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Churchill Coach Marie-Jeanne, PCC
Executive Coach
Communication Advisor
June 12, 2020

What’s-Critical-During-COVID-19

7 Leaders. 7 Views. What’s Critical During COVID-19

This article was first published on Juilland Leadership April 21, 2020. Re-published here with permission.

Crises are nothing new to the business world. ’87 Black Monday, ’01 Dot-com bubble burst, 9/11, and the 2008 financial meltdown. I lived through these crises as a business journalist and then later as an executive in a growing tech company. But the COVID-19 pandemic has taken my breath away, figuratively, and for too many others, literally. Today, the executives I coach face a crisis of scale and magnitude never before seen. In the blink of an eye, the obsession with building “unicorns” has transformed into a scramble to survive.

I’ve spoken at length with 7 leaders ranging from 1st timers to veterans, and with companies and boards of various stages – from startup to growing midsize to public Fortune 100. Several have been hit hard by the pandemic, others not. Some have been here before, including losing it all from a cataclysmic event out of their control. Here’s their advice – condensed for your quick reading – on what’s most critical for you as a leader right now:

Sue-Marks

SUE MARKS

CEO – Cielo Talent

Talent Recruitment Process Outsourcing (RPO) – 15 yr. old midsize, private, global company. Former: Investor – Star Canyon Ventures; CEO –ProStaff HR First

RUN A COMPREHENSIVE DEFENSE & OFFENSE

Only a small percentage – roughly 25% – of the companies that go into a recession as the market leader emerge that way. The playbook for PE-backed companies – and I’ve run several – is, of course, cut costs and reduce burn. In times like these, this approach is absolutely warranted. But it’s not sufficient. To ensure their long-term viability, organizations need to run not only a comprehensive defense but also a strong offense. And that means staying relevant to their customers tomorrow as well as today. For example, since the pandemic has propelled us into the digital future, we now help our customers go online and leverage tools ranging from video to AI and bots to do everything from interviewing, handling job offers, onboarding, even orientation and trainings. It’s a whole new world right now, and as a leader you’ve got to make sure you and your company stay one step ahead.

Doug-Love

DOUG LOVE

CEO – Annexon Biosciences

Biotech focused on neurodegenerative and autoimmune disorders – 9 yr. old late-stage. Former: EVP – Operations, Commercial & Alliance Management – Elan Pharmaceuticals

DIG FOR THAT SILVER LINING

With COVID-19, many on our team could no longer come into the lab since they were not considered “essential” under the new government classification. My challenge to our company: start looking at things differently, look for the opportunity. After just one week those scientists had come up with a solution: they would focus their time and attention on the mountains of data that to-date they have been too busy to dig into and write up. In fact, from that new effort, in just a matter of weeks, we’ve been able to refine and hone in on a more targeted biomarker strategy for our autoimmune franchise. This, in turn, may allow us to more objectively select the right indications and patients, and objectively measure their responses. I attribute these breakthroughs to a culture of gratitude and of overcoming challenges that we’ve intentionally built over the years at our company. It’s what enables us to continue to look for silver linings in this time of adversity.

MIKE WIACEK

CEO & Cofounder – Stealth Security Startup

Cybersecurity – seed-funded startup. Former: Cofounder & CSO – Chronicle (now part of Google Cloud)

LISTEN. NO, REALLY LISTEN.

In times of crisis, it’s a given that your job as a leader is to handle critical business decisions. But there’s something else they need that many can easily overlook as they scramble to salvage: They’ll need you, their leader, to be present with a capital “P.” I learned that first-hand in 2009 when I was on a team of security engineers at Google. We had experienced a major security breach and were working around the clock as part of Operation Aurora to investigate and then mitigate the activity. Then, one of those long nights who should walk in? Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt. I remember it vividly. Eric was wearing a casual sweater, and all he said was, “Is there anything I can do to help? ” Then he listened. He didn’t try to solve anything. He didn’t give us a roadmap or an inspirational talk. He simply gave us his presence, which meant to really listen. For me, that visit made all the difference in keeping us engaged and motivated. It’s how I try to show up now as a leader myself, crisis or not.

Kaye-Foster

KAYE FOSTER

Senior Advisor – The Boston Consulting Group.
Board Member – Stanford HealthCare, Glide Memorial, Grail Biotech; Agios Biotech

Former: EVP Global HR – Johnson & Johnson – Fortune 100; SVP Global HR – Onyx Pharmaceuticals – startup bought by Amgen, public Fortune 500

SLOW IT DOWN – “PAUSE”

Whether you’re a CEO or board member, you’re being pressured right now by stakeholders to take action – and fast. While it may sound counter-intuitive, my experience has proven to me time and time again that the most important thing you can do today is to pause. Then – and only then – do you test major decisions against your values. Ask yourself: What do I – and we as a company – stand for, and how can we act in integrity with those values? Decisions around layoffs are some of the most gut-wrenching, and will probably be a necessity given the economic impact of this pandemic. But there are a variety of ways to reduce operating costs and preserve cash without reducing headcounts. For example, evaluate the use of contractors and other third-party services; limit or restrict planned hiring; redeploy existing employees based on critical work/gaps in coverage/skills. Remember, as the CEO, you too are an employee of the company. You are in essence a “family member” so embrace the multiplicity of your roles. How would you treat your family? How would you/should you treat the employees who got your company to where it is today?

