Covid-19 and Firm Leadership

Leading in the Face of a Global Pandemic

The advent of Covid-19 and the simultaneous fall in oil prices are causing – for most sectors – a crash in demand alongside an increase in upstream prices. These result in a very challenging (if not catastrophic) business environment, and the concerns echoed at government and commerce-chambers’ quarters are valid and evident – businesses that depend on cash-flow to fund operating expenses, and with the sudden fall in demand or limits to the number of people allowed in the facility at any given point in time, the businesses suffer, their workers have been or may have to be sent home, experience pay cuts and staggered hours, while others have seen it fit – if not forced – to close outright.

Companies have to also grapple with a more discerning and noisier customer, and they have not been faring well, gauging from the tone and temperature of customer feedback and social media narratives. Accusations of price gouging (which may or may not be justified); improper sanitization amenities; unavailability of essential products; inadequate communication alongside the uncertainty and instability of operating environments day by day, all add to the dismal market environment. Impose on this the devastation of persons becoming infected, others left agitated by quarantine or any sign of symptoms (exacerbated by the competing triggers of Sahara Dust and seasonal flu outbreaks) paints a bleak picture indeed.

But this encapsulates the new order of business and market environments in the world today and tomorrow.

“Everyone is sailing this ship while trying to build the boat.”

First Response in a VUCA Environment

That we are operating in an increasingly interconnected, globalized marketplace is given. The advent of a viral infection in Wuhan, China has had global effects on not only commodity supply (China being the hub of global manufacturing) but also in terms of viral transmission rate (both emanating from China and the spread within countries), all within months.

More interconnectivity means more exposure to effects from elsewhere on the planet – we are more at risk to sudden changes in markets as a result of causes seemingly a world away and completely outside of the norm. Steim and Townsend (2002) recognized this new globalised operating reality as a VUCA environment – Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic and Ambiguous – we cannot think in terms of business as usual, since we are continuously forced to innovate, maneuver and respond to environmental conditions to not only perform well, but even remain viable.

How then must a business leader treat with this VUCA reality? Some responses may be familiar – how to scale down in depressed economic conditions; where to cut costs and reduce operating expenses, ways to adjust staff schedules of hours and what areas / service lines can be suspended – have all been responses that we wrestled with in previous economic downturns. Others have an eye on products in demand, and have added stocks of face-masks, sanitizers, gloves etc. in an attempt to capture some of this demand and get some cash in.

But this scenario is not a mere operating challenge or difficulty. This is a full-blown crisis. The routine challenges of commodity supply are amplified by the scarcity in global markets and the disruption of the supply chain at almost every point. The crash in sales are accompanied by fear and uncertainty in the customer and staff psyches. Everyone is sailing this ship while trying to build the boat.

Recognizing this operating context gives you a basis to craft a plan of action, and highlights specific aspects to isolate, target and plan for. As an example, scarcity at the vendor end allows for identifying alternative sources of supply, or even substitute products, so that you can not only expand your vendor base but demonstrate to the customer you are concerned for their utility. And although the customers may not show it, they will understand. Remember, every competitor is struggling with the same reality as well.

Leadership Needed

Almost everyone at every level from government, medical quarters and trade associations have emphasized the need to not panic, and while this has primarily been directed to the society in general, it is also equally applicable to businesses. Customers, staff and vendors (and your competitors) are all affected, uncertain and trying to come to terms with this new context.

A leadership focus can help you to confront and address many of these issues. With an engaged leader at the front of the ranks, you can better identify the symptoms of concern by your stakeholders, engage individuals to understand the root causes/sources of that concern, and if not alleviate them, at least reassure them in terms from the position of your firm.

We have seen companies install hand-washing stations at the entrance to their facilities; others have adopted a rigorous sanitization schedule; others have changed the configuration of their product or service (or both) to offer curbside / delivery services, although it was not part of the service previously. All these helps to reinforce a recognition of the concerns shared, and show a willingness to respond.

Operating Model

Facing the range of dilemmas across all stakeholder groups – the imposition of restrictions alongside austerity and stimulus measures by national governments; the concerns and agitation by customers and staff; the instability on the supplier front; and the disruption effects on business partners means that leaders have to not only respond to each dimension individually, but ensure consistency across all areas, or at least ensure coherence to avoid inconsistencies.

Modelling this overall dynamic can help to ensure you stay on top of all the issues as they unfold – nothing slips through the cracks and proactive policy positions can help to enhance management performance, helping to assess overlaps, contradictions and other relationships of note.

panCaribbean: Covid-19 Operating Context for Firm Leaders

For customers, your R&D insight on approaches – and the signal they send – present a good transient benchmark for appropriate response.

