Pandemic Pivots

Resilience doesn’t happen on its own. It takes leadership.

The two-stroke Chinese language character for crisis is made of one stroke that represents danger and a second that represents opportunity. In parallel with the crushing toll on human of lost lives, shattered families and economic collapse brought about by the pandemic, it’s no surprise that we’re also seeing the power of human resilience and resourcefulness. They are two sides of the same thing. But that doesn’t mean resilience happens on its own. It takes leadership. Take Kroger. CEO Rodney McMullen put safety first, quickly installing procedures to protect his 450,000 employees and ramping up his e-commerce systems. Business soared, with Q2 profits nearly tripling. Online sales are up 127 percent. Even same-store sales are up—an astonishing 13 percent—because customers and employees, treated as essential workers, felt safe.

Jim McCann, founder and chairman of 1-800Flowers, said the pandemic forced every retailer he knew to compress their five-year path of change into five months. Early in the pandemic’s onset, McCann and his team pulled back from plans to acquire a division of retail giant Bed, Bath & Beyond, in the end consummating the deal in August. 1-800Flowers, which had already closed most of Harry & David’s locations, shuttered the remaining 40, but still managed to boost business by reconfiguring its hugely successful brand-building experiences, such as classes in floral design, into digital events.

In my home state, Connecticut, great manufacturers such as Lockheed’s Sikorsky Aircraft division, General Dynamics’ Electric Boat, Stanley Black & Decker, Raytheon Technologies—formerly United Technologies—and Pratt & Whitney, a division of Raytheon Technologies, retrofit production lines with safety shields, masks and other PPP immediately last spring. Working with Governor Ned Lamont, they ensured public health came first—and always. The result: There was never a day of lost production, and thousands of workers did their jobs successfully.

GM CEO Mary Barra retrofitted—in weeks, not months—factories and plants to produce up to 10,000 ventilators and 1.5 million masks a month, with no prior equipment or experience. She personally worked with GM’s medical director and heads of safety and manufacturing to create a “playbook” of protocols with back-to-work safety packages for employees. “What in normal corporate speed would take months was getting done in days,” she told me recently. “When you engage your team and then set them free to do what they can do, they can accomplish amazing things.”

Stuart Miller, chairman of U.S. homebuilder Lennar, and his team are developing new ways to show and do quality inspections on the 50,000 homes they build a year remotely. “It is now a safer, faster, more efficient experience not having to match schedules for homeowners to let strangers in,” he says.

Carmine DiSibio, CEO of global consultant EY, says the firm has surprised itself with what it has been able to accomplish. EYs renowned Entrepreneur of the Year event, for instance, migrated from a three-day extravaganza in Monte Carlo to a 70-minute show on CNBC that garnered 2.5 million viewers. To interact with clients, they created high-tech meeting rooms around the world. Not only have they shown that they can serve clients and win new business, but they’ve shrunk the company’s carbon footprint from travel by 94 percent. “We’ll certainly have more of that in the mix in the future,” says DiSibio, “while saving hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Maintaining the company’s culture is, of course, the biggest challenge. But it isn’t insurmountable. “With so many of our people facing challenges around issues like home schooling their kids, we put in place a lot of support mechanisms,” says DiSibio, “including increased parental leave if people need it, to help them deal with this crazy year. It’s things like that that help maintain and build a culture.” And create opportunity from crisis.