Omicron: Crisis Management in Practice

Leaders are hoping the latest wave is a short-term challenge. Do they have the right plans for this?

January, it seems, will be dominated by the Omicron virus. The key question: For how long after January will the variant be a major factor?

The latest data suggests that perhaps the peak could arrive within weeks, with some settling after. It is an emerging dynamic that poses a double-edged sword for leaders, experts say. For the first time since the pandemic began, leaders have some confidence that a COVID-19 wave could be a short-term phenomenon. Unfortunately, that wave will be massive, testing any leader’s skills in short-term crisis management. “You have to be nimble with a progressive mindset,” says Deepali Vyas, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global head of the firm’s FinTech, Payments and Crypto practice.

More than 2.4 million new cases were reported worldwide in one day alone this week, with a record 1 million new cases in the United States. Thousands of airline flights have been canceled. Supply chain disruptions continue, in-person meetings have been delayed, return-to-office plans have been shelved, again, and conferences canceled. 

But the good news is that even as case numbers soar to record levels, the number of severe cases and hospitalizations has not. At the same time, anecdotal reports out of South Africa, where Omicron was first identified only a few weeks ago, indicate that the virus’s surge might have already peaked there. While the Omicron variant is part of the overall COVID-19 pandemic, handling it effectively may be more akin to managing a more short-term crisis, such as a tornado or an important supplier’s sudden financial problems.

In such shorter-term situations, effective leaders often recognize that they don’t have all the answers and, importantly, admit as much. It’s an attitude that could serve leaders well now. “The most powerful decision a leader can make is to say, ‘I just don’t know,’” says Dan Kaplan, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s CHRO practice. 

That humility and the willingness to admit uncertainty haven’t always been visible over the last few months, as many companies set specific dates for return-to-office plans and other projects. “Everyone wants to be definitive, and it makes them look clownish,” Kaplan says.

People look to leaders for four things: trust, compassion, stability, and hope, says Margie Warrell, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s Board & CEO Services practice. Her advice: “Communicate clearly, make quick decisions, and articulate the ‘why’ behind those decisions.” At the same time, she says, leaders should be focusing on their companies’ long-term strategies. The Omicron variant, and the pandemic in general, will eventually end. So the leader’s edict, she says, is to position the company to be in the best possible place to seize opportunities when it does. 

In addition to looking for strategic opportunities, leaders need to ready their businesses for current and upcoming vaccine mandates. While some industries — healthcare and airlines, to name two — pushed ahead with a vaccination requirement, many others waited for the federal government to impose and explain its own vaccine mandate. That federal mandate is tied up in the US court system, but perhaps not for long. Companies have to be prepared to follow through on the government’s mandate if it wins court approval, says Linda Hyman, Korn Ferry’s executive vice president of global human resources. “That’s a dynamic that’s creating a lot of pressure on teams and leaders,” she says.