  • One company put out direct notices to their customers (and ads) highlighting the changes to their operating locations and hours, customer queueing policy and other provisions to keep customers in the loop. Contrast this with a customer that is engaging a firm, and trying to reconcile the changes as they go along.
  • Another – sensitive to customer concerns of possible infection – instituted a pre-ordering policy (using WhatsApp) to minimize customer time in store, and limit their interaction. This pre-ordering was accompanied by their in-store sanitization policy for goods-handling – reinforcing recognition of typical concerns.
  • One organisation with and older (more at-risk) clientele instituted a service home-delivery program to ensure the customers, and their families, are reassured of not just commitment but concern.
  • A school moved staff and students to a hastily-pulled-together online service delivery model, and although there are additional requirements and steps for parents and children to take (to ensure cyber security for e.g.), at the core there is the understanding that the institution is responding.

Staff issues would have been equally as ambiguous, if not outright traumatic. Should stores remain open or should they close? What does that mean for salaries and the associated credit commitments, or even the ability to put food on the table. Showing staff that these concerns are recognised, open conversations with staff on what the current revenue performance and its implications are on everyone, a range of possible responses that can ensure income (even if it is minimal), security of tenure, support initiatives that can be put in place for even more significant developments – all serve to acknowledge, engage and include persons as the team that the organisation represents.

  • In one organisation, initial meetings retained the best-practice at the time – well-ventilated spaces with appropriate distancing and individually pre-packed kits sent the signal of care for the staff even before the pandemic restrictions were pronounced.
  • One employer in the food and beverage sector – having to scale back all operations and staff hours, preserved jobs by redeploying front-of-house-staff to kitchen duties, with sufficient training to support the shift.
  • The need for work-from-home concessions, done either out of necessity or to accommodate staff isolation, and the use of technology to support same can be the trigger to reengineering process and performance metrics towards a more sustainable platform in the future.
  • This open conversation applies equally to partner-organisations – and the general tone that we don’t know what happens next or how long this would continue, recognizing that all entities are affected, gives an opportunity to build even stronger bridges which can deliver stronger associations can be forged and common areas of impact can be provisioned for – even collectively.

For any leader, at any level, the implications of the current operating context is difficult to straddle. A ‘deliberate calm’ in your leadership disposition, a holistic view of the challenges, along with up-to-date data on the phenomena and its evolution and open communication with your stakeholders, should help to inform appropriate and consistent strategic responses that can translate this pandemic into increased staff morale and confidence, customer loyalty and brand value. And this can be the basis for a new wave of success after this pandemic is over. We only wish there were an easier way to do this.

This post was written by Faheem Mohammed – Managing Director of panCaribbean Ltd. He can be reached at

This post has been modified from its original posting for grammar and expression.


When Managers Fail: Getting Managers to Buy into Change

A common question that surfaces in the conversations on organisational development and technology adoption revolves around “how do we get our managers to buy into that change?” or “how do we get them to stop resisting?”.

To begin to address this, it is important to recognise that in our region, many persons see management as the endgame. That is the job position and title to which they aspire – and understandably so. Being in a position to instruct rather than take instructions while receiving a higher salary is never a bad thing. Add to that work that requires you to be out-of-office, having flexible hours and all the accompanying perks (corner office, preferred parking etc.) make it a very attractive proposition. And to many, achieving these demonstrate to us success and progress. And herein lies the problem.

Persons who have attained management positions – through whatever means – have attained a position and the accompanying benefits to which they aspired. That is, the dues have been paid, and now is the time when the striving stops, and these persons can enjoy the benefits of their previous striving. The focus of the manager generally changes from working to attain a position to that of working to maintain the position attained. This means working less, not working more. It means taking it easy, as opposed to taking on more work. Any change would have to be mandated from the top, to drive work, as opposed to voluntarily accepting more work coming up from the line. In this regard, management is seen as a position more that a profession.

Added to the dynamics of management as a position as opposed to a profession, there is the fact that many managers lack an appreciation of what technology can do and is doing to organisations’ performance, and a more fundamental lack of any understanding of technology at all. Knowing the manual systems from every angle over the years of sweat equity is comfortable, and adopting technology is disruptive – it would change the process as well as demand new learnings. Added to this the risks of potential failure – and the implications for the management tenure – means that the costs are just too high.

