Leadership in a time of COVID

May 04, 2020 / Media

There are two key roles of the CEO; firstly, problem solver. Problem solving is made a lot harder when you can’t simply go and meet the person, face-to-face, and figure out a solution together.

Secondly, you are the central point of communication. Coming up with solutions quickly and then having to communicate them quickly is difficult for a business leader in any crisis management scenario. The starker difference now is that with unprecedented times come unprecedented effects.

With such a rapidly evolving situation like the spread of COVID-19, it’s difficult to predict how one’s decisions will affect different staff members in different ways. This is a unique event; management teams are neither gifted with the luxury of analysing the data of their decisions, nor do they have much opportunity to draw on the decisions of their peers as a point of reference.

Integrity of communications

Indeed, what has also proven unique about COVID-19 is not just that leaders have had to reassess what communication must go out, they must also evaluate the integrity of the communication coming in. In the early days of the crisis the messaging from different sources from different governments and the WHO was unclear or at odds. It was incumbent on CEOs to ask themselves what bearing each new piece of information has on the company and what action they should take.

Of course, it is precisely because of the ferocity and speed of the coronavirus spread that leaders have been forced into communicating harder, faster, more creatively and with a renewed purpose – empathy.

How have leadership styles changed in the current crisis?

In this latest video, finnCap Group is partnered with Wharton Business Consulting. Presented by Natalie Wharton, CEO, Wharton Business Consulting, we speak with Henrik Bang, CEO, Netcall, Ido Erlichman, CEO, Kape Technologies, Donald McGarva, CEO, Amino Technologies and Sam Smith, CEO, finnCap Group, to discuss how the role of the CEO has changed in light of unprecedented challenges. 

Principally, what has changed is the degree of openness. Traditionally, CEOs go straight into execution, analysing operational data, numbers and facts to inform next steps. Now, people come first.

The are a lot of uncertainties about the current climate. What is beyond doubt, however, is that on the other side of this businesses will be measured by how they treat their employees, customers, suppliers and partners. Leaders will be judged on how they have behaved.

Being available

Not having the ability to problem solve in person effectively means that one of your senses as leader is cut off. The solution to that is opening up further – being available, being online, being social, opening up as many communication channels as possible.

“You have to listen a lot harder,” says Donald McGarva, CEO, Amino Technologies. “In particular, for the emotional things. I don’t think that’s going to change for a long time and people will value what you do now and you have to be really flexible and adapt giving clear direction.”

The health of your staff is not only paramount, it is also a very individual thing; how different people react to anxiety has to be of principal concern.

“There’s a lot more direct communication,” says Sam Smith, CEO, finnCap Group. “We are talking to everybody directly now, not just through their line managers. We have traders and market makers making prices that typically need to be close by each other. Suddenly everyone is disparate and having to communicate in a different way. I think what they’re looking for from us is a projection of calmness and confidence, but also honesty – staying open to the fact that you might not have spotted something. This level of communication is time-consuming and absolutely worth it.”

Structured, but informal

“It’s structured, but it’s more informal now,” says Henrik Bang, who points to the merits of regular ‘town hall’ style meetings with employees to ensure the team have constant touch points. Board meetings have changed, too. At Netcall, Henrik Bang says his board meet far more regularly and I  a more informal way.

Deciding not to change one’s leadership style on certain issues is a big decision in itself. For Ido Erlichman, CEO, Kape Technologies, the transition to remote working was reasonably easy. With many offices around the world already, his teams regularly work remotely. Technically speaking, the only tangible difference was that no one was physically coming to the office.

This in itself presented a psychological challenge. There was a need to empathise with the fact that suddenly finding oneself flying solo when you’re normally next to your teammates is a stark contrast. Doubly so when there’s a family around you.

 “There’s obviously an issue when the education system stops working,” Ido adds. “People are having to manage their daily tasks with taking care of their kids. At the start of video conferencing we were seeing that people that had a screaming child in the background felt they needed to apologise. It took time for people to understand that it’s fine.”

New opportunities


While there was an inevitable period of adjustment, in that period Kape Technologies made the decision not to give up on their normal daily targets. As is their wont, people adapted and eventually a rhythm was found whereby work and home life could continue as normal and in parallel. Unnecessary changes to the work pattern were not unnecessarily made.

There is indeed a balance to be struck for leaders. For some the crisis presents as much business opportunity as it does give pause to reflect on how you’re treating your workers.

For Kape Technologies, there’s been a large uplift in demand for their products as data privacy suddenly became important for those who found themselves needing a secure WIFI connection. Similarly, a large part of Amino Technologies’s business got a lot busier – for instance, broadcasting stage shows online – and Donald McGarva’s team in fact found themselves having to step up operations.

“We went from thousands of subscribers to hundreds of thousands of subscribers, so that was another challenge we had to deal with,” Donald says. “We had to keep people motivated.”

Ido Erlichman noticed that some industries for example are withdrawing their digital marketing budgets. There’s an argument to say one should increase one’s digital marketing activities, given the current prices for services are pretty good.

This is a unique event. We are responding and adapting as we go. We’ve seen a few distinct phases to how companies have dealt with the COVID-19 crisis, from the initial survival mode, ensuring one can keep going and emerge the other side in one piece, to the extraordinary personal and social challenges of universal home working, to where we are now, re-prioritising in light of what we know.

What has certainly come to the fore as a result of this crisis is that leadership styles that are empathetic will ultimately stand the test of time. The moral of the pandemic, as Donald McGarva succinctly put it, is to look after your people first. They’ll look after the customers and the customers will look after the business.

Watch the discussion in full