Leadership During Crisis

Leadership During Crisis

The long-ish title of a recent Oracle NetSuite webinar – “New Business Leadership Outlook: Planning, Forecasting and Taking Action in a Changing Business Environment” – reads like any of hundreds of similar management-focused sessions. But thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this particular video chat hosted by noted author and podcaster Christopher Lochhead happened to be unfolding amid a massively changing business environment, leading to a discussion centered on the very unusual circumstances that constitute a new working definition of “normal.”

Joining Lochhead among what has become the all-too-familiar sight of individual boxes on a computer screen were Jason Balk, the CFO of Adtegrity, a 40-person ad agency in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Julian Love, the chief business officer of St. HOPE, a not-for-profit education provider in Sacramento, California, and Jeff Vierling, the founder and CEO of Tailwind Nutrition, a small energy food/drink manufacturer in Colorado. While each was dealing with challenges related to the crisis that were very specific to his own industry and situation, all three hit on several themes and concerns that will likely ring familiar for almost any leader in these fraught times:

  • Companies that seem to be handling the crisis best thus far are being both “thoughtfully aggressive” and “radically generous” – that is, they are managing costs carefully yet remaining alert to potential opportunities, while also rededicating themselves to their communities. Illustrating this latter point, Vierling noted how Tailwind turned a downturn in demand for its nutrition products in the wake of so many canceled endurance events into a positive by pivoting to provide those same products to frontline workers in healthcare facilities around the company’s local area (who, it turns out, wear down in much the same ways endurance athletes do).
  • Digital leadership is beginning to emerge as a vital skill, as managers try to figure out how to transfer traditional leadership styles, qualities, techniques and communication tactics to the new remote working world.
  • Many leaders are struggling to find the right balance between being exceedingly transparent with employees to help quell fears and counter misinformation versus potentially inciting panic when the information they’re sharing isn’t necessarily comforting or reassuring. Vierling noted that people tend to prefer more information – even bad news – to no news, while Love said his biggest challenge is trying to give everyone as much information as possible when the truth is he doesn’t always have the answers to many of their most pressing questions (because nobody really does).
  • All three participants had applied for and received government stimulus money available through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), with both Love and Balk commenting that in this era of faceless online banking, it was the longstanding relationships with their local community banks that helped get their applications through the system and their money in the door. In other words, no matter how much technology enables the reduction or elimination of human interaction, those personal relationships proved invaluable when the going got tough.
  • Despite the welcome jolt of those PPP funds, all three leaders recognized the many shortfalls in the rollout of the program, and all three were aware of organizations that didn’t end up getting the funds they so desperately needed. In light of stories like those, Lochhead noted that one of the unintended consequences of this economic upheaval and the ensuing governmental response is that many companies may adopt a new sense of radical self-reliance, knowing that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed and that relying on the government might not be their best fallback in the next crisis. Going forward, then, many may come to the conclusion that there’s no such thing as having too much credit or too much cash on hand.

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