Leadership in the COVID-19 era

Five ways to emerge stronger after the pandemic

Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.” — Jim Collins, “Good to Great”

Generational companies are forged by adversity, as Jim Collins showed us in one of my favorite books, “Good to Great.” Today, leaders face the greatest economic challenge since the Great Depression. Yet, as we speak, the next generation of fearless, iconic companies is being built against the headwinds of this global pandemic.

What makes these companies different?

Leadership makes or breaks great companies, especially in a defining moment like this crisis. Here are five principles to consider as you lead your organization through adversity. I try to live by them as a leader. Taken together, they can help you build an enduring company in hard times.

Leaders put people first

Our employees have likely never experienced a disruption of this magnitude. They are looking for reassurance, guidance, and direction—for themselves and their families. As leaders, our first duty is to ensure our employees stay safe and healthy. We owe them guidance and reassurance, acting always from a place of care and compassion. We need to support their physical, emotional, and mental needs, so that employees can continue to care for themselves and their loved ones, as well as continue to deliver impact and value to customers.

The first (and most critical step) is to overcommunicate. Do not let physical distancing constraints stop you from engaging deeply with your teams. Listen, connect, empathize more. Within my own teams, I have found that we share our full selves frequently and transparently. And it’s been a blessing—it has brought us closer together more than ever before, as our personal and work lives have blended and built a rock-solid foundation of trust.

Leaders double down on customers

Just like your employees, customers need to know you will continue to serve and support them. Every day, our leadership team is deep in the trenches with our customers—understanding their most pressing problems, firefighting with them, and helping them deliver value in these trying times.

Through this experience, we have seen remarkable leadership from our customers as they solve complex, global problems. I am particularly proud of the exceptional leadership demonstrated by our customer, the Washington State Department of Health. In a pandemic, it’s critical for government agencies and healthcare providers to mobilize quickly. In response to COVID-19, the Washington State Department of Health quickly built an Emergency Response Management app on the Now Platform to operationalize response and preparedness and made it available free to any company that needs it.

Other forward-thinking leaders are realizing that serving their customers most effectively requires an acceleration to a digital-first reality—from e-commerce to digital logistics. Leaders at Lowe’s, Princeton University, and Japan-based Murata Manufacturing are rapidly digitizing their customer and employee workflows on ServiceNow, and already are seeing increased customer satisfaction and employee productivity.

Leaders plan and plan again

We are living through unprecedented uncertainty. No one can accurately predict how long the effects of the pandemic will last or how we will adapt our social fabric, economic behaviors, or approach to governance over the long term. Planning and preparedness will be key to ensuring your business’s resilience.

In these conditions, it is essential to build data-driven, actionable P&L scenarios that cover a wide range of possible futures. Leaders must actively scrutinize their sales pipeline for both risks and opportunities. They must create tactical playbooks to execute on scenarios quickly and cohesively. They have to balance realistic plans with extreme downside scenarios. I also recommend “no regrets” spend reductions to increase flexibility and build toward long-term cost improvement.

Business continuity and resiliency planning for both operations and the human side are also essential. Before the pandemic, most companies had business continuity plans in place that addressed natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and the like. Very few companies included the possibility of an open-ended, global pandemic in these plans. Going forward, I suspect most will.

Leaders have to look ahead. It’s tough right now to see a light at the end of the tunnel, but leaders need to position their organizations to be ready for it to emerge stronger and better.

Leaders step up and serve

Equally important, leadership means supporting the communities where we live and work. Early in the pandemic, ServiceNow joined forces with 24 other Bay Area companies that have committed an initial $22 million in collective funding for organizations on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. There are countless other examples. Airlines are donating flights for medical supplies. Rideshare companies are donating car service for essential workers. Restaurants are donating meals.

Many of these companies compete vigorously with each other. But we also face a common threat in COVID-19, and we have a responsibility to work together to get through it.

Last year, the Business Roundtable, a group of respected CEOs from a variety of industries and countries, updated how they define the purpose of a corporation to be more equitable for all stakeholders, not just shareholders. These leaders realize that their organizations have a duty to serve everyone, not just a select few. I hope all companies follow their example.

Leaders prepare to come out stronger on the other side

Finally, crisis leadership means figuring out what the “next normal” will look like, so you can pivot your business model and product suite to address new needs. For example, how will supply chain shifts, new work paradigms, and changes in online behavior impact your organization?

The pandemic is putting enormous pressure on companies in every industry. This may create opportunities for leaders to accelerate their strategy via M&A and other competitive moves, as well as strategic talent acquisition for critical roles. Many will think up new products or services that address changing customer needs in this evolved world. (For more crisis strategy examples, see Bain & Company’s recent article, COVID-19: Building a digital bridge to the new normal.)

On the front lines of business, we’re seeing how digital technology foundations enable companies to develop great experiences for employees and customers. Now more than ever, enterprises must leverage technology to deliver great experiences, unlock remote productivity, and fuel innovation.

In challenging times, it’s natural for people and organizations to focus on survival. But leadership is about learning from adversity and looking ahead. Leaders who can see past this crisis will be quicker to develop solutions that address new customer pain points. They’ll be faster to adjust operating models to respond to changing business conditions. They will be able to harness the full potential of their employees. They will emerge as the generation-defining companies of this new era.