When the suggestion for technology uptake comes from a person lower in the hierarchy – who may understand the technical functions but not the management expectations (or worse yet may want the management position themselves), we have what can be considered the perfect storm of rejection. Cut to the typical response, “when you are in my position feel free to drive whatever changes you wish to propose. Until then, this is how its going to be.”

How then can a manager’s mindset and attitude be changed? It may seem impossible – moreso after repeated attempts. But here are some ways you can attempt to get managers to change their positions.

  1. Respect their position. As the saying goes, people at the top didn’t just fall from there. They are there for a reason. If you accept this, you would be able to appreciate there is some competence, reputation or capability that warrants that person in the position they are in.
  2. Know what the change is really about. Too often advocacy for change is directed towards worker convenience more than it is about performance or productivity. The closer the change can be located to underlying organisation’s performance or competitiveness, the easier the sell is to any manager. Typically, linkage to the strategic plan or other stated intent (such as, for example, shareholder value, brand perception and brand value, operational efficiency or increased responsiveness to customer responsiveness).
  3. Confidence of the manager has to be earned. If the manager thinks that everyone is out to get them, or is trying to cut them down or get their position, then there would understandably be trust issues involved. The same applies if the manager is insecure in his/her knowledge about technology. In either event, the manager would certainly listen to someone who s/he trusts to seek his/her best interest. If you are the one advocating change, then have you earned that trust or can you do so? If yes, then great. If not, find someone who can. Some persons resort to external help – consultants or other advocates, in order to do so. How it is done is not important, once the trust is established.
  4. Demonstrate value. As the saying goes, “tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember…” For a manager to accept that what you are proposing is going to be of benefit, its extremely useful to let the manager see what it is and how it works. A working demonstration or a case study can help to show explicitly what is involved and how value is derived from the change being proposed, and more importantly how to sell it upwards.
  5. Driven from multiple directions. In many instances, there are persons higher up the hierarchy who understand the need for change and are willing to support it. If there is such a person senior to the manager, then they can support by driving change down to the manager, and help ensure the manager engages the change initiative and gets with the program.
  6. Credit. This is generally the most contentious point. Unpopular opinion: ‘You can be more assured of seeing change happen if you give your manager the credit.’ Why? They would look good, and have others think it was their idea. And some may believe it. But the truth is, his/her superiors know where its at, and what managers are capable of. If ‘their’ idea is good and not characteristic of their contributions, then it must have been fed from someone, somewhere. And a simple request for more detail would tell if its fed internally or from the outside. So, you not only demonstrate you are capable of the ideas, but that you are also focused on the development of the organisation, not personal gain or glory. I personally have experienced situations – repeatedly – where I made my managers look good, virtually cannibalising my ideas, and it wasn’t long before they were working for me. In fact, one called me after I had moved on, and was seeking my assistance in their employment. What?! After I picked up my jaw off the floor, I kindly talking them into the focus they needed.
  7. Know what makes them tick. Some managers are all about leaving a lasting legacy as a development or change agent. Others are focused on short-term gain, and yet others on enjoying the trappings of position. This typically cross-threads with persons committed to a profession, and such (silly) things as standards and reputation. But beyond the conflict, knowing what makes your manager tick can be used to your advantage. How does your proposed change align with whatever makes the manager tick? Can you present the idea in a way that aligns with their priorities? If so, then you may well find they become your biggest champion and run with the idea – in some cases mobilising resources you never envisioned. This draws upon more leadership and communication skills, but totally worth it.

These are ways you can help to sell change upwards and get your managers to buy into the vision of what you see for the organisation. The point is there are multiple angles and approaches you can explore. And they work… most of the time. Sometimes the obstacle is too great, the idea too transient, the manager too dead-set on work avoidance, or themselves lacking confidence on the persons they report to. In such cases, you may have to work through a different organisation, or work a different idea. But it should be after you are thoroughly satisfied that you have tried all angles available.

In parting, here’s an interesting thought to consider. While many persons see management as the endgame – the position to which they aspire – those who see the management as a profession, and therefore a different game, requiring different skills – end up the most celebrated of management icons. Lou Gerstner, Jack Welsh, Ram Charran, Larry Bossidy, Henry Ford and so on… when they assumed management roles was typically when they faced the most challenging role of their careers. That was when the work started, not ended. Until you share a similar crossroads, everything you experience and experiment with are tools for the journey to a more demanding, and rewarding, future. Happy changing!

Faheem Mohammed is the Managing Director of and leads the management and leadership portfolios. He can be contacted at