Lessons in crisis leadership from our CEOx1Day students

19 Oct 2020

Lessons in crisis leadership from our CEOx1Day students

The global COVID-19 pandemic has thrown many organisations into a state of flux, which means leaders are grappling with constantly shifting circumstances, new challenges and uncertainty. While there might be a number of lessons from history that could be applied to the current situation, there is no doubt that adaptability and resilience is necessary when it comes to leading an organisation in the modern business environment.

“This pandemic has certainly highlighted the significance of leading an organisation successfully in the face of unforeseen disruption. Flexibility and adaptability should not only be a priority when it comes to business strategies and practices, but when it comes to the personal traits of leaders themselves,” says Chania Stempowski, joint MD of Odgers Berndtson Sub-Saharan Africa.

As part of this year’s Odgers Berndtson’s CEOx1Day programme, which provides promising MBA students with the opportunity to walk in the shoes of senior executives from some of the world’s leading companies, we  asked each participating student to reflect on how leaders around the world reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic and if there were any lessons learnt, things they would have done differently or anything that their organisation’s leadership had done which really stood out.

Based on their feedback and insights, we have compiled a few of the lessons they’ve learnt through this pandemic and identify the actions and behaviours these future leaders view as most important in a crisis.

These are the lessons in crisis leadership from our CEOX1Day students of 2020:

People first: Health and safety is everyone’s responsibility

Most of the students agreed that prioritising employee health over profits would pay dividends later. Additionally, organisations that responded immediately and provided employees with work-from-home and connectivity options were highly praised for their keen sense of judgement in a precarious situation.

“Initiating a work-from-home policy immediately and providing every employee without access to connectivity with mobile devices was one of the first steps taken by our organisation. We received COVID alert messages and tips each morning that provided guidance on how to protect ourselves and our families. Our organisation also established COVID isolation centres in areas where we have operations – this allowed employees unable to self-isolate at home with company-accredited facilities and medical services.” -- Abel Sakhau

The organisations that not only said they would place people first but actually lived up to that promise were the ones who responded best in this situation.

“The company took measures early on to ensure every employee was enabled to work from home and they have equally introduced a two-hour ‘me-time’ for all employees to attend to their families, home-school, exercise or do other activities. The company has also introduced a series of wellness webinars to help employees cope during the pandemic, which is truly remarkable.” -- Keaobaka Morare

Change is constant: You need to be adaptable and collaborative

Adapting during crises is no easy feat but many organisations were able to do so due to insightful leaders who saw potential even while others were in a panic.

“One key learning for me during this time has been the success in which adaptable leaders have dealt with the current crisis as opposed to rigid leaders who tried responding to a complex crisis without any flexibility.” -- Armand Heymans

Butibuti Tshabalala felt that corporate strategy that is flexible to shifts, constant innovation and a digital presence were key to adaptability: “I believe the companies that will survive understood the importance of strategic shifts during tough times. For example, L’Oréal made a shift to digital during the lockdown that helped stem losses and has seen a huge increase in digital engagement and online sales.”

Similarly, Kuven Govender noted SweepSouth and Airbnb’s strategic alliance as a win for both companies as well as the public. “SweepSouth’s pivot from being a cleaning company that was impacted heavily by the pandemic to a COVID-19 cleaning team that performs deep cleaning for hotels, rentals and offices with Airbnb was genius! Through this example, I have learnt that strategic leaders have the ability to demonstrate adaptability and agility when the external environment changes,” he said. “They are able to see opportunity and react with speed to adapt their value proposition and maintain their competitive advantage.”

Communication is not enough: Connection and accountability are key

When it came to work-from-home solutions, communication needed to extend beyond warnings and updates. Students felt that increased communication through weekly virtual meetings, sessions where employees could raise their concerns, and regular virtual office meet-ups, were able to ensure that their teams remained connected and engaged.

“What stood out for me at the bank I work at is that the bank organised group therapy sessions for employees to talk about the experience of living during a pandemic that doubled up as sessions on how to cope with stress, anxiety and uncertainty.” -- Azwifaneli Libusha

Accountability was also a strong sentiment. While some organisations folded under the pressures of COVID-19, their leadership was still praised, whereas companies that dismissed pressing issues such as Black Lives Matter and police brutality were immediately held up as bad examples of leadership.

“At the start of the lockdown, 702’s Bruce Whitfield interviewed Grant Pattison, the CEO of Edcon, and the interview sent shivers down my spine. Mr Pattison is not a new kid on the block and has worked tirelessly to restructure and turnaround Edcon yet the lockdown brought the company to its knees. It showed me that as a CEO, the responsibility and weight of your decisions go beyond answering to shareholders and influences the livelihoods of the company’s employees,” said Merike Swanepoel. She went on to say that while there is no clear answer, precedent or rulebook to follow in this scenario, as a leader, adaptability and compassion are key. “A situation like this requires not a singular view but is built on the combined strength of community and the reinforcement of well-defined values.”

Be open to innovation, criticism and advice

Leadership isn’t expected to have all the answers. In fact, students felt that it was more than okay to fail as long as leaders sought advice and learnt during the process.

“At its core, leadership is about trust and doing your best; sometimes, this involves making tough decisions and not being swayed by critics,” commented Kholiwe Ntsonta. “At the same time, it’s important to allow room to critique your work as that is how we grow.”

“My leadership philosophy is centred in community, common well-being and sustainability. In my organisation, there were tough decisions to be made with regards to how the business model should change and allow for sustainability. A significant amount of oversight and investment into technology to allow business continuity was done.” -- Galaletsang Legodi

This point also plays into that of adaptability and flexibility – which had positive implications for how companies were viewed - not only by the public, but their employees too. “I currently work for Aspen Pharmacare and they were able to digitally adapt their strategy rapidly as a result of a robust IT strategy that was implemented with training programmes. A culture of innovation was adopted and this was spread across the business with the introduction of value-adding webinars and digital communication with existing customers,” Kuven Govender added.

“Hindsight is always 20/20. From an organisational perspective, a large number of lessons were learnt in retrospect. This lockdown was great as the adoption of technology has been prioritised and has increased our organisation’s customer satisfaction. Our leaders have learnt during this process and are now creating policies that are more robust and developing contingencies to mitigate risks faced in the future.” -- Muhammed Khalid Fadal

“The pairing of CEOs with MBA students is not only aimed at giving the students valuable exposure to the modern business environment. It also provides a platform for CEOs to gain valuable feedback and insights from the students, which might have a lasting impact on the way they choose to lead their organisations beyond 2020.” says Lauren van Halderen, joint MD of Odgers Berndtson Sub-Saharan Africa

Collaboration, adaptability and communication are key – and leaders would do well to keep this in mind as they continue navigating the challenges brought about by COVID-19 as well as potential future crises.