leader in a crisis. My experience as Chairman of a large bank and Director of listed companies on how some organisations adapted to the pandemic so fast, and the great agility they demonstrated during a time that many found challenging to say the least, was largely inspired by the new opportunity the crisis presented and indeed is worth sharing.
The pandemic forced companies to redistribute disrupted supply chain/lines, enlist a remote workforce, safeguard the wellbeing of essential employees at all levels, and continuously break pandemic related news to employees. Leaders in organisations had to maintain their own enthusiasm and manage their feelings/emotions so that they can continue to engage, inspire and motivate others to stay focussed.
Moreover, top-of-the-range independent non-executive directors were able to provide real insight and guidance based on their long years of experiences and exposure in other companies, their wide perspective – even global view of the enabling environment and they stepped up to the plate and were encouraged to contribute in the right way.
Going back to pre-crisis, whether you were an MNC or a local company selling products or services to local or foreign companies, most firms were generally focused on five things:
1.Driving sales and improving profitability
2.Increasing market share
5.Employee and customer satisfaction.
Post-pandemic when revenue chains and markets virtually disappeared or crashed, this focus changed overnight because with no markets, products could not be sold or delivered and factories could not be run at full capacity because people could not come to work because of lockdowns. The resultant impact was a huge drop in turnover, output and liquidity. So, the focus overnight shifted to:
- Controlling cost unlike ever before
- Maintaining liquidity by conserving the limited cash in the coffers
- Maintenance of services via new channels of delivery
- Managing operational challenges – supply chain issues, resource shortages and navigate community health issues and Government regulations
- Listening and responding to the community needs
- Managing Government relations and complying with health regulations.
- This was not easy to most leaders because yesterday’s management handbook became irrelevant and the learning curve suddenly became very steep.
- Key lessons for leaders
So, what are the key lessons for leaders for managing a crisis?
Demonstrate skill and knowledge to the team that you know what you are doing, demonstrate confidence when taking decisions, have a true sense of perspective and grow your know-how to make smart tradeoffs, given the limited resources. So continuously coach yourself for success by listening and reading.
#2 Be credible and be courageous
Walk the talk, do what you say and adapt boldly. Connect with frontline sales and delivery staff. Set daily dash board of priorities and measure performance.
Over communicate to manage the rumour mill. Clearly and thoroughly communicate important new goals and official government news.
#4 Work with others with purpose
You don’t have all the answers. So, engage with good experts to deliver on new expectations, promote team work and motivate to ensure alignment with all the teams on the ground.
#5 CSR mindset
All of us live off the community we sell our products and services. Therefore, we need to be compassionate towards them and reach out objectively.
#6 Retain and conserve cash
Cash is king+ in a pandemic. Manage prudently your cash, take a long-term view of money. Put a hold on large projects unless they are mission critical and redefine ‘mission critical’ to the new normal, weekly if you have to. Take the crisis one day at a time and then weekly and monthly.
In any crisis it is said that there are three types of people: Those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who say what the hell just happened? The choice is ours to make. Therefore, leading in a crisis is certainly not for the faint hearted and for the seat warmers. In the final analysis, a lot of good did come out of the pandemic for many companies despite the massive challenges. Some companies won handsomely and got richer, some lost, most, because they did virtually nothing new.