Leading Teams through the COVID-19 Crisis

March 18, 2020

Suzanne Bates offers advice for leaders who are steering their teams through the current health crisis.

COVID-19 is disrupting every aspect of daily life. Pharmaceutical leaders everywhere face a vast number of uncertainties. Do we have enough lab materials? What changes are necessary to manage health and safety? Who should remain at work? What do we do about shortages? How long will this go on?

These questions are daunting and complex. The pressure is on those at the front lines to accelerate mitigation including testing capabilities and the development of a vaccine. At the same time, funding sources and focus on other therapies may wane at least momentarily with new attention being paid post COVID-19 on pandemics and communicable disease. Long term, the industry will also face public scrutiny, with questions including the wisdom of a pharma supply chain and manufacturing centered in China. 

There’s no question that in ways never imagined, COVID-19 will upend some aspects of the industry. Disruption always creates opportunity in the long term. Many companies will innovate and adopt new ways of doing business. Just as the medical world will accelerate the move to telemedicine, so will smart leaders in the pharma industry find new uses for technology, virtual and more. Smart industry leadership will be at the forefront of moving the world from crisis, to mitigation, to solution, and finally to long-term innovation.  

In the meantime, leaders and their teams must deal with the very real, here and now concerns of employees as Europe and the US hunker down. Many people have already moved to virtual work, which has its own challenges as even otherwise tech-savvy companies are not well-versed or prepared to truly work productively in the virtual realm. Leaders must now manage people in a new environment, stressful under the best circumstances, while trying to minimize disruption to the business.

In times of uncertainty one of the important things for leaders to attend to is people’s emotions. They are swinging wildly now from concern and anxiety about personal situations to more outward-focused, altruistic concerns for others. Crisis brings out the best and worst in people. Against this backdrop, pharma leaders must engage, align, and inspire their teams.

As a leader, the first obligation is of course to minimize general health risks and be sensitive to employee concerns. At the same time, leaders have a duty to manage the financial risks of a business slowdown, which would of course hurt employees, customers, investors and shareholders, potentially over a longer term. They must project calm, assure people, help them focus, and be courageous.

Much of a leader’s success lies in helping people keep their eye on the long game. Here’s how we’re advising our clients during this time.

• Encourage innovative, creative ways to do business. The best ideas often percolate when you’re forced into a corner. Foster an environment that encourages people to look for a different way forward. Engage people in finding a new path to business. Make sure people are set up to work virtually when possible. Don’t cancel meetings. Hold them virtually. Even if people don’t know how to do it, necessity as they say is the mother of invention. Establish new protocols and leverage what is available to work in a virtual environment.You may also begin to ask questions to help people think differently. Should you consider collaboration with competitors? Are there things you no longer need to do? Are there things you could do now because there is time? This kind of thinking can transform businesses and industries. It creates new revenue and ignites innovation.   

• Oh captain, my captain-manage the swirl. Help teams acknowledge and work through the angst they’re feeling, so that they can pull back and refocus. Distill what’s happening and provide perspective. Give thought to the message. Express faith in others. Use humor when appropriate. Open the lines of communication. And of course, tell it like it is. People want the truth. Discuss how COVID-19 is impacting the business. Keep people up to date and communicate regularly through a variety of channels – live, in person, virtual, video, and in writing. Don’t worry if you don’t have much that’s new to say. Keep the channels open, and let people see you and hear from you. 

• Keep people focused on the future. One big critique coming off recent earnings calls is that executives have a very backward-looking view regarding COVID-19 impacts. They are talking about how they are positioned right now – not in the future. The effect of Coronavirus is not fully known and will likely not be for a long time. Inspire teams by sharing how the company – and they – will be part of creating the path out of the global situation. 

Smart companies will look ahead and talk about a future that could include diversifying their businesses, introducing new therapies, discovering new markets, and more. Help employees stay safe while focusing on what they can do to innovate and make new discoveries. Help them focus on the long term to ignite their energy and creativity.  

Suzanne Bates is CEO of Bates, a global consulting firm that helps organizations improve performance through communicative leadership.