Friday morning I spoke with a longtime public company director who had just traveled through customs coming back from Toronto. Increased coronavirus screening led to two-hour delays. The line snaked through the hall and out to the main airport doors, which were locked at one point in an attempt to alleviate crowding. Fully half of the people in line missed their flights. “It was a mess,” she said.
It’s also likely a sign of things to come. So what’s a CEO or director to do? Plenty. Rather than try to muddle through, smart leaders will think about the current health crisis as a way to strengthen their companies—and come out the other side better than ever. (Think Johnson & Johnson and the Tylenol disaster, or Starbucks facing issues around racial discrimination.)
“How you do in a crisis defines you,” says Betsy Atkins, serial CEO, board member at Wynn and Volvo, and a columnist for Chief Executive’s sister publication, Corporate Board Member. “It is the operationalization of your culture in real time. It’s a chance to define your company.” (Betsy shares additional thoughts for public company directors here.)
Rather than treat coronavirus as an unmitigated disaster, take it as an opportunity to deepen ties to all of your constituencies.
> Employees, says Atkins, want answers to three things: Am I safe? Will I lose my job? Will you take care of me if I get sick? Managers should have credible, authentic answers to those questions and communicate them immediately and frequently. This is a time to build loyalty and community among your people. Do right by them now, and they’ll walk through fire for you later.
> Customers want to know how your business is being impacted—and what the impact will be on them. Can they expect delays? How long? What steps are you taking to handle potential issues? Successful leaders won’t wait to hear from customers—they’ll be proactive and transparent with their communication and will strengthen their long-term relationships as a result.
> Investors will likely give most companies a pass on the financials for the quarter, or even the half. No one is going to single you out for getting hit by the virus, because everyone is being hit by the virus. So focus on doing a great job serving customers and employees. This is a chance to shine, says Atkins. “It’s a time for over-communication with all of your stakeholders,” she says. Do so and “investors will see you’re a company with integrity that can get through a tough time.”
It’s also worth remembering that we live in a litigious era. Workplace policies should put the health and safety of workers and customers first and foremost, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also to avoid inviting lawsuits down the road. No one should be forced to travel or attend meetings—or even come into the office—if there is a chance of contamination. Stay close to HR and legal, and make sure management is on the same page. The board may want to connect weekly for updates on how the crisis is being handled.
The overall message, says Atkins, must be simple and clear: “We’ll get through it,” she says, “and get through it together.”
Special Report: How the Coronavirus Can Impact Your Business
While not overreacting, CEOs should get ready for the potential impact on their operations as we wait to see if the coronavirus becomes a significant public health risk in North America. To help, Chief Executive reached out to our trusted partners at SafetyNow.
They’ve prepared a 35-page report for our community on how the coronavirus could impact business, including a playbook for taking steps to protect employees, insure continuity and mitigate legal risks from both an OHS and HR perspective. It includes numerous checklists, best practices, model programs, a coronavirus screening form and a lot more. We’re providing it for free to Chief Executive’s readers via SafetyNow’s website.