by Thierry Bouckaert, Managing Partner, akkanto
Every day, millions of us are keeping a lookout for comments from epidemiologists dissecting the COVID-19 statistics, in the hope of being able to come out of lockdown soon. Leaving aside the discomfort we’re feeling in this extraordinary situation, we all wish this health crisis will spare us. Both individuals and businesses are striving to survive.
It is still too early to estimate the impact of the coronavirus on the economy, but one thing is certain: the damage will be substantial but will vary from one organization to another.
So much for the half-empty glass.
This bitter analysis can be offset by another, more optimistic one. The half-full glass.
Companies and their staff are showing incredible resilience. They are determined to keep working, sometimes heroically, while reinventing ways of working together. This crisis illustrates how certain companies are managing to prosper, to face up to the challenging context and use it to build or consolidate their reputation. For example, digitization, in its most practical aspects, has never before grown so strongly and quickly.
And so much the better: as unpredictable and time-limited as this situation is, the lessons that can be drawn from it are particularly lasting and beneficial.
Let's look at three of them:
Purpose as the main motivator
In recent days, we’ve seen so many reports about these companies which, overnight, start producing visors, masks and even hydrogel. Overnight, organizations are operating in a previously unexplored industry. And, to do this, they need to rely on their staff to rise to the challenge.
There is no more important motivator than purpose. It is unquestionable that what might still have seemed anecdotal before the coronavirus ended up demonstrating that purpose could act as a glue once we were in lockdown. And it is much easier to get companies to adapt if they develop through their own internal culture based on shared values, mission and vision.
This ability to access a base of common values accelerates the understanding and adoption of new behaviors dictated by the circumstances. It also helps activities to be reoriented to meet new needs.
While the exceptional situation we are going through illustrates this vividly, the same is true in normal times.
As the Reputation Institute – which ranks companies according to their reputation – demonstrates each year, it is those whose purpose is sincere, ambitious and understood by their employees which occupy the top positions. These organizations also happen to be among the most profitable companies.
Manage a crisis before it happens
It has been said: the impact and consequences of the epidemic and the resulting lockdown have surprised all economic players. Although many organizations had procedures in place to ensure continuity of operations and took steps to inform and protect their staff, the extent and impact of the health measures have been unprecedented.
The current critical situation is extraordinary and spares no one. A tough call for CEOs across the board. It is nonetheless crucial not only to contain the crisis and adapt, but also to seize the opportunities that arise to keep their businesses going and prepare for a return to a “normal” situation, in a world which will probably have changed.
This requires quick thinking, an ability to coordinate and the skill to communicate what is being done. And all three must go hand-in-hand.
The teams that manage to do that, and thereby improve their chances of emerging stronger from this ordeal, are those which have experienced other crises in the past or have invested in preparing for it. Because yes, managing a crisis can be learned. And all companies need to learn how to do it. Far from a waste of time, it is an investment.
The buck stops with the CEO
The essence of a crisis is that it creates a form of instability. This instability calls into question the usual reference points, redefines them, and is a source of discomfort, even panic, for companies, their staff and all their stakeholders.
In these turbulent times, CEOs are decisive figures, as they are the only ones in a position to understand, reassure and chart the way forward.
It’s lonely at the top, but it has become an unprecedented vantage point. The boss has to become a leader. In the positions CEOs must adopt in times of crisis, there are many choices to be made, myriad instructions to be given and rules to be enforced, and they may not be challenged. Taking the right tone, at the right time is very often essential in a critical situation.
Coping with this obviously does not come naturally to everyone but does require proper preparation to enable CEOs to make allowance for any eventuality and to focus on what is essential.
Because in times of crisis, being a leader and acting like one is by no means optional. It is vital for the future of the business and the company.
Get ready for afterwards now!
In a few days, we will hopefully be able to get back to the office. We must now prepare to make the change from an event with a strong emotional component to a reasoned return to normal. Rather than going straight back to our old ways, why not learn these lessons and take the opportunity to come out on top?
About the author
Since 2004 Thierry has been a senior lecturer at the Catholic University of Louvain-La-Neuve, where he teaches communicative writing, internal communications, crisis communication and communication strategy. Since 2011, he has also been President of 3C, the Corporate Communication Community.
In April 2008 Thierry joined akkanto as a Partner. He is responsible (among other things) for communication projects for Infrabel, LVMH, Carrefour, Electrabel, Siemens, AGC, McKinsey, the Université Catholique de Louvain.