Managing During Crisis: 4 Key Takeaways

Business executive John Chambers and author Daniel Pink share guidance on workforce communications and business planning during the COVID-19 pandemic in a recent CNBC@Work livestream.

What steps should business leaders take now during the COVID-19 pandemic? A number of experts addressed that question during the CNBC@Work livestream, "Leadership and Management Amid Crisis,” sponsored by Workday.

The opening session featured an interview with John Chambers and Daniel Pink, who video conferenced in from their homes for the event on April 2. Chambers (photo above) is founder and CEO of JC2 Ventures and previously served as chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems. Chambers was at Cisco for 26 years, during which time he steered the company through several economic crises. Pink is the best-selling author of books on business and human behavior, including, “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing,” and “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” 

Here are our four key takeaways from their session on how to manage during this current crisis. You can watch the session in its entirety here.

Be Candid 

Every leader’s priority should be to make sure their employees are okay, with the tools they need to be productive, Pink said. “That's crucial in the long term because employees are going to be ambassadors to your customers, particularly in service industries, and they're going to be sources of innovation and new processes going forward.”

It’s also critically important to be honest and transparent during this time of uncertainty, including not being afraid to say “I don’t know” if you don’t have all the answers. “We should never resort to corporate doublespeak, but this is one of those cases where talking like a human being is really important,” Pink said.

Chambers agreed. “You say, ‘Listen, I'm trying the best I can. We're going to do everything we can to preserve jobs. We're going to do everything we can to serve our customers as well as we possibly can. But we are in uncharted waters right here. So I'm going to be as candid with you as possible.’" 

Be Visible

Chambers advised, “Don't hide. Be visible.” That includes outlining plans that are clear and transparent to employees, customers, partners, and shareholders on how you’ll manage through the crisis. 

“What are the five, six, or seven major programs you want to do, each of which will allow you to achieve your north star—the outcome you want at the end of the downturn?” Chambers asked. Those programs will define how you interface with your employees and customers, and how you handle cash preservation and expense management, as examples. "What are you going to do differently through the changes? And how are you, perhaps, going to play one or two wild cards during the changes that position you even better for the future?”

Chambers suggested business leaders then communicate plans for what their business will look like 18 to 24 months out. “You don't want to make a series of moves on the chess board. You want to outline what it looks like to the end. This is what leadership is about.”

“I think the nature of work is going to change forever.”

John Chambers Founder and CEO, JC2 Ventures

Be Fair

Research shows that many employees distrust leadership, Pink noted. Now more than ever, business leaders need to practice fairness. “You want to avoid any notion that there are certain rules for people at the top and certain rules for people in the rest of the organization,” he said. A key characteristic of someone who leads well through crisis is the ability to “convey that we are all in this together. And being all in it together means that everybody plays by the same set of rules.”

Chambers said while some companies will be able to avoid layoffs, others will not. And that’s when fairness will become especially important. “Treat everybody as you'd like to be treated yourself,” he said. 

Be Open to Change

Many employees across the globe are now working from home. Pink likened it to a massive experiment on a broad scale, and said one of the results will be “a re-reckoning” of what kind of work should be done collaboratively or individually and synchronously or asynchronously, and what sort of work requires people to be physically together. He suggested business leaders appoint someone “who's paying attention to that, who's watching how this unfolds,” so organizations can refine processes and procedures going forward.

“I think the nature of work is going to change forever,” said Chambers. He envisioned a call center job where someone could work from home, and an artificial intelligent agent would walk that person through customer interactions, allowing the employee to focus on their summary at the end of the call. With such a scenario, he explained, “you build in flexibility to make that job even better with tremendous productivity advantages.”

Chambers said many startups his firm funds are now using various forms of video conferencing throughout the day. “They are more comfortable with being able to look at who's talking, and may even stay with video completely when we're in the workplace,” Chambers said. “So I think there'll be a fundamental change of work enabled by this type of technology, but combining new technologies—the Internet of Things, digitization, artificial intelligence—to do it.”

Chambers ended the session with his key takeaway for leaders: “It's about culture and how you walk the talk, and how you handle your challenges in life.” 

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