The coronavirus crisis will be a challenge for even the most talented executive, but it's also a golden opportunity to practice some key skills. That includes one that most leaders tend to avoid: not having all the answers.
As we all know, the outbreak that is now sweeping across the world is leaving many workers frightened and wanting answers. But that doesn't mean corporate heads need to be an all-knowing leader, says Kirsta Anderson, Korn Ferry's global leader for culture and engagement. Indeed, experts suggest avoiding certitude that those in a crisis naturally seek. “In this situation, it is not possible," she says. That's because there are too many unknowns.
Instead, leaders should listen to the concerns of employees and where necessary acknowledge that there are no easy answers, Anderson says. That's important because employees are smart and will likely intuitively understand the subtleties of the situation. Leaders who try to gloss over tough questions with glib replies could make matters worse, she says. "They know that there isn't a simple answer, and if you pretend, then you make them feel unheard," she says.
There's also much pressure on leaders to show empathy, but few are exactly sure what that means, Anderson says. She gives the example of a company where a team has just spent six months putting together a conference. But it has now come to light that some attendees will be traveling from Coronavirus hotspot areas such as parts of Italy. The matter comes down to a single question: "Who do you prioritize?" Anderson says. Is it the conference guests who might need to be uninvited, the shareholders, or the employees who spent half a year putting the event together? If the priority is the health of the workforce and everyone else, then maybe the event gets canceled, she says.
History shows that during crises, executives also benefit from being transparent about what is really happening in their company, says Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Cresset Capital in Chicago. "Shareholders and the community at large will respect and reward leaders who play their cards open," he says. That openness might be uncomfortable at times because it means leaders will need to show that they are not omnipotent. "The key is transparency. Lay out what you know and recognize what you don't know," he says. That goes a long way to bolstering credibility.
The upside of what will likely be a stressful period is that leaders may be able to show that they genuinely care about their employees. That may mean setting up potentially costly alternate workplaces or extended payment terms for customers. But employees believe it matters to the bottom line; in one Korn Ferry survey, more that 70 percent cited long-term financial benefits if their firm was strongly committed to such purpose-driven leadership.
At Cresset, the firm Ablin helped found, he and his partners have taken steps to make sure people feel safe. That includes not asking people to travel if they feel uncomfortable doing so during. "Our company is a collection of individuals, and everyone has to feel safe," he says.