Entrepreneurship Random Thoughts

Getting Through the Pandemic: Responsibilities of Founders and Leaders During Covid-19

Humanity has survived various kinds of pandemics in the modern history we know of. We have lived through the financial crisis in 2008, the dotcom bubble, two world wars and many influenza outbreaks such as SARS, MARS and virus epidemics such as Ebola. There’s a difference in the current pandemic we are experiencing with Covid-19 where the entire world is at stand still disrupting travel, supply chains and doing business as usual. The last we saw something at this scale was back in the 1920s, almost a century ago, during the Spanish Flu. The environment and the surroundings were very different back then compared to what it is today. Organization models, communication, leadership styles, governance models and innovation strategies have changed drastically since the 1920s. With that said, let’s look at the current problems many founders, leaders and business in general are experiencing due to the current Covid-19 pandemic.

The Covid-19 happened fast. Starting from a few cases in China and surrounding countries, the outbreak spread at an alarming rate. At one point in March in the United States, the exponential rise was doubling the infected every 2.4 days, while the longer term study showed that the true doubling time is closer to 6 days. Either way, this is something unprecedented which none has seen in modern history.

If you are a founder or a C-level executive in an organization, the following may seem very familiar to you during the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Sustainability of the companies

While only a few industries are overwhelmed with new demand at a scale they have not seen before, many are struggling to keep their bills paid. If you are in the eLearning, delivery, conference or consulting space enabling technologies to work remotely, you might be doing very well, but the inability to cope with the massive increase in demand side will still be a great concern. Most founders and C-levels I have come across are struggling irrespective of which side you are on this equation. If you are in one of those fortunate industries where the demand has significantly increased due to Covid-19, do note that these are good problems to solve. Similarly, if you are on the other side of the equation and Covid-19 has affected your operations drastically, you are probably trying to identify ways in which you can operate without running out permanently closing the shop.

People come first

Why do companies exist? Whether your motto is to ‘bring shareholder value’ or whatever the mission you have set for yourself, it is to serve people. Whether they are shareholders, customers, partners or employees, you as a company serve people. The current pandemic will die down eventually, but the decisions you make as a leader will be remembered forever. At the very least, you will fail gracefully. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in a graceful failure as a leader. No matter what the situation is, people come first. Human beings are the most important factor in this equation, nothing else!

Treat people with respect

Whether it is your employees, customers, vendors or investors, treat people with respect. While you as leaders have certain set challenges, other stakeholders have their own problems they deal with. Having empathy towards your employees and vendors is extremely important during this global lockdown. Even if you lay someone off, do it with dignity and respect. At London Institute of Business and Technology, we are in the 5th month after the great lockdown and we have pivoted into many business models we had not touched before, while keeping everyone and everyone is excited to be thinking outside the box and innovate in very short sprints and it’s amazing!

“Work from Home” Setup

While some of you might be fortunate to have a separate room, as an ‘office room’ at your home, try to understand that not all homes are equal. At the home front, especially being confined into a small space without being able to get outside, some are struggling. The psychological impact of Covid-19 is much more than we think it is. Have empathy. It is ok if a kid walks into a Zoom call. Technologies existed for the knowledge workers to operate remotely for a very long time. The issue is getting used to ways of operating from home with less distractions. If you are one of the non-tech companies, this will require the leadership to understand the modelaties of operating from home and then communicating the same learnings to your staff. At United Management and Consulting Group, we have seen a considerable improvement in efficiency and productivity since we started operating from home. At the end of this pandemic, companies will be much more open and flexible to “Work-from-Home” flexible working models.

Digital Transformation is the key!

This has become the buzzword that everyone talks about since the current Covid-19 pandemic started. While technology plays an important role in any digital transformation activity, it is extremely important to understand the 3-pillars in any digital transformation: People, Process and Technology. Many of the digital transformations fail, not because there aren’t sufficient technologies available, but the ‘People’ factor has not been thought through. Every successful digital transformation starts with People, not technology. This is something many of the leaders seem to misunderstand. Check out this detailed article, “Digital Transformation is the way Forward: A case study of Sri Lanka,” written by Dr. Ruwan Dias, taking Sri Lanka as a case study to discuss Digital Transformation.

Processes and Tools

While preparing ‘people’ for the greatest challenges you are faced with, it is also important to understand that you provide them with the right processes and tools to engage. If you are still using Microsoft Word PC version and emailing files back and forth, you are anyway behind the rest; given the situation with Covid-19, you will not be able to make it. As a leader, you will really have to focus on optimizing communication, workflows and technologies that are currently in place. Being able to get an understanding of what is happening across the organization, real-time, will enable you to perform better in short sprints. This requires an extreme integration of the systems from one to another. Again, don’t over integrate upto a level where the employees have no idea how systems are communicating with each other. Do it progressively.

Identifying new revenue sources

If you are one of the hardest hit industries, identifying new revenue sources is a key to keeping your bills paid. Building companies is hard enough and building companies during a pandemic with a global lockdown is even harder. This is extremely stressful. One of the best ways to overcome this is to integrate Lean Methodologies into day-to-day work. While we are going through this unprecedented experiment of the modern economy with Covid-19, irrespective of the organization size, you will have to rethink again like a startup. You may have to explain this entire exercise to the employees and take short sprints to come up with business models that generate revenue. Identify the experiments that will give you a strong product-market fit and execute them as quickly as possible. With shorter sprints, the higher the stress and the workload, but you will eventually increase your odds of coming up with a viable revenue generating model that keeps you going.

What about employees who don’t make it?

While leaders have an immense set of responsibilities to executive the strategies mentioned above, the employees, too, have a responsibility to support companies during this unprecedented event. While some seem to understand the critical nature of the state we are in together, you will always find employees who won’t be taking it seriously, taking things for granted. Micromanaging is not the way to resolve this type of behavior. Provide them with milestones to meet and assess those deliverables over time. Get everyone to raise their concerns and discuss deliverables during daily standups. The community aspect of communication builds social pressure and social pressure makes people change. At worst, if you have to let someone go, do it gracefully. Not everyone is made to handle this.

While Covid-19 is changing and shaping up the ways the society fundamentally functions, you as founders and leaders have an immense responsibility to support your employees to cope up with the situation and be productive at the same time. Digital Transformation (people, process and technology), Lean Methodologies, Remote Work, Innovation, Startups and Entrepreneurship will be in discussion in detail over the coming weeks and months.

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