When things are going well it’s relatively easy being a business leader. It’s in a crisis that leaders show what they are really made of. In times of dislocation leaders have to make critical choices that can affect people as well as business continuity. It is unlikely that many of us (maybe with the exception of Bill Gates) saw the Covid-19 pandemic coming, yet we are expected to stay calm and chart a smooth course through these choppy times, whilst creating certainty for customers and employees at the same time.
As a corporate leader you have to operate on two distinct levels- addressing your customers’ and your peoples’ needs. While doing this in a crisis you will be much more inclined to protect yourself and your business by addressing short term challenges such as cash preservation and cost reductions (usually involving headcount reductions). This can have a significant impact on your reputation and how you show up for your respective audiences. How you handle your messaging is as important as the message itself. Those key stakeholders (customers and staff) will decide how the company’s brand is perceived, based on these messages, and your subsequent actions.
How do you protect your reputation in these challenging times, as an empathetic and responsible business leader, and protect the company’s brand when you have to make tough decisions, particularly on headcount, in order to protect business? To ensure your brand remains intact you will need to preserve the short-term health of your business, critically look at organizational structure and ensure you have the right skills to deliver to your customer’s needs, as they may change in the short term. People are often the biggest overhead and how you address this will be closely watched. Consider unpaid leave first, starting with senior management and cascade if necessary. Pay cuts are often second -again limit these to senior people, reassign roles if possible and appropriate; as a last resort some people will have to be made redundant – ensure you have expert outplacement support for those leaving and consider the feelings of those remaining. Carefully plan your messaging around each of these stages, including others to test how your messages land.
In your messaging consider the following;
- Be authentic
- Actively engage everyone
- Communicate respectfully
- Tell it like it is – be clear to limit misunderstanding
- Understand what should be made public and what should remain private
With swift, appropriate action and well communicated messaging you can protect your brand and reputation as well as provide support for your people and your business.