The first half of 2020 will go down as one of the biggest opportunities in our lifetimes to learn about leadership, resilience and creativity.

Some companies are already showing that no matter how hard it gets out there, the right doses of realism, compassion and creativity can see them through with their stakeholder goodwill intact. Based on what we’ve seen so far, here’s my rundown of the core lessons learned from businesses that are still finding ways to thrive in this time of crisis.

Compassion is not a luxury item

Every single one of the ‘thrivers’ to emerge from this crisis will have shown deep compassion for their employees, their customers and their community or ecosystem.  These companies will continue to thrive because all of these stakeholders have long memories. Last September, lobbying group The Business Roundtable (BRT) found that nearly 200 CEOs agreed that businesses no longer exist solely to maximise shareholder profit, but “to create value for all our stakeholders”. 

They may not have expected to have their integrity tested so soon, but with so many warm stories of support getting so much attention (in a valiant effort to balance the negative spiral of a global pandemic), deep compassion is becoming a table-stake for successful leaders and businesses. 

  • Employees work harder and spread the reputation of an employer who cares. As much as possible, we should ask ourselves: is downsizing really necessary? As Harvard Business School professor John Margolis puts it, this is not a periodic recession, but “an exceptional historic moment pivotal for the economy and for people’s communities, careers, and lives,” and so it might “warrant a different response.”
  • Existing customers will reciprocate with their business as soon as they can, out of gratitude and respect. For the opposite effect, see the public response to Sports Direct’s decision to stay open and increase home gym equipment by 50 percent. This scathing open letter to Mike Ashley sums it up, instructing customers to “repay his act of kindness and compassion by never visiting his shops again”.
  • New customers are gained because the effect of a company’s compassion reaches beyond the boundaries of the business ecosystem and as an unintended consequence, generates brand love.

Communication is critical

Every successful leader knows this, but in this time of crisis, communication skills have proven invaluable. In trying times, those who have led with empathy have had the most success. It can be tough to keep a level head when tensions are high, but it’s essential that challenges and solutions, no matter how difficult, are communicated clearly, compassionately and with hope.

Tone-deaf messages can touch a nerve, so tread carefully. Take note of the star-studded video of celebrities singing ‘Imagine’ that sparked a backlash of widespread ridicule. Next time you’re sending out a message, ask yourself before it’s too late: is your tone relatable and inclusive? Lots of companies will of course have to make deep cost-cutting moves, layoffs and furloughs, but how these delicate decisions are communicated can, in many cases, be as important than the decisions themselves. 

Creativity cannot be over-valued

Entire businesses are shifting their offerings to online, retooling factories to produce what the economy and society needs. 

Breweries and distilleries have started producing hand sanitizer instead of beer. Time Out magazine has renamed itself Time In. These kinds of shifts were unimaginable before the pandemic, and not only have they filled much-needed revenue gaps, they’ve also inspired entire workforces and communities.

“Lockdown could turn out to be one of the most creative times for humankind”, Sandi Mann, author of The Science of Boredom, told the Financial Times. But we have to work for it: it should be remembered that social distancing can affect creativity, and we should do everything possible to retain the spontaneity of group brainstorming and collaboration.

Curiosity combats fear

The companies who have ultimately emerged as ‘thrivers’ were focused on the short term for the shortest term possible. In other words, while it was still uncomfortable to do so, they started getting their organisations to be curious about what the future of the business would look like after this was all over. 

What has changed for your customers? What new role could you be playing in their lives? The creativity that a company shows in the earliest days of crisis helps to inspire the audacity needed to answer these questions. This could mean repackaging services as products to suit remote consumption, or it could mean offering something radically new and different. Those who embrace these challenges with creativity and curiosity can make good on the old cliché: within every crisis lies the seed of opportunity.

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