Running An ‘Essential’ Company Makes CEO Decisions Crucial

Pitney Bowes CEO Marc Lautenbach is in a challenging spot: having to balance the demands of staying open with the health of employees.

Many CEOs might love to switch places with Marc Lautenbach right now, because the president and CEO of Pitney Bowes is running an outfit the federal government has deemed “essential” during the coronavirus shock. One of the company’s main operations is sorting mail as an extension of the U.S. Postal Service.

But be careful what you wish for. Lautenbach can’t just tell everyone at Pitney Bowes to work from home for a while or turn off the lights for a few weeks. He must shepherd the $3.2-billion company through one of the toughest times in a history that turns 100 years old next month, overseeing the continuation of tasks that are vital to the global economy while also safeguarding the health and safety of Pitney Bowes’ 13,300 global employees.

“Our first principles are to make sure the team is safe, customers are safe and partners are safe,” the chief of Stamford, Connecticut-based Pitney Bowes told Chief Executive. “And how to fulfill our role as an essential entity.” So, he said, while the company has “special latitude,” it also has “unique accountability.”

Lautenbach said he prefers a “collaborative” management style but that he is refining his approach, and counseling his lieutenants to do so, in the face of the demands of decision-making in the abruptly introduced era of the coronavirus.

“We’re trying to have a more frequent cadence of management [action] in general,” he said. “We encourage interactions to be collaborative, but in the end, when you hang up the phone, it’s important for people to have clear direction. Issues need to be addressed, and you need to ensure that there’s accountability.”

Lautenbach has continued to curry multiple points of view internally as he has pivoted Pitney Bowes to address the crisis. “You benefit from different perspectives, and you’ve got to find a way to encourage different perspectives,” he said. “People are understandably anxious and their nerves are a bit frayed. We want people to engage and dissent if they want – but then commit. It’s my job as a leader to ensure that we do that.”

For example, he said, Pitney Bowes executives and managers have been expressing “many different points of view about how we deal with pay and benefits” for the time being. “We try to have an environment that lets all those opinions and points of view get aired, and ultimately, where we can’t get consensus, I’ll make a decision.”

Same with client issues, Lautenback said. “While we try to move toward consensus, in no cases have we had unanimity” among the brain trust, he said. “Ultimately I make the decisions.”

Pitney Bowes has several other operations, including an e-commerce group and a financing subsidiary for small and medium-size businesses. But the biggest decision-making challenges right now tend to relate to the necessity to keep Pitney Bowes’ postal-related operations humming at the same time that it seems like the whole world is coming down with the coronavirus, and people are still together in the workplace.

“This is something that can’t be done remotely but at a physical site,” he said. “So we need to be mindful of the unique circumstances at a particular location and also each individual’s unique circumstances. We also have lots of sites that move parcels. We’re an essential part of commerce, and we just don’t have the ability to do that from home.”