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By Traci Rosenthal
With the toll of the health and economic crisis caused by Covid-19 still unfolding, leaders are facing enormous pressures to navigate the daily challenges created by this pandemic. Those at the helm find themselves balancing a whole new set of demands that include resetting strategy amidst uncertainty and communicating in both a realistic and inspiring manner.
In early May, Adam Bryant, Senior Advisor to The Reuben Mark Initiative for Organizational Character and Leadership, moderated a conversation with Rachel Barnett ‘05LAW, General Counsel of Brooks Brothers Group Inc., and Pierre Gentin ’92 LAW, Global General Counsel of McKinsey & Company. The panelists shared how they have helped lead their firms through the various phases of the COVID-19 crisis.
Here are their top three lessons from leading through crisis.
Plan to Pivot
Whether establishing a work-from-home routine to help employees be productive or preparing to convert multiple factories into emergency PPE plants, leaders must be ready to pivot and reset in times of crisis. Not long after the pandemic hit, Barnett received an email from her head of manufacturing that asked her to help convert Brooks Brothers’ U.S. factories into mask and gown production centers. Her first inclination as a lawyer was to shut down the initiative. “Think of the liability,” said Barnett. “I don’t know about FDA approval. No way.” Five minutes later, she saw New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on television pleading with businesses to help provide more PPE for healthcare workers, and her mindset shifted. She wrote back saying she would do anything to make this happen. Since then, the company has been able to harness its domestic infrastructure to produce tens of thousands of masks per day. As Barnett noted, “You can pivot to do something positive and play your part during the pandemic.”
Practice Mindfulness and Effective Communication
Many people are yearning for normalcy and feeling a heightened awareness of the fragility of health and welfare. “While this experience of isolation has severed many of the habits we rely on to regulate our lives, there has also been a re-awakening of our priorities—having empathy for others, feeling gratitude for what we have, and spending more time with loved ones,” said Gentin. Leaders should recognize the needs of the moment and develop thoughtful avenues of communication. For example, many leaders have been required to engage in difficult conversations since the pandemic began. “As a leader, you need to bring professionalism and order into these discussions, however you also need to bring a sense of realism,” said Barnett. “You can’t be robotic because that’s not what people need right now. They need empathy.”
Find Your Balance
Both Barnett and Gentin acknowledged the challenge of balancing the personal and the professional over the past few months. “I’m working ten times harder from home,” said Barnett. “There are no boundaries, no commute, and the emails are directly in front of me at all times.” And employees are expected to produce the same quality and quantity of work as before. “Our team’s ability to operate effectively while rapidly moving to a virtual platform has been extraordinary,” said Gentin. “That said, we are missing that human touch, and our days are filled with sequential video meetings. The spaces between meetings where we have time to absorb and reflect on what was discussed no longer exists.” In response to the challenges of a borderless virtual work life, leaders should support colleagues in setting responsible boundaries around work/life balance.
Despite the uncertainty, Gentin urges us to reject negativity and maintain our inherent sense of aspiration. “The instinct to do great things and be great people is still there,” he said. Now is the time for leaders to rise to the occasion, inspire their teams, and identify the learnings and insights that this period offers, both personally and professionally.
And, to round out the discussion, Reuben Mark, former CEO of The Colgate-Palmolive Company, closed the panel with insight won from decades of successful and collaborative organizational management: “The character and culture of the company and the depth of the communication cannot be built in the crisis itself. It's got to be carefully constructed over a period of years in order to make sure it functions perfectly or as close to perfectly as possible in a crisis,” he said. “Each of us faces a real challenge during this crisis. And, practicing leadership techniques, both personally and in terms of business, are vital.”
To learn more from our panelists about leading through the COVID-19 crisis, watch the recording of the conversation.