Board members, if you have been fantastic during the crisis so did your people: So, don’t dilapidate the positive Covid-19 effect!

by Didier Marlier on Friday July 3rd, 2020

Costa-Gavras is the film producer who most impacted my youth. His movies offer a disturbing reflection on totalitarian regimes from extreme left to right. In “Section Spéciale”, he relates a historical feat of World War II, displaying the dynamics between French collaborators, members of the Resistance and normal citizens who decide to become heroic under the context’s hardship. Costa-Gavras shows how, by the end of the War, collaborators and other partisans of “Business as Usual” manage to turn round and hold top positions in the French administration, while the true heroes are sent back, without recognition, to the vicissitudes of their humble daily lives or worse, imprisoned! Nowadays when we plan life after Covid, let us make sure we do not forget the heroism of our “normal business citizens” during the Corona-War!

A lot of my work, during this forced interruption, is to accompany teams of leaders in Africa, Europe and Latin America, through the crisis, so that they learn from each other, support each other and create collective meaning and intelligence about what happens and how they should react during Covid-19. It is one of the richest and most fascinating time of my career, without forgetting the horror of death and unemployment, sadly.

I hear many moving stories. The most common themes are:

  • Acceleration and making it happen: Covid-19 is an incredible accelerator! “No more discussions, no more excuses, we have achieved things we never thought were possible”. This matches Yuval Harari’s observation: “If I look at my own university, we have been talking for about twenty ears about moving some courses on-line, and nothing happened. Now within one week, we moved the entire university, all the courses on-line!”
  • Empowerment and Decentralization: Covid-19 reined in the almighty (and sometimes useless) requirements of Corporate Administration: “As corporate people were confined and had no one to talk to, we saw a wave of on-line meetings’ requests hit us. But we, in operations, were into firefighting and survival mode. We simply told them No, we have a company to save! And they understood. We, on the battlefield, set the priorities and corporate started to become helpful!” This has been a fantastic step toward building.
  • Intelligent Organizations: Our brain receives between 11 and 13 Billion bits of information per second but can only consciously process 50/70 bits/second. In a Complex and Chaotic context such as Covid-19, the brain’s incapacity to process becomes deadly for the body. The same happens to the top management trying to handle Covid-19 from their Headquarters. The best the body could do, would be to trust the organs (requiring previous training and education) so that they can also engage their brain capacities in the fight. This is what happened with the companies I work with: Top leaders realized their need to control and coordinate would be a liability to the organization. So they let local entities and those on the battlefield decide what to do. Their role didn’t become passive: Boards retained their duty to lead but far more than before, by coordinating, encouraging and creating conditions for those on the battlefields to be able to do and be their best. In a matter of days, budgets and resources were made available and decisions to authorize Working From Home were taken.
  • Agility and risk taking: Once people feel truly empowered by the hierarchy and that they have a Deep Intent, or understand the Social Utility of their sacrifice (serving the public, helping families no to starve, saving lives, saving our company…), they will become creative, innovative, will take measured risks and wear the colours, far better than any Convention or Incentives could lead them to.
  • Solidarity and the disappearance of the silo effect: As a consequence of the previous point, I heard moving stories of white collars, normally allowed to stay confined at home, requesting to go at the plant, lending a hand to their colleagues, to replace those who had fallen sick. I heard leaders waking up at 3 am, after working the whole day, going to the plant and check the health and moral of the night shift. I heard white collars sewing textile masks for their blue-collar colleagues… The dream of all leaders had materialized: There were no silos any longer, but a whole population aligned behind a shared and noble purpose, supporting each other!
  • Moment of Truth for values and culture: From all the teams I have been speaking with, the proudest and most energized were those whose organizations had immediately started to put their values in practice and found the chance to reinforce the culture in this “proof of fire”. Echoing a short study, made at the beginning of my career, the teams who were most positive and resilient were also full of stories how they and their leaders (including Comex) had “walked the talk” under fire. Those who sounded more like courageous survivors, uncertain about the future, also reported with disappointment and cynicism, how their leaders failed to represent the organization’s values during those dire straits.

So, how can we, as leaders avoid to dilapidate the heritage of Covid-19?

  • You can’t maintain that momentum: It certainly doesn’t reflect on the bottom line but your people have run an 800 meters, at the pace of a 100 meters. Stop them now. We are heading for a marathon. Recognize the hard work done, thank them for it and provide them with a bit of a breathing space.
  • … But you can maintain fitness: Seek to go on the battlefield and learn, understand all the efficiency (a plant, with only 60% of workers present managed to “spit” 200% of its normal capacity!) they managed to create under Covid’s extraordinary conditions.  What did they do? How did they do it? What should now become part of the “new Normal”? Keep the fitness level reached by the organization!
  • Keep your people/organization intelligent and engaged: When listening to them, it felt that many employees, in several parts of your organizations, had created an intelligent and agile organization, without consultants and endless procedures. They had a clear and simple purpose and full support from their leaders. They seized their chance to be the Heroes their organization needed. So do not go back to boring routines and keeping their creativity and intelligence under control. Listen to them!
  • Pride to belong: Finally, I fear that some leaders have lost their “license to operate” during the crisis. It has become blatantly obvious (except to their “religious followers”) with some political leaders. But the same will happen to some CEOs and Comex members if they failed to:
    • Lead even when they were lost themselves
    • Be present, visible connected and reachable by their people
    • Demonstrate empathy and address their people concerns
    • Lead by example
    • Aim at rebuilding a New, Social and Sustainable Economy rather than go back to Business as Usual

I see pride to belong in organizations where the leaders did all these five!

The Covid-19 crisis isn’t over. But, as leaders, we shouldn’t waste the powerful learning it has offered us. Enjoy your Leadership Journey!

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