David-Meridith

DAVID MEREDITH

CEO and Board Director – Everbridge, Inc.

Enterprise software applications to automate and accelerate life safety and operational response in critical events – 18 yr. old global, public company (NASDAQ: EVBG). Former: COO – Rackspace; President – Global Data Center Hosting, CenturyLink (Savvis)

KNOW WHAT YOU STAND FOR

Everbridge’s business – critical event management (CEM) – can be countercyclical, so right now we are very busy helping customers. But, regardless of where your business has landed during this pandemic, it’s critical that as a leader you get all employees on the same page – and stat. Everyone on each team needs to know his or her role and how it relates to where you need to go as a company. One way we do this is by starting any meeting, whether it’s an “all-Bridger” meeting or a smaller gathering, by reviewing what we stand for as a company. Our customer-focused mission is to keep people safe and operations running faster during critical events. When our employees are reminded of our true north, they stay motivated. They understand why, right now, we’re working nights and weekends. That said, I’m also careful not to be “Pollyanna.” Yes, I need to stay positive and offer a vision and mission, but I also need to set honest expectations – for example, “we will get through this together, but we don’t know exactly when” – or else our team morale and my credibility may suffer. Ultimately, all of us need to lead right now with a fierce will to win coupled with deep personal humility.

Susan-Hunt-Stevens

SUSAN HUNT STEVENS

Founder | CEO – WeSpire

Employee engagement platform – small growth tech. Former: Co-Founder | President – Abridge; SVP Digital – New York Times Company

HAVE COMPASSION FOR YOURSELF – NOT JUST YOUR COMPANY

I lost my first startup several months after 9/11 when investors pulled a term sheet that had been promised and we couldn’t find alternate funding. I was a first-time co-founder and felt personally responsible, even in the context of this unexpected global event. I remember apologizing to one of my investors for losing his money. He reminded me that just because the business failed did not mean I failed. I think many founders struggle to separate their own identity from that of the company. It was one of the most powerful reminders that you and your startup are not one and the same. That experience has helped me maintain a better perspective during this pandemic. It’s an awful situation all around. But stay focused on what you can control: Take care of yourself. Provide compassion and care to your team and customers, and find a good balance between optimism and pessimism. Do the absolute best you can. You will get through this.

Amer-Akhtar

AMER AKHTAR

CEO – Celential.ai

AI-driven services to empower career development – early-stage funded startup. Former: President – Yahoo Small Business; President – ADP China

INNOVATE – PIVOT OR AMP YOUR CORE

I run a recruiting software company. During the past few weeks, demand for our services has understandably dropped as employers freeze headcount or lay off employees. We can either choose to hunker down and wait for the demand to recover post COVID-19 – not an option when cash is an issue – or we can innovate. From past downturns, I’ve learned the winners are those that keep innovating to invest for a strong rebound. For some companies, the best answer will be to do a complete pivot. In our case, we’ve amped up our core competency. Besides addressing the needs of our employer customers, we are now also serving candidates looking for jobs. By using our same algorithm, we can address the immediate needs of candidates who may have been laid off or who need introductions to hire employers. With this new focus, not only is our team re-energized to help job searchers, but we’re also leveraging our core technology to create a solution that will benefit our platform in the long run.

If you’re interested in learning more about Leadership and Virtual Solutions during COVID-19 that Churchill has to offer, click here. Additionally, all of our programs can be delivered virtually to accommodate remote and disperse teams around the globe.

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About Marie-Jeanne

With her insightful, practical and dynamic style, Marie-Jeanne helps senior and rising leaders optimize their executive presence and their impact. She coaches them to identify limiting beliefs and challenging behaviours so they gain confidence to influence and inspire – whether in hallway conversations, team or boardroom discussions. At the same time, she ensures they find the “space to breath,” lifting them out of the day-to-day into the bigger picture of the business and themself as a leader. One of Marie-Jeanne’s greatest assets is her ability to leverage her years of deep corporate, entrepreneurial and marketing expertise to develop strong rapport with senior executives so they can more quickly uncover their own insights. Marie-Jeanne is an ICF Certified Coach (PCC) and has facilitated and coached at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Her work has been published in business school textbooks, as well as numerous publications, including the New York Times.

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