By Miles Socha
with contributions from Evan Clark
 on April 13, 2020

“Crisis is just an unfortunate way to separate leaders by name only, and leaders by character and ability.”

So says Gianpiero Petriglieri, a professor of organizational behavior at French business school INSEAD, among the experts WWD consulted for dos and don’ts for the c-suite negotiating the coronavirus pandemic and the economic upheaval it has wrought.

Chief among their advice: don’t hide, don’t panic, and communicate honestly and frequently. You might even consider a video address.

According to Petriglieri, “the ones who are better at leading through a crisis have one characteristic: They know how to deal with high uncertainty and high anxiety.”

“These are the times that really tell the quality of leadership, more than when things go well,” concurred Randall Peterson, professor of organizational behavior and academic director of the Leadership Institute at London Business School. “A lot of sins are covered up by economic boom.”

Stanislas Haquet, associate director of Angie, a consulting firm in Paris, warned that a crisis tends to exacerbate the shortcomings of leaders, whether that’s a lack of decisiveness or a lack of empathy. “Conversely, some leaders reveal their qualities at these kinds of occasions. It is not only a matter of innate qualities. It is also a matter of preparation and anticipation,” he said.

Here, their chief recommendations.

DO: Forget the Past

According to Petriglieri, management needs to let go habits and reflexes of the last decade, when many industries, including fashion and luxury, were flourishing.

“Our view of leadership for the last 20, 30 years has really been focused on pushing, controlling, efficiency. What’s needed now is containing, and reassuring employees. This crisis is exposing the frailty of institutions whose leaders who are more capable of draining them than holding them,” he said, employing the word “holding” in the psychological sense of being supportive and unifying.

Peterson cited another psychological phenomenon: the “threat-rigidity effect.” Essentially, when people are threatened, they become more rigid, and they tend to “go back to things that have always worked in the past.”

“So if you have always gotten ahead by making sure everything is always exactly right, the more threatened you are with all this change, the more your instinct is to go to greater and greater levels of perfection. That is the wrong instinct right now,” he said in an interview.

In short, this is not a time for cold, distant, hard-driving bosses, they agreed.

Not that overly accommodating ones are the answer. Peterson noted that in good times, “we love leaders who listen carefully, who take things on board.” That’s not a good tactic in a crisis. “You ratchet up your visibility and strength as a leader,” he advised.

DO: Step Up to the Plate

“During any crisis, what is most needed is to have leaders display executive presence,” said Joel Garfinkle, an executive coach and author based in California. “The best example of outstanding leadership during the coronavirus is Dr. Anthony Fauci [head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases]. He has shown a commanding and confident presence. People look to him for leadership and he delivers.”

Commanding figures take charge, radiate calm, make decisions quickly and are “direct and clear with instructions and expectations,” according to Garfinkle. “Projecting confidence shows that you are in control of the situation. This helps calm people’s fears. People are looking to you for reassurance. They need to know you have their best interest at heart.”

According to Petriglieri, the stakes are high.

“Every morning, remind yourself: People will remember me for how I dealt with this. How do I want to be remembered? People will not forget what you did during this time,” he said. “This is not a sprint, and it’s not a war. It’s a test of endurance and care.”

Petriglieri praised companies like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which immediately shifted perfume production to hand sanitizers to aid front-line health-care workers: “Those are moments, people will remember that. They signal, I care, I’m here, and I’m of value.”

On the plus side, being active and dynamic has a magical effect.

“In a crisis, the good news is people are totally open to whatever changes the leader wants, as long as he or she is leading change, and doing something,” Peterson said.

DO: Shift Your Focus to the Now

“In regular circumstances, you want leaders to be 80 percent focused on the future and 20 percent focused on the present, to not to be out of touch,” Petriglieri said. “In a crisis like this, you need the opposite. You need to show up, be available, and focus on what’s needed now. The 20 percent becomes what does this mean for the future? What if this isn’t just an interruption but a disruption? A lot of people are still treating it like an interruption, how to get through this lull.”

Indeed, it’s vital not to forget the eventual rebound.

“Especially in this situation, leaders have to consider that this is not going to disappear in a matter of a few months. It requires a two-year vision,” advised Tomaso Galli, founder of JTG Consulting in Milan. “In addition, not starting to plan now for the post-pandemic can be a costly mistake.”

Terry J. Lundgren, former chairman and chief executive officer of Macy’s Inc., noted that expectations are low in a crisis. “There’s nothing you can do in the short term that’s going to be any worse to your stock price, if you’re a publicly traded company, than what the virus has already done,” noted Lundgren. “Now is the time to take those risks as long as you think there’s a better answer on the other side.”
His advice? “Rethink the strategy, determine what it is that we do…that customers can’t live without. What is it that makes us uniquely qualified to say, ‘We’re an important source for our customers’ joy and happiness’? How can we exaggerate those things we know we’re very, very good at and sort of root out or cut away the things that are less important?”

DO: Communicate Often, and Honestly

“Leaders do need to change their comportment and leadership style,” noted Garfinkle. “They need to be honest and transparent with the information they know. People want information even if it’s not positive. They want to know the truth.”

“A constant dialogue with employees, collaborators, landlords, wholesale and supply-chain partners and, for public companies, the markets, is extremely important,” agreed the consultant Galli. “That communication has to be two-way and frank.”

