On the night of February 20, 2020, the first epidemic of COVID-19 outside Asia was uncovered by the identification of its first patient in the Lombardy region, Italy. In the following weeks, Lombardy experienced a sudden increase in the number of infections and strict measures were imposed to contain the epidemic spread.
I was CPO at a health-tech scale-up at the time and we were in the midst of a funding round to accelerate our growth and expand into the US. Our CEO had just arrived back from visiting relatives in Lombardy and was deeply concerned.
He told us ‘We won’t be in the office next week - we’ll be in lockdown!’
In disbelief I turned to some of the team, ‘Don’t worry’ I said, ‘We'll be meeting up for our breakfast workshop next week in town’.
It never happened.
A few days later our entire organisation was locked down and told not to come into the office in London. We faced a new and very immediate challenge - how could we operate our company, let alone make an impact and raise funding when we had suddenly been thrust into remote working?
In this post, I’d like to share my experiences over the past three and a half years and hope that they prove valuable in helping you lead your team and organisation through a crisis. Or at least be prepared. COVID was just one point in time when companies were forced to adapt. Since then we’ve faced ongoing chaos with the terrible invasion of Ukraine by Russia, a global economic crisis, and the cost of living crisis in the UK not to mention climate change. Uncertain times require strong and empathetic leadership
"In times of crisis, communication is the cornerstone of effective leadership"
Justin Berkovi, CPO @ ProductMagic
Embrace Transparent Communication
In times of crisis, communication is the cornerstone of effective leadership. Embrace transparency by openly acknowledging the challenges the company faces and the potential impact on products and operations. Encourage a culture of open feedback, where team members feel safe to express concerns and share ideas. Transparent communication builds trust and empowers the team to work together towards a common goal.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella used transparent communication to address the challenges faced by the company and its employees. His blog post emphasised empathy and how Microsoft was mobilising resources to help customers and communities during the crisis.
Be direct with your team, do not skirt around issues that may already be discussed within the company. Address things head on and you’ll be remembered for being someone that was in touch with their team.
Stay Agile and Adaptable
In times of crisis, rigid business strategies may quickly become obsolete. Embrace an agile approach to product development and decision-making. Encourage the team to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and market demands. Iterate on products based on real-time feedback and data to remain relevant and customer-focused.
As soon as I realised that the product team would no longer be able to ideate with stickies and movable boards as a CPO during COVID, I made the decision to pivot our product stack. Almost overnight we moved from Sketch, Zeplin, Invision, sharpies and stickies to Figma and Miro. This enabled us to replicate the workshop format but now our sessions were recorded and could be revisited.
We ran a workshop with the product, design, engineering and marketing teams. This not only pushed our product development forward (winning us an Illumi Award from UserTesting.com) but was a crash course in the new tools as well as helping foster a sense of collaboration. We became closer as a company and also more efficient.
3. Focus on Customer Needs
Crises can create uncertainty and stress for customers. Show empathy and understanding towards their challenges and needs. Continuously monitor customer feedback and sentiment to identify pain points and opportunities for improvement. Ensure that your product team's efforts are aligned with addressing these customer needs. This may mean reaching out in your product digitally via surveys or simply calling your customers to see how they are doing.
Airbnb demonstrated customer-focused leadership during the travel industry downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The company proactively introduced flexible cancellation policies and launched initiatives to support hosts and guests during the crisis.
4. Support and Empower Your Team
In turbulent times, your team will look to you for guidance and support. Be accessible and approachable to address their concerns and provide clear direction. Empower team members by delegating responsibilities and fostering a culture of ownership. Recognise and appreciate their efforts to boost morale.
I looked to Basecamp CEO Jason Fried for inspiration here. His emphasis on work-life balance and flexible work hours helped maintain the team's productivity and mental well-being during challenging times.
When our teams were forced into remote working situations I spent more time listening during 1-2-1 sessions and ensured that I didn’t really talk much about work but instead wanted to hear how people were doing. I also introduced free Deliveroo lunches (or comped those living outside of Deliveroo delivery areas) every couple of weeks during our all hands.
Several years ago when I was working with Google within an agency I noticed that many young brilliant minds were struggling with stress. I built the ‘Better Tomorrow’ workshop which addresses the need to be supportive in the workplace for those suffering in silence.
We are facing extremely challenging times and as a leader you’ll need to build up resilience to your surroundings and move forward positively. There is a time and a place for everything but I do believe in humour and bringing in a lightness to the work environment without compromising on professionalism or quality.
Plan for Contingencies
Anticipate potential challenges and devise contingency plans. As a leader, you should be prepared to act swiftly and decisively when unexpected events unfold. Create scenario-based strategies to mitigate risks and ensure business continuity.
This impacts all areas of your business. It could be that you are reliant on a single rockstar actor in your organisation. What if their own personal crisis means they can no longer work for you? Are you in touch with a network of skilled practitioners?
Tesla's response to the global chip shortage in 2021 showcased their crisis management preparedness. The company diversified its chip sourcing, optimised software, and made design adjustments to minimise the impact on production.
As a leader, navigating your team and company through a crisis requires a delicate balance of transparent comms, adaptability, customer focus, team support and contingency planning.
I’ve found that there are a few strategic pillars that can help prepare you to deal with the unknown. Be decisive, resilient, human and kind. A crisis need not lead to panic. Instead you must have a cool head and simultaneously be there for your team but also the business. Not all the decisions you make will be easy or provide instant reward. You will carry much of the angst in trying to make your workplace great and your team motivated and reassured.
The rewards of investing in strategic planning for crises are better business outcomes but for me more than anything they allow you to empower individuals to be inspired, reassured and enjoy a pleasant work environment. Your teams will not necessarily remember the OKRs you set them for the quarter a few years ago but they will remember your patience, understanding and vision.