Leading From the Front in a Pandemic

Safety, agility and maintaining good communication are essential in these challenging days, according to a new report from Korn Ferry. For leaders, displaying the values and behaviors that they expect from their team is vital. But that does not mean being isolated. Let’s take a closer look.

June 22, 2020 – Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the operative word has been “unprecedented.” That’s true on a human tragedy level as well as for businesses. It’s no wonder that many leaders have found themselves in the same position as their employees—uncertain, confused, anxious.

A new report by Korn Ferry offered the firm’s best advice for keeping employees safe, maintaining your own and your organization’s agility and staying communicative. Korn Ferry experts said the crisis and the recovery require a special blend of skills. “It’s only natural: Senior leaders, always under intense pressure from investors, may default to looking at the financial damage the coronavirus is causing or could cause,” the report said. “There’s good reason to be concerned, especially since the bottom-line toll has already been so large.”

But employees don’t want to know how much the virus is costing the company; experts say workers want to feel they’re in the same boat as the boss. “People need to know that even though the leader is employed to manage and run a business, he or she is also a human being—someone that cares for them and understands what they are going through,” said Michael Distefano, president of the Asia-Pacific region for Korn Ferry. “The leader must lead from the front, exhibiting the values and behaviors they expect from the team.”

Leading from the front doesn’t mean being isolated, however. To be sure, for many leaders, one of the hardest things to do is to rely on the opinions and decisions of other people. But the Korn Ferry report said that’s exactly what they need to do in times of crisis, especially when the cause of the crisis is outside of their area of expertise. “Leaders also have to be agile, in changing not only plans and work schedules but also their own leadership styles,” said Mr. Distefano. “In fact, it is likely to be the case that different leadership styles will be needed as the year progresses through different stages.”

Explicit and Transparent Communication

Korn Ferry said that leaders should know that they need to communicate with stakeholders during a crisis. And with a viral outbreak such as this, different organizations will need to communicate differently. Richard Marshall, global managing director of Korn Ferry’s corporate affairs practice, said communications should be tailored to each stakeholder constituency based on their unique concerns.

“Communicating with employees about what protocols the organization is putting in place to keep them safe should always come first,” he said. With partners and vendors, he suggested establishing a project team to monitor the situation and relay updates. Investor relations, corporate communications and management teams should work in unison to navigate the response from investors and consumers, and address any concerns proactively.

Leaders need to be authentic and transparent. “People are obviously nervous about the implications of the virus, and it is essential to keep them engaged, informed and safe,” said Peter McDermott, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Global Corporate Affairs practice. This is indeed a time for human resources and management to show a supportive and steady hand. “We don’t want to be proactively alarmist, but managers should be prepared to support employees’ concerns individually, as individual needs may vary widely,” said Jennifer Beery, senior director of talent for North America at Korn Ferry.

“Sometimes that means admitting to stakeholders about being afraid, and other times it may mean admitting you don’t know something,” said Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global strategist on diversity and inclusion. “Communications should always include ‘Here’s what we know, what we don’t know, and what we’re trying to find out.’”

Keeping the Business Running Effectively and Securely

As long as the virus remains a threat, Korn Ferry said that the focus should be on keeping employees and their families safe and free from contagion. Making people feel secure and taken care of will then help leaders get the workforce focused on preserving operations as best as possible as the outbreak spreads. “For many organizations, that means finding supplementary suppliers that can ramp up production and fill in the holes created by the shutdown of factories,” said James Day, who leads Korn Ferry’s supply chain, operations and procurement center of expertise in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “Organizations without a secondary supplier run the risk of not being able to access inventory, having delays or being trapped into paying a steep premium.”

Leadership Development Pays Off in Times of Crisis
The coronavirus pandemic is threatening both lives and livelihoods across the globe. Catastrophes happen and most of the time we have no control over them. “However, our response as leaders is something we do have a control over, and that’s what more often than not defines the outcome of any crisis,” according to a new report by The Taplow Group.

But that’s just the day-to-day work. For leaders in the midst of restructurings or mergers, they face the question of how to continue. “The essential parts of a merger or restructuring that need to proceed, even as the virus impacts the world, are getting (or keeping) an organization’s leadership aligned on business strategy and setting up a new governance structure,” said Mark Arian, CEO of Korn Ferry’s advisory business. “Most everything else, such as workflows, reporting structures, and other process work can be pushed back. Actually, the virus can offer an opportunity for leaders to assess whether they can realistically achieve the objectives on the timetables they’ve established. Most places are very aggressive with synergies and merger impact already. You can reset expectations internally and externally.”

Out of the Office But Not Out of Work

In many countries, with schools and factories closed, employees are working outside the office. Even before all this, remote work had increasingly become a fact of work life, with nearly one-quarter of Americans alone doing some or all of their work outside the office before everyone was ordered home. But the coronavirus, according to experts, is another reason why firms should invest in allowing workers to be able to productively work remotely.