He added a caveat: “As it is difficult to know how the future will evolve, there shouldn’t be much disclosure of forecasts, which will inevitably change in the course of the crisis. The important thing is to clearly articulate the vision and what the company is doing to reach its goals.”

Galli said in a globally interconnected world, it is paramount to be consistent in messaging. “If a company donates to a charity in its home country and then lays off employees in a subsidiary away from home, the behavior can be sanctioned by customers as well as employees and business partners,” he warned.

Haquet noted leaders sometimes have to “force themselves to do things they would not have done naturally. Speak out more regularly, doing it in a different way, on video rather than in writing, for instance.”

DO: Look at Role Models

“The one that everyone’s praising is Greg Foran, the ceo of Air New Zealand,” Peterson said of the executive, who was previously head of Walmart in the U.S. “He is good. For an industry that is in complete meltdown, he’s not histrionic, he knows what’s going on at the ground level. He’s being very thoughtful, careful, but being very clear that even when all of this is over, the company will not return to its original size.”

Peterson also recommended looking outside your sector, noting how pro-golfer and former European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley attributed his success partly to his friendship with Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United. While both sports legends, golf as an individual pursuit seems remote from a team effort like soccer.

“Big innovation often comes by looking outside and seeing things can be done differently,” Peterson noted.

Petriglieri suggested simply opening your local newspaper to see what small and medium-sized enterprises are doing to keep the lights on, protect their staffs and honor their customers.

“More than ever, we are reminded that business is not just an economic enterprise, it’s a human enterprise,” Petriglieri said. “Instead of making a to-do list, draw up a to-care list. Make a list of the people or the groups you care about. Look at which activities provide some value. Everything else, put aside.”

DON’T: Deny or Downplay

Political leaders who denied or downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic are facing the music, and corporate leaders must be upfront.

According to Petriglieri, there are two kinds of denial: underplaying the crisis and pretending it’s not a big deal, or “hyperactivity, let’s try to do everything we were doing before without stopping and saying what are our priorities now.”

“It’s important for leaders to convey, ‘We will be OK,’ but it’s very different to say ‘We will be the same,'” he said.

Angie’s Haquet said the worst pitfalls are “not telling the truth, hiding important things, or even worse, lying. If anyone finds it out, and the media pressure in times of crisis makes that likely, the leader loses all credibility. And even generates distrust.”

Peterson said leaders can get too wrapped up in the crisis, and be reticent to communicate until they have all the facts at hand. Wrong.

“Don’t wait until you know exactly what to say,” he recommended. “You have to say, ‘Look, here are the 10 things that we know, and based on that, here’s what we need to do.’ That’s what people want and they will be perfectly forgiving if some new bit of information comes to light. Where they get angry is if they find out you knew something and weren’t taking action on it.”

He added that no accomplishment is too small to highlight. “The positives may be small, but people are really grasping for that sense that our leader is doing something and the outcome is positive,” he said.

Lundgren said there’s no skirting around the fact that layoffs are inevitable. “And when that happens, it’s very important that the ceo’s show sincere compassion and explain why these decisions are being made. The ceo and management needs to be very compassionate during that time,” he said. “At the end of the day, the ceo and leadership team must provide hope. They must be able to look past what’s happening today and provide some sense of hope that your company’s going to get through this.”

DON’T: Be Remote

Peterson said good leaders won’t only communicate with top deputies, and a crisis demands paying even greater attention to employees throughout the chain of command. “That ground-level stuff doesn’t come to you. You have to seek it out,” he said. “Find a way to be open, and in particular find a way to stay in touch with what’s going on at the ground level.”

Citing an offbeat example, the professor pointed to the panic buying and hoarding of toilet paper as the health crisis deepened, prompting many to scoff at the behavior as irrational, and preach restraint and purchasing limits. Peterson applauded researchers who actually spoke to people about their behavior, concluding that families need roughly 40 percent more toilet paper in quarantine, since they would have to compensate for tissue used in workplaces, schools, restaurants and shops. “For the most part, the demand is real,” he noted.

Lundgren agreed being visible on the ground is vital. “The minute that ban [on travel] is lifted and you expect your employees to be at your store and you expect people to be at that fulfillment center, I think management visibility at those places is absolutely critical,” he said. “That type of leadership is really important. There will be some people who will be concerned about going back to work in those environments. Whatever you would expect your front-line employees to do, management should be right there side-by-side with them.”

DON’T: Suffer Alone

Leadership experts say all leaders need to seek outside counsel and insights.

“This is the time if you have a coach, friend, therapist, confidante, mentor, chairman of the board — call them,” Petriglieri recommended.

Petriglieri, a medical doctor and psychiatrist by training, also noted that “leaders need to use the logic of care.” Just as emergency and ICU staff need protective equipment, managers need to make sure they aren’t overdoing it. “I see a lot of people in the workplace exhausting themselves, depleting themselves,” he said, suggesting leaders consider taking time to meditate, read and seek professional help if needed. “Be good enough, that’ll be plenty. If you try to be perfect, you might end up being burned out or overdoing it.”

Angie’s Haquet said it’s a mistake to present oneself alone in the face of crisis.

“A good leader sets the course at the beginning, but then a good leadership must become collective and put forward experts who can explain how the different aspects of the crisis are dealt with, which is a source of reassurance,” he said.

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