Leadership in a Pandemic: 5 Principles to Follow

crisis leadership

We are living in unprecedented times. We see and hear that phrase so often, I fear we may have become desensitized to its power. I spoke with a colleague who has worked in the risk insurance industry for three decades. Every year she and her clients perform an exhaustive exercise of brainstorming every possible potential threat to the continuation of normal operating procedures. A worldwide pandemic that would simultaneously shut down every industry on multiple continents and across dozens of countries at once never occurred to them.

If risk professionals didn’t see this threat coming, why should we expect business owners to have predicted its arrival?

5 Principles for Bringing Your Team Through a Pandemic

The time for regret is over. Now is the time for bold, compassionate leadership. Employees and customers are looking to business leaders to lead. Leaders of any business—whether your a corporate executive or a store manager—should let five principals guide their efforts.

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#1 Be Honest. Honesty is the always the best policy. If you aren’t transparent, your employees will know it. Eventually there will be a trickle-down effect that will result in lost revenue as discouraged employees communicate with customers out of frustration and fear. Don’t hide the truth from your workforce but be mindful of how you position it.

If you are scared, it’s okay to admit it, but don’t linger on your fears and don’t communicate out of them. Remind your people that you have a plan and will execute on it. Let them know that while you don’t have a crystal ball, you promise to be forthright with them and work diligently to guide the business through this time of uncertainty.

#2 Communicate Confidently. Communicate from a place of confidence. Reinforce your confidence in your people, your community, and your country. Confidence is contagious.

Convey your belief in and trust of your people. Doing so will give them the motivation and security they need to keep working diligently and innovatively. Remind them—and yourself—that as a retailer, vendor, or other front-line business, you are a key ingredient in someone else’s dream. By working smart and hard, you will provide the opportunity others need to move forward.

#3 Change Your Culture if You Have to. Many corporations tend to have traditional, top-down cultures. While this structure is excellent for stability, it’s not always helpful in times when agility and quick pivoting to new products and services are necessary for survival.

We can’t put our head in the sand and pretend nothing’s going on. Not only are we all in the same boat, none of us is as smart alone as we are collectively. Talk with your peers about how they are navigating the pandemic. What strategic changes are they making? What’s working for them? What isn’t?

Survey your customers and employees. Find out what people are concerned about. Learn their needs. Then, design a strategy to meet them. Be open to changing the way you work, and your entire culture if you need to, in order to effectively implement your strategy.

Expand employee roles. Emphasize that everyone needs to own sales and customer service. Stress their role in keeping the business going. Try a new approach to marketing and packaging your products and services. Be nimble and flexible and never miscount the value of your employees. Every single person from a cashier to a loss prevention manager to the CEO has a perspective that could help you not just weather the pandemic, but emerge from it stronger than you were before it began.

Each one of them has a huge impact on the value of your brand, so engaging them is critical not just for today but for the future. Brand value resides in the mind of your customers and team members, and that value is defined by the experience they have with your brand. It’s time to move into a “marketing 3.0” mindset, where personalization matters and where an almost emphatic customer experience occurs consistently.

See this crisis, not as a nail in your corporate coffin, but as an opportunity to move your team and brand forward.

#4 Focus on the Fundamentals. While you’re adapting, don’t abandon the fundamentals that got you where you are today. Even as you’re innovating, certain fundamental business activities still apply.

  • Communicate effectively and often.
  • Position your brand authentically and in the best light.
  • Know who you are and what you stand for.
  • Realize that everyone is your customer—your employees, partners, vendors, and the consumers. Study them to know what matters and when.

We often segment employees and customers in the business world. There are practical benefits to doing so, but at a conceptual level, never forget that your employees are your customer, too. The best brands aren’t only informed by their customers and employees, they’re formed by them too.

#5 Figure Out How You Can Help. When the body is wounded, it sends all of its resources to the injured part in order to heal itself. The same principle that applies to organisms applies to organizations as well. As our country reels from a worldwide pandemic and an outbreak of civil unrest, retailers must discern how they can help the communities they serve to heal.

Of all the businesses dotting America’s landscape, retailers are in a unique position because they were founded on the idea of people serving people. By design, retailers should be taking the initiative to approach their constituents and customers to identify needs they can help meet.

Ask your community leaders, particularly leaders of color, what they want from you and what you can do to help your community heal. Quickly pivot to find solutions that help the most people. Banks and insurance companies are already doing this, but more can be done.

We know these are tough times, yet how you handle this crisis is essential. If you exist to serve the underserved and deliver on the promise of people helping people, think about your customers and employees first and put your own needs on the back burner.

While you have a business you must keep in business, you also have margin in your business. Pivot quickly to products, services, operations, and customer care solutions that address your customers’ current and ongoing needs, understanding that those needs may be very different today than what they were just six months ago.

A Parting Word

Be proactive. Look at everything through the lens of the customer. Consider how you can support housing, education, and other core services required for economic freedom and financial vitality. We didn’t get into this alone, and we won’t exit it alone either.

Extend a listening ear, willing hand, and confident attitude. In doing so, your employees and customers will find the strength they need to rise above the bleak landscape and make it new.

About the Author

Mary Ann O’Brien
Mary Ann O’Brien

Mary Ann O’Brien is the CEO and founder of OBI Creative, a research-based, innovation-driven advertising agency based in Omaha, Nebraska. OBI starts and finishes each and every marketing plan and advertising campaign with the customer at the center, determining motivations, behaviors, and key consideration drivers. 

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