Leading in a Crisis: Business Leaders Go on the Offensive to Guide, Mentor and Support Talent

June 18, 2020 – The current COVID-19 pandemic is a global tragedy with profoundly human consequences. It is also creating situations of extraordinary human performance and growth, as individuals and leaders come together to do what they can to help those around them.

Pandemics are unlike any other challenge faced by today’s leaders, according to executive search leaders who ply their trade tracking down the best ones. “There are no words to fully describe the feeling of dread when you find out one of your colleagues has fallen ill,” said Clarke Murphy, CEO of Russell Reynolds Associates in a new report. “There are also no words to describe the feeling of pride when you hear of a colleague going out of their way to help others in hard-hit areas of the world.”

As a leader, he said, “you want to always have the right answers and know what to do, but these last few weeks have plunged many of us into a situation that most have never faced before, and one that lacks clear answers. Mr. Murphy said he cannot help but think the best path forward right now is for senior leaders to share with their peers what they are doing to navigate this situation, and what they have learned from past challenges.

Developing Leadership Credentials

“As senior executives naturally focus on the immediate implications of this crisis and its impact on their people and organizations, they will also routinely find themselves in moments that accelerate the growth and development of their leadership talent at all levels of the organization,” he said. “During historical moments of severe uncertainty, we have noticed that the smartest companies employ the tactics below to drive leadership performance and development in the midst of crises.”

During the 2008 financial crisis, many companies found that a surprising share of their leaders were unwilling or unable to lead in a challenging environment. “Many also found that they had underestimated leaders who stepped up in unexpected, critical ways,” noted the Russell Reynolds Associates report. “Take note of what this period reveals about your bench. The coming weeks will expose empty suits and surface hidden gems.”

The biggest shifts in a sector’s competitive rankings occur during moments of uncertainty, including downturns. “Defensive measures are essential, but the best leaders also think strategically about opportunities to go on the offensive,” the report noted. “This lesson applies as much to talent strategy as it does to business strategy.”

Leaders Who Look Forward

During times of uncertainty, many top leaders succumb to the natural human tendency to retreat inward and fail to support each other. Ironically, they become more individualistic at the very time when leadership matters most. The best leaders recognize and resist this response, and, critically, support peers who need their guidance and mentorship.

“A crisis exerts sudden, substantial pressure on leaders and provides a real test of their ability to persevere in spite of it,” said the Russell Reynolds report. “Look for – and allocate more responsibility to – those who demonstrate a combination of calm, competence, and confidence in the face of uncertainty.”

A crisis like this pandemic also provides a critical moment to test and develop leaders. Leaders are already being assigned to rapid-response teams and forming new initiatives to confront the implications of the outbreak. As this happens, leaders must work to ensure that, where possible, critical initiatives are led not only by safe hands, but also by those with high potential. Established executives should be surrounded by those who will both make significant contributions and flex new leadership muscles.

According to Mr. Murphy, ensure that senior leaders do not unwittingly allow hierarchy to stifle the emergence of the best leaders with the best ideas. Merit and potential will reveal itself during a crisis, and the strongest leadership will often come from those without leadership titles. Don’t stand in the way of the stars that emerge.

Keep Recruiting Engines Running

While the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, external hiring for top talent is about to get much harder. In environments characterized by extreme uncertainty, those in stable roles often become highly risk averse and unwilling to make a transition, even when unsatisfied with their current situation. Many forecasters believe the nation is heading toward a buyer’s market for talent. “We are not,” according to Russell Reynolds Associates. “You are likely already making painful decisions on your investments in leadership and talent development. As you trim, remember that deep, across-the-board cuts will send a clear message that talent development is a luxury good.”

“In the wake of past downturns, many companies found that it took years to restart their recruiting engines (and rebuild talent pipelines) that had been shut down,” the Russell Reynolds report said. “A thoughtful approach to keeping these engines running – even if at a slower rate – will enable you to significantly outpace your competitors when markets heat up following this pandemic.”

On the Front Lines with COVID-19

“Without a doubt we are experiencing extraordinary times,” said Bob Clarke, CEO of healthcare and insurance-focused search firm Furst Group. “Within the healthcare sector there dynamic changes that few could have predicted, or at the very least predicted the speed at which they are occurring. For healthcare providers they are finding themselves on the front lines of a battle the degree of which none have experienced.”

“We are hearing from leaders that while on the one hand they have trained for events just like this, there are also outside factors on the other hand that play a significant role in their ability to prepare for and lead through what is coming,” he said. “Deploying teams and caregivers is being done by the book. But they are hampered by incredible shortages of equipment and PPE and battling a foe without any tools in their belt with which to combat it.”

At the same time, said Mr. Clarke, “depending on where one is geographically there is a growing sense of curiosity and concern to an all-out crisis.” Leaders in healthcare, he noted, are looking at their counter parts in hard hit areas and are preparing for the worst. “Those experiencing a stricken population are also facing shortages of front line care providers. In some cases these team members have contracted the virus directly and in many others they have been exposed, requiring that they too self-quarantine.” The result, he added, is a loss of the very people needed to help provide the care. “As a result staffing shortages are becoming a very real problem.”

