‘Prepare For A Covid-Present Future’

One of Hollywood’s most respected executives also has a deep background in public health, making him a Covid-info clearinghouse for CEOs. His best advice now? “Move your thinking from pandemic to endemic.”

Sandy Climan is a strange mix of talents. On one hand, he’s one of Hollywood’s most respected executives, president of Entertainment Media Ventures and a key architect behind the rise of Creative Artists Agency.

Sandy Climan

But Climan also has an advanced degree from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (where he now advises the Dean) and served on the Advisory Committee to the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That confluence of two worlds has cast him as a point person for F500 CEOs looking for advice on dealing with Covid since the outbreak began in early 2020.

A year ago, I reached out to Climan about Covid—what were CEOs asking him? What did he think would happen next? His answers were practical, pragmatic and, ultimately, hopeful. They were also, it turns out, pretty spot-on.

So what’s he thinking about now? Where does he think this is all going, and how should CEOs prepare? We spoke—via Zoom, of course—this week. The conversation is edited for length and clarity.

The last time you and I talked about Covid was about a year ago. What are the CEOs you talk to talking about now that we’re facing a third season of Covid?

I think we’re at the next inflection point. And it’s an interesting one. We are now seeing decisions [on vaccinations] that are very specific to the safety of your workforce, as well as stabilization of your business. People can elect what they do, but you can also elect not to have them as part of your universe, if, from a corporate point of view, they are putting others at risk. CEOs are making decisions along that basis.

That’s controversial because you do have diverse workforces. You have workforces that have, some of them, strong arguments, for whatever reason—whether it’s history, immunocompromised personal states—questions about new vaccines. But you’re making the decision that is in the best interests of those making the decision that there be vaccine mandates, or testing, or both. And I think that’s fascinating.

What are CEOs asking you about now that we’re looking at this really being an endemic problem, one that’s going to be much longer run than we had hoped when you and I last spoke last summer?

The biggest question that I’m getting right now is on boosters. You know, why we don’t have them already? We went from the CDC and the NIH saying that you didn’t need them now, to the immunocompromised are getting them, to ‘we’re gonna give it to people over a certain age,’ to ‘it’s gonna be more generally available.’

At the same time there’s a hue and cry all over the world that the U.S. and other countries have more than their fair share of vaccines, and the rest of the world is still exposed. Frankly, although we don’t talk enough about it, we are all one globe. That is as true, if not even more true, on health.

The most surprising thing for me is that the state of Mississippi authorized booster shots for anyone that a doctor thought needed one—before the CDC authorized it, the FDA, and the NIH. This is Mississippi, which is not one of the most vaccinated states, but they were making decisions. That’s emblematic of the business discussions that are going on.

At the beginning of the pandemic, people were looking for guidance. I think today, putting aside legal issues, because you have to consider those, I think most CEOs are now at an accelerated state about knowing that they will be making decisions themselves.

Give us your thoughts about leading through the next few months.

The uncertainty at the beginning of the pandemic is different than the uncertainty now. I think that people generally believe, in an executive suite, that the virus is dangerous, that Delta, and possibly other variants, may be more contagious, so they are no longer grasping for what is really going on.

But what I think the uncertainty that people are dealing with in the C-Suite, is now an entirely different issue than just health issues. They understand that the overall health of their company is going to be based on a safe work environment, and the question is, how do they enforce that? And I think that uncertainty is going away right now.

The CEOs that I’ve talked to are grappling with making the hard decision that they are going to do something that possibly they might have resisted in the past, which is, they’re going to set down ground rules [on vaccination or testing] for the organization that they’ve never set down before. And frankly, we’ve had decades of rolling back rules that inhibit personal decision-making and personal preference, in the sense of personal liberty. There is no doubt that mandating vaccines is telling someone what to do.

The more we see the ICUs filling up, particularly with young people, the more demonstrable it is that we need to make hard decisions for the benefit of all. As we move forward in our society—I not only talk about health, I talk about security, privacy—all of these are tied together in terms of what is appropriate in terms of making decisions for others. We will see how this set of decisions on health affects other sets of decisions in the future.

We saw Delta spike in India, in Britain, and flatten out and drop off. What’s your sense of where we’re going to be 90 days from now?

We are moving from pandemic to endemic. A pandemic has a sense that it might end. Endemic is “it’s with us forever.” I think what we are trying to do now is prepare for a Covid-present future. If Delta recedes, great. That’s kind of like what the summer was before the spikes.

But I don’t think we are going to open ourselves as easily to super-spreader events. We are going to be very careful because of what happened in Provincetown and other places. Think about if you lived in what used to be a wonderfully safe but bucolic rural part of California that today is subject to wildfires every year. You take a different approach to your property and to life. I think that the endemic approach is the acknowledgement that the health disaster, the health risks are with us at all times.

In the early AIDS crisis, AIDS was not necessarily solely a disease that was related to the gay community. It was everywhere at some point. Now we’ve controlled it and we have medications, but it changed people’s behavior. I think that that’s how we’re going to be treating the risks of a virus that may never fully exit our environment.

Give us a few tips for CEOs who wanna stay ahead of the curve on this as we move into this next phase.

First, move your thinking from pandemic to endemic. This is an OSHA issue now, an occupational safety and health issue.

Next, do not discount the mental health aspect of the changes that are part of the endemic. The endemic is going to lead to more mental health issues. Whether it’s the George Floyd issue, whether it’s the pandemic, whether it’s the coming acknowledgement of it being an endemic, it tells you again the importance of looking at your stakeholders, your employees, as 360-degree human beings, and then planning for them in a way that you had not before.

Last, but not least, we are watching people make life choices that we never thought they would. If they don’t like how they work, they quit. I was talking to a restaurant recruiter. There is a dearth of people willing to do some of these jobs. They’re not willing to work under circumstances that are uncomfortable.

One of the companies that I’m associated with basically blocked out time where people could simply regroup. They turned off their electronics for an hour. I don’t know that that’s the only answer, but it’s an indication of the kind of thinking that I think in the C-Suite you have to do. Because there’s just nothing more valuable than your human capital. You have to think about not how to treat them better, but how to make them feel a part of the community, committed and safe, in an environment where they are all looking for assurance that they will lead the life that they had hoped they would lead.

A lot of people, in prior times, sublimated a lot of what they thought was important in their lives to work. I think now what you want to do is to elevate the importance of work, while creating a sense of work-life balance and fulfillment that is a virtuous cycle.

Dan Bigman is Editor and Chief Content Officer of Chief Executive Group, publishers of Chief Executive, Corporate Board Member, ChiefExecutive.net, Boardmember.com and StrategicCFO360. Previously he was Managing Editor at Forbes and the founding business editor of NYTimes.com.