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The Covid-19 Leadership Code

“You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, and irrational fear of the unknown. There is no such thing as the unknown. Only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.” James T. Kirk

Much like the Starship Enterprise  led by Captain Kirk with a mandate to ‘boldly go where no man has gone before’, the Covid-19 leader faces a similar task; to forge new and sustainable paradigms in the face of damaged morale, trauma, lacerated businesses and an injured economy.

As India takes its first steps back into a post lockdown space, the DNA of the new leader will need to integrate a higher level of humanity in their approach, where the personal and professional boundaries become inter-linked in an evolving, symbiotic relationship. The qualities that will determine the success of this new breed will include:

Tough Love – One of the keys to the success of French leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, was his skill to inspire and motivate his troops. Though an autocratic leader, He still stuck close to his soldiers and helped them. For business leaders as well, this is a time of tough love. Their ability to connect with their teams and help them both personally and professionally is critical. Leaders must increase their personal connect with their teams, to ensure that the troops are rallied. However, there will be those unwilling to adapt to the disruption or accept the Next / New normal. They will need to be reassessed and redeployed.

Shared Risks Bring Shared Rewards – It’s all hands to battle stations and every person matters.  As one sails rough, new, unchartered seas, both the captain and crew have to be aligned on not only the destination, but also the possible challenges that the voyage will bring. There will be leaps of faith and this is when the leader and the people need to push; push more and push together. The crew will do this only if they realize that the shared hardships lead to shared rewards. Newly appointed IBM CEO Arvind Krishna has shared a WFM etiquette to which he has pledged and laid down new codes. These include adapting to shorter meetings to stay mindful of video fatigue, recognizing personal emergencies, being cognizant of logistical issues such as low bandwidth and power failures, and reaching out personally – in a way redefining boundaries as Work From Home or rather Work From Anywhere becomes norm.  

Adapting to Disruption – The era of conformity is over. If there’s anything that COVID-19 has taught us, it’s survival – survival of the fittest, the nimblest and the most creative. Rolls Royce started manufacturing honey, as airlines across the world shut down, Emirates, realized the growing need for moving medical goods to combat the pandemic and focused on the transportation of cargo. Similarly, alcohol brands started manufacturing sanitizers while upmarket fashion brands started manufacturing PPE equipment and masks.  Non-conformist brands that displayed such quick thinking were able to market themselves positively during the pandemic and their leaders came in for praise. This quick footedness is the new normal and it’s here to stay. The lesson for leaders is to adapt or to perish. 

Empowering Personal Practices – Whether it is a certain fitness routine and meditation, a schedule maintained for work and leisure, a quiet time for introspection or journaling, a commitment to a cause or a hobby- leaders will need to delve into their personal practices and routine to power and fuel new ideas and actions. This is a time when mental health and agility will be the key factor that determines who is able to straddle tough times and emerge stronger at the end.

The pre-lockdown mode of professional workplace strategies has also come undone for today’s leaders. While their teams look to them for guidance and motivation, the leaders too need a map that charts them through these unchartered waters. It is not recklessness, rather pragmatic risk taking ability that is required. Here are a few strategies that will help leaders explore new horizons:

Uniform Unbiased Communication vs Responsible Restraint – Having succeeded in creating a company turnaround in dire circumstances leads me to believe strongly in clarity and uniformity of communications as the glue that holds people together. Simultaneously, the wisdom to choose words carefully, selecting only those that adhere to the larger brand narrative, is imperative. Intelligent restraint is also important in identifying suitable messages and their respective levels of hierarchy as well as the right person to deliver it.

Being the Chief Aggregator – The role of a leader, especially in crisis, is to be the best collector of people, resources, and networks to get the job done. Being at the helm, while our mandate is a moving target, we must ensure we have a buy-in from key stakeholders. Collaborating with different teams remotely will be a challenge.  At such times, ability to de-prioritize and re- prioritize is critical, as is the ability to keep teams with lesser visibility engaged. As WFH or WFA becomes mainstream and working gets decentralized – it will create access for talents (Professionals with home responsibilities / Differently abled etc.) to join workforce who otherwise weren’t eligible. Leaders will have to reimagine the future of workplace to be more efficient and relevant.

New Code for Operations – Given a significant amount of work will be done online and remote – A lot of traditional workflows will become irrelevant as online tools take over human intervention. It will be critical to define processes of handover and pathways of resolution. Customized tools and applications will drive efficiencies and this will make some layers redundant and free up resources for redeployment.

Managing Cash Flow – Managing cash flow will be the #1 challenge for business leaders. Increase focus on large volume customers – while strategically looking at geographical reach and fast-growing tier 2,3 markets.  Reach out to banks and lenders and revise interest payments. Where possible, convert fixed costs to variable ones, deferring cash outflows. Timely collection from customers will become a critical KPI going forward across levels, as will the ability to efficiently plan and deploy resources, focusing only on essentials.

Technology – This is the time to embrace technology like never before. From communications to operations and supply chains – practically every element of the business can embrace technology to improve and streamline operations and also make it more resilient to future disruption. Similarly, machine learning and data analytics will become critical tools to guide forward strategy. With WFM becoming standard, an increasing reliance on data analytics will measure parameters like productivity and performance and bring in necessary focus.  Investments in IT Infrastructure will be a crucial decision going forward – Leaving all of this to the CTO will not cut the ice anymore. Leadership Teams including HR will have a say in defining the IT infrastructure given new normal of working from anywhere / mobile etc.

Go to Market Model – The time is ripe to evaluate various GTM commercial models. What is the most cost-effective way to make products available to customers? A design thinking approach is required to re-examine the supply and value chains, right from packaging to stocking and availability.  The supply chain will become a critical determinant of how goods make their way to buyers, even more effectively and efficiently and where required, more safely. Online sales channels could be explored for commoditized med tech solutions.

Engaging Team and Customers – This is the time for the leaders to be out there religiously sharing views and perspectives and being heard. Historically, for the first time ever, we are in an alien zone, without any coffee breaks and, informal water cooler chats, that inspire creative solutions and “a-ha” moments.  Therefore, the pressure, to ensure the same level of engagement with stakeholders is all the more vital to ensure productivity and favorable business outcomes.

We are in a defining moment in history. With Covid-19 triggering a global emergency, companies and governments are grappling with new ways to survive. The results have been inspiring – reinventing business models, accommodating work from home, adapting to disruptions in supply chains, and more. Being armed with clarity of mission, constant preparation, detailed yet practical planning will ensure that leaders override obstacles and drive their business forward.

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  1. Very well written Sandeep. Various points covered. Practically everything will become online and digital will have a big role to play. Work from anywhere is being seen more than just WFH. Maintaining a daily routine to consist of “me time” for exercise ( immunity booster), keeping up mental health and yet tackling corporate challenges as a leader is key to winning.

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