For many leaders – even those who had survived previous downturns, the COVID-19 pandemic was a crisis like no other. Imagine having to grapple with the sudden shutdown of the economy and steer the company through the subsequent starts and stops.
But if there is any silver lining, it’s that the baptism of fire will help leaders better navigate these increasingly volatile and uncertain times. Two business leaders tell us their biggest lessons from the pandemic on leading in an age of disruption.
#1 Be open to changing the way you lead
Mothercare Singapore’s group managing director Pang Fu Wei is typically, by his own admission, a result-oriented and driven leader. But that changed during the pandemic, his first crisis since taking on the mantle.
“As the pandemic wore on, we did a lot of things – improved our digital efforts, scaled our business online – and the results on that portion of the business were good. But obviously our physical retail sales were still down,” Mr Pang recounted.
“Overall, as a group, our revenue was down, and I was very determined to push the organisation to hit our budgeted topline figures.”
However, his father, the founder of the company, reminded him to adjust his expectations. “He reminded me that sometimes when the tide goes out, there's no point in swimming so hard,” said Mr Pang.
#2 Don’t shy away from making tough decisions
It can be daunting to make decisions when you are faced with the unknown, or variables that are out of your control. But the speed at which the COVID-19 crisis unfolded has shown that businesses need to move fast or be left behind.
Mr Pang’s advice when it comes to being decisive amid uncertainty is this: “You need to have a general idea of where you need to be, but break down the steps into bite sizes… When you break it down, it helps you be more certain.”
Also, “have faith and own your decisions”, he said. “One thing that I’ve learnt over the years is that all leaders face doubts, especially during times of crisis.
"But it’s important for us to project a certain level of confidence and own our decisions. If you make mistakes, just admit it, see how to fix it and move on.”
#3 Lead with empathy
It’s a time-tested lesson, but the pandemic has highlighted the need to lead with empathy even more.
Landscaping firm Greenology’s founder, Mr Veera Sekaran, shared how some of the company’s foreign employees had been worried about the safety of their families back home, while fearing the loss of their jobs here. “Some of them would even go into depression,” he added.
Mr Sekaran could relate, being anxious about the firm’s survival as well as his family’s well-being. So, he sat with each of his employees to explain the situation and hear from them. For instance, he shared: “I said I know you’re also going through a difficult period. If your family feels anxious and says you shouldn’t come to work, that’s fine.”
The frank and personal conversations helped both Mr Sekaran and his employees. “I had to find ways to keep the business going, but at the same time, I needed buy-in from the staff,” he said. “(The chats) gave a little peace of mind – to them and to me.”
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