Insurers, too, are wrestling with issues concerning payments and medical coverage. “The moral ground is to provide testing and care to everyone who needs it at no cost,” said Mr. Clarke. “But unfortunately there are real financial implications to doing the absolute right thing. In the near term there will be significant reassessment of the processes, policies and procedures that were laid bare during this crisis. Many papers and studies will point to what went well and what went not so well and identify areas for improvement. In the long term these challenges will be met by a realignment of medical care teams with operational readiness and systems support. At the levels at which we work our clients are making it clear that we are to continue our engagements as the positions we are seeking are strategically critical to the organizations’ future. Focus right now is on the threat at our doorstep but for the most part the strategic and operational imperatives will remain intact,” he said.

Difficult Months Ahead

“Many sectors of the economy will face difficult months ahead,” said Leslie Loveless, CEO of Slone Partners. “Within life sciences, we will likely encounter some challenges in recruiting executive talent as many top executives maintain a sense of loyalty to their companies and teams and will not consider leaving a stable situation during uncertain times. That will limit the talent pool, resulting in further heated competition for those qualified candidates who are available. Many companies will have to scramble and find innovative solutions to fill some of their open top-level positions.”

The coming weeks and months will bring added pressures across the sector, she said, but once the crisis passes “we will have a lot of intense work to catch up on as those companies that have pressed pause on their recruitment efforts will then be in fierce competition for the limited number of qualified candidates who will be willing to switch companies in what may be perceived as a still unstable market.” Ms. Loveless said she feels fortunate in that her business has been a virtual company for nearly 20 years. “Our experience has shown that team discipline and focus is essential, and that will become even more apparent during these unprecedented times.” Empathy and compassion shown towards clients, she added, mean more now than ever.

“I think this is a great opportunity for life sciences & healthcare leaders to stand up and show people what the industry is really about,” said Matt Toner, managing director at LifeSci Search. “After all the years of anti-pharma and biotech news, there is now a chance to show the public that they are here to help. We are seeing the industry collaborate like never before, and it’s driving the science forward at an extreme pace. We are, for sure, seeing a temporary slowdown in hiring. This is natural given the uncertainty regarding how long this may last, combined with the lack of travel which restricts our ability for face to face meetings.”

But, he noted, “we are seeing more B2B collaboration as companies come together to share resources to try and find a solution.” Mr. Toner said “we are also noticing a push from companies looking for expertise at the board level, and a willingness to conduct these interviews via video conference. This is, after-all, a rare opportunity for boards to conduct impromptu video meetings while they are working from home. We do also feel this could actually give private companies a chance to make some opportunistic big name hires that they might typically miss out on, while public companies minds are elsewhere dealing with the capital markets and falling stock prices.”

He said discussions with management teams have been illuminating. They have seen firsthand boards and senior executives possessing incredible strengths, but also weaknesses. “We have heard frustrations from management that their boards and executive leadership teams have left them unprepared for the situation they find themselves in. Once COVID-19 starts flat lining and companies start operating as usual, the whole industry should be able to look back at how they all came together during this period, and we hope this can drive future innovation.”

Steve Hochberg, founder and CEO of Caliber Associates, said: “The biopharmaceutical , medical device and diagnostic industry has demonstrated incredible leadership to help address the global pandemic, prioritizing resources and development programs to fast track the delivery of therapeutics, vaccines, diagnostic tests, and equipment; working in true partnership with worldwide regulatory agencies to address ongoing patient and healthcare system needs.”

One of the most significant challenges the biopharmaceutical industry is facing, he noted, is the rapid suspension of ongoing clinical trials in therapeutic areas unrelated to the pandemic. “While these actions are necessary and appropriate, the impact on patients, principal investigators, data integrity, and advancement of novel treatments is far reaching. The wind down of clinical trials is likely to cause significant disruption and displacement with regard to staffing levels and the immediate need for search activity. As we emerge from this disruption, we are likely to see intense competition to attract and recruit key leadership talent in the clinical development,” he said.

“We are watching case studies in leadership across business and politics in real-time,” said Dave Fortier, managing partner, global life sciences practice leader at ZRG. “The value that decisive, communicative, critical thinkers bring to leadership in a crisis is immense. The life sciences industry is responding well,” he said. “Whether it is multi-billion dollar giants or pre-revenue startups burning through cash, the willingness, creativity, and speed with which many companies are working to bring solutions to this crisis is inspiring. I think this will be recognized and the industry will earn greater respect with the public.”

Working from home could become a new normal, Mr. Fortier said. “The concept of ‘working together’ as a team is evolving daily and will forever change as entire companies and industries are forced to shift their employee interaction platforms while under ‘distancing’ guidelines or worse.”

Companies will be rewarded as they shift their hiring processes significantly to adjust to the virtual world, he said. “It is a challenge for many to make that final call on a candidate without an in-person interaction. But those companies that can adapt will have an advantage in the continued war for top talent.”

“One trend that we see amongst many of our partners that have critical hiring initiatives is their openness in using teleconferencing for the last mile,” said Jason Hersh, managing partner at Klein Hersh International. “Because of recent events and the travel constraints our client community is becoming more and more comfortable using innovative technologies to complete the interview process and make hiring decisions without actually meeting candidates in person. We believe this will help expedite the interview process in general moving forward, well after we recover from this pandemic.”

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