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Reopening offers a leadership challenge. These 5 priorities serve as a playbook

May 19, 2020, 10:00 PM UTC
Fastenal ppe nascar
DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - MAY 17: Chris Buescher, driver of the #17 Fastenal Ford, stands on pit road prior to the NASCAR Cup Series The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 17, 2020 in Darlington, South Carolina. NASCAR resumes the season after the nationwide lockdown due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen—Getty Images

Returning to business amid the COVID-19 pandemic will be the preeminent leadership challenge of this generation. The pandemic, and the crucial stay-at-home and social distancing measures to mitigate it, have turned life and the economy upside down. It is painfully clear that we won’t be returning to business as usual. To meet this generational challenge, business leaders must seize the opportunity to capture everyone’s attention and jump-start their business by focusing on five priorities to regain momentum ahead. 

The priorities can serve as a playbook for business leaders no matter the size of the organization. Everyone will want to hear what your vision is—optimistic but realistic—and how to achieve it.

First, refocus the company to engage employees with a clear sense of how this pandemic experience makes their work valuable. This is an opportunity to clarify the message and the story of why your business matters, and what you want your business to stand for. Managers are doing that at a Lysol manufacturing plant in New Jersey. Factory workers making Lysol always thought they had a steady job, but never “a purpose” in that job, according to the Wall Street Journal. Now, managers are encouraging these workers to think of themselves as “heroic,” as frontline soldiers saving others. They trace this purpose back to Lysol’s efforts to combat the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago. CEOs can explore and refine the purpose of our organizations and in turn reenergize a combined spirit and culture—a positive when so many could be returning with trepidation.

Second, collaborate with customers to acknowledge the interconnectedness and build even stronger bonds. Economic repercussions could be surprising. Listen to how customers are struggling and find ways to help to build more trust and loyalty. For instance, doctors’ offices, like most small businesses, are stretched with limited resources to manage reopening. At my last company, Allergan, we had started to provide free consulting services to certain customers to help reopen, a daunting task for any size company. We also assisted them with liquidity, helping to manage financing and inventory. CEOs must also get this perspective firsthand, making themselves directly available to customers. Engaging to identify pain points ahead as your customers plan to return to work—and helping to address them—will be remembered. 

Third, let your brand speak to our shared challenges wrought by the pandemic’s fallout. The brand should not go quiet—it could be more relevant than ever before or adjusted to project something bigger. For example, consider Fastenal, a diversified manufacturing and industrial distribution company. Through the lens of COVID-19, Fastenal can now stand in the future as a player in public health. Fastenal makes personal protective equipment (PPE), including face masks, and has increased its output of these products. Every business contributes to the benefit of society. Explore and project how your brand links to a wider, socially conscious purpose today. 

Fourth, renew and reimagine trust with all stakeholders. There is a real opportunity for improved interactions, greater understanding, and deeper trust to change ordinary processes. The pandemic has fostered a collective duty to get things done—fast. This must be nurtured and not squandered or left to wither. Technology companies have been the focus of privacy concerns with governments, regulators, partners, even consumers. During the pandemic, technology-enabled contact tracing is a vital tool to save public health and slow infections. It’s not hard to imagine a new dialogue with regulators, health officials, companies, and underserved communities to improve public health through such tracing applications. More trust can snowball to greater things.

Finally, communicate nonstop and stay highly visible, leading from the front, as in any business transformation. Like everyone else, I’ve never witnessed anything like this. However, I’ve led multiple mergers and a dozen integrations, and important parallels can serve as an example for business leaders during the pandemic.

Think of the months ahead as analogous to executing the integration of two merging companies. Like an integration, a primary goal is to address the understandable fear and uncertainty from circumstances beyond people’s control. Even without a long planning period, the template applies. Identify a day one restart for your company. Leaders must personally communicate the vision for a better future and their road map of actions to make it happen. In your day one plan, outline what you know and routinely communicate facts that hopefully ease uncertainty. Leaders must stay engaged with the reentry team to adjust quickly. 

The only way is forward, safely. With these five priorities, we might just find that the opportunities we discover will change our world for the better.

Brenton L. Saunders is the outgoing chairman and CEO of Allergan after its acquisition by AbbVie.

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