Living with uncertainty: How leaders at American Airlines, Salesforce, Slack, and Diageo are moving past crisis mode

October 22, 2020, 10:02 PM UTC

Months into the pandemic, senior business leaders are trying to move their companies beyond crisis mode—which might be easier if they had a clearer end in sight.

“We’re past the real crisis mode, [but] we’ve just come to recognize that unevenness is going to be here to stay with us for quite some time,” Julie Hamilton, chief commercial officer at Diageo, said on Thursday. “We’re just going to have to live with uncertainty and unevenness, especially in a global business.”

Hamilton was one of several senior executives speaking at a Fortune Most Powerful Women virtual event on Thursday, focusing on how their companies have—and haven’t—moved past the first panicked weeks of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.

She was joined by at least one executive whose company is still reeling from the fallout: Alison Taylor, chief customer officer of American Airlines, which on Thursday said it had lost $2.4 billion in the third quarter (and $6.7 billion so far this year). American has also furloughed 19,000 employees this month, after its federal stimulus aid expired, including some on Taylor’s team.

“It’s been tough. But we needed to do it for the good of the other 130,000 [employees] who are left to run the airline,” she said, adding that American is hoping it can learn from “what has been the hardest crisis we’ve ever been through and hope will ever go through.”

Taylor says that the pandemic and its massive shutdown of air travel has made American “much quicker and more agile,” and has sped up its implementation of new technology, including passenger-screening biometrics and touchless kiosks for checking luggage. The airline installed more than 2,100 such kiosks in 295 airports in a three-week period this year, Taylor said—whereas “if we had done that last year, it probably would have taken many, many months.”

She was not the only executive to find silver linings—or outright positives—in the pandemic’s impact on her company. Christina Kosmowski, vice president and global head of customer success and services at Slack, says the messaging company saw its users increase by 30%, from 10 million to 13 million, over two weeks in March.

As employers across the nation sent workers home and switched to all-remote work, Slack reaped some benefits: “Many customers who have been lagging in their digital transformations are expediting that,” Kosmowski said, adding that Amazon alone added 1 million employees to Slack within a matter of weeks.

But the crisis has also permanently reshaped Slack’s expectations for its own employees and internal routines. Employees will be allowed to work remotely indefinitely, even after the pandemic, and Kosmowski says that Slack is rethinking its hiring practices and meeting culture.

“The office won’t be there to have meetings of five to 10 people. It will be there to do individual work or host large experiences, like internal conferences,” she said. “And if we were to have a meeting in the office, we would require everybody to call in from their individual computers on Zoom, so it won’t feel like people who are remote are at a disadvantage for not being in the room.”

The pandemic and its accelerated digital transformation are also creating a shift in the types of jobs and talent that companies need, said Stephanie Buscemi, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Salesforce.

Many companies, across industries, have been “understaffed and underserved on data scientists, decision science, and digitally-savvy marketers,” she said. “It’s not even new—they’ve known they need it for years—but now it’s a must-have…Everyone’s having to either hire or reskill workers really quickly.”

Still, Buscemi agreed with the other executives that, much as everyone would like to move on from the terrifying uncertainty of early 2020, executives will have to continue navigating “a crisis across many fronts.”

“It’s not only a health crisis; we still have a climate crisis; we have an economic crisis. Candidly, we have a leadership crisis going on,” she said. “Some things have been stabilized, and people are figuring out how to get back to work, [but] I don’t think we are out of the crisis.”

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