Downloads of office software and communication apps have surged amid the outbreak. “If firms don’t have strong collaboration tools now, then they need to have them and implement them,” said Mary Cianni, global head of integrated solutions for Korn Ferry’s advisory business.

Research shows that productivity can decrease in the short term when workers go remote. “For leaders, more people working from home more often, if not exclusively, creates a level of risk if the team isn’t proactively managed,” said David Marzo, global VP of solution design for Korn Ferry’s global products business. “Many employees thrive on the physical environment and face-to-face collaboration. The abrupt change can easily impact their engagement and feeling of being properly enabled to do their job.” He suggested that leaders be in daily, frequent contact with remote employees. Another tip: translate some of the office’s culture to virtual work. For instance, if an office normally does face-to-face meetings, have participants turn on the cameras of their phones or devices when they are having work calls. It’s a practice that can apply for all sorts of virtual work, virus-inspired or otherwise. “Then everyone is on a level playing field,” Mr. Marzo says.

Related: Conducting Executive Searches During a Pandemic

All the remote work—along with vacant offices—could bring up another dilemma Korn Ferry said: keeping an organization’s property and networks secure. Thousands of workers who are used to an office network are now logging in from unfamiliar places on devices that may not be fully up-to-date with security features. “Corporate leaders need to increase vigilance at an organization’s security operations center, monitoring abnormal behavior since more employees will be mobile,” said Bill Mayville, a Korn Ferry consultant and retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who served as deputy commander at U.S. Cyber Command. “Be extra cautious with emails and spear-phishing attempts using coronavirus themes,” he said.

Through and Beyond the Virus

Before the coronavirus appeared, many leaders were recognizing the power of prioritizing “purpose movement” issues over maximizing profits at their organizations. Indeed, explicitly stating a company’s purpose, and then having the organization revolve around that purpose, has actually been shown to increase employee engagement and, in some cases, profitability.

Virtual Recruitment: How to Hire From a Distance
Have you hired someone without ever meeting face-to-face? With COVID-19, businesses can’t recruit the same way they once did — but that doesn’t mean they can’t find the best candidates for the job now. In fact, Comhar Partners recently concluded an executive search that was conducted completely virtually using Zoom, the video conferencing tool, and the person’s first day will be the first time the individual will have gone on-site or met a board member or the management team.

One of the main questions critics have about the purpose movement is whether organizations will abandon their principles when the bottom line is, well, on the line. But the best leaders are able to turn short-term tragedy that hurts their organizations into a sense of shared purpose and community that betters it in the long term.

Related: The COVID-19 Impact on Executive Search

Indeed, the coronavirus may help identify the next generation of great companies … and leaders. “There will be people who see the connections between the coronavirus and opportunities to contribute to society and provide business value simultaneously,” says Jane Stevenson, global leader for Korn Ferry’s CEO succession practice. “There will be leaders who will emerge out of a crisis like this. These are the types of leaders we need for the big CEO jobs.”

Culture: Making the Case for Change

Corporate leaders have been increasingly attuned to their organization’s culture—and how inflexibility, bad incentives, toxic behavior, and poorly defined values can hinder future growth. A Korn Ferry study identified that “driving culture change” ranks in the top three global leadership development priorities. Yet 72 percent of corporate leaders said their organizations struggle to get their culture right. Sometimes it can take a crisis to force change and make leaders rethink their assumptions on supply chains, customer demand, employee safety and everything else.

“Many organizations already recognize that what got them to this point will not get them to the next, and a left-field event like this will result in people asking ‘What can we do better?’” said Sharad Vishvanath, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and head of the firm’s transactions and transformation practice in the Asia-Pacific region.

Organizational culture, as leadership experts define it, is a company’s collective values, beliefs and behaviors. Those, in turn, determine how people perform. “If a large proportion of people adopt new behaviors consistent with a shift in strategic direction, the culture can change,” the Korn Ferry report said. “Even under perfect conditions, cultural transformations are tough to pull off, of course, but experts say there are four actions leaders can take now, as a crisis situation ebbs and flows, to shift corporate culture.”

Managing the New Normal

The outbreak will likely accelerate many changes already underway, particularly with remote working. But experts say there almost certainly will be new routines once workers return to the office. A manager may recognize she doesn’t need to physically monitor individual performance, trusting her team to work on its own. Korn Ferry said that these simple things could significantly impact workplace culture, so experts suggest creating a system—such as a center of excellence—that can spread these new practices company-wide.

Above all, leaders need to embrace a culture shift. “Leaders need to have a very clear view on what the culture is, versus where it needs to be, and then make changes to bring that alignment into being,” said Mary Chua, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the rewards and benefits practice for the Asia Pacific region.

Related: Working Virtually Keeps Everyone Safe and Productive

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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