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What Crises Can Teach Us About Leading Beyond Borders

Kevin Xu
Kevin Xu

Emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic have a way of highlighting our strengths and weaknesses as leaders. Here are six lessons in crisis management for global companies.

  • The coronavirus pandemic is the kind of crisis that highlights your company's strengths and weaknesses.
  • Business leaders must be able to make decisions based on the bigger picture – even if those solutions are imperfect.
  • Whether your physical conference has to become virtual or you need someone to take over when a CEO contracts the virus, preparation pays off.
  • People are your greatest asset; take an empathetic and human approach to boost morale and drive business outcomes.

Every corner of the world shut down in early March as COVID-19 left almost no region untouched. Case numbers skyrocketed, governments imposed stay-at-home orders, and businesses in all industries had to shift their operations – sometimes drastically.

This pandemic's impact on small businesses was substantial, with economists estimating that more than 100,000 small businesses permanently closed in the wake of the pandemic. Global companies must take a comprehensive approach to monitor and manage situations in different countries, where restrictions and business practices may not be the same.

For companies fortunate enough to still be open, this is a business opportunity. Crises are difficult and uncertain landscapes to operate in, but they can also inspire innovation and serve as a gut check for businesses looking for that missing piece to survive and thrive.

Where are the gaps?

The COVID-19 pandemic has stopped economic growth in its tracks, meaning that businesses are making shifts to compensate for decreases in funding, customers or overall demand. To do some introspection on their businesses' response to the virus, leaders should measure how well their organizations can do the following:

  • Adapt: How quickly and effectively was your business able to pivot? Are your teams and employees able to shift to a virtual working environment? Is everyone in your company on the same page?
  • Respond: Is your business able to maintain effective operations and protect its brand, assets and people? Are your teams still in place and operating efficiently?
  • Lead: Are leaders performing effectively in an uncertain operating environment? How have your employees adjusted? Is morale becoming an issue?

By examining how your business functions during a crisis, you can identify which areas need to improve – and make changes. You can also apply those findings to operate better during peak business times.

How do businesses survive the uncertainty?

Businesses face a variety of challenges when a crisis hits. As anxiety runs rampant, people may be left feeling unprepared and, consequently, may not receive, process or provide information in the same way they would typically. This can lead to rumors and the accidental dispensing of information.

For small businesses, a crisis can expose the lack of resources available to keep pace. For example, a small business that didn't immediately find new ways to operate and provide value to customers when stay-at-home orders hit is likely struggling to do so now. Implementing digital tools and shifting your business to an online model is easier said than done, and it uses up valuable time that could be spent building relationships with customers and partners.

On the other hand, businesses that pivoted quickly were able to build up a new revenue stream by taking advantage of changing consumer behaviors. Many customers have switched to online orders and curbside pickup, which is only possible for businesses that have managed to strengthen digital operations rapidly. In the same way, companies that spent time managing the crisis upfront can focus their efforts on providing increased value to customers instead of worrying about how to make it through the month.

Leading a business through a crisis is difficult already, but it becomes an even more significant undertaking when compounded by changing regulations, restrictions and business practices across the globe. Travel bans affect the mobility of key leaders and managers, employees stress over increased responsibilities, and companies as a whole have to adopt new procedures for training, meetings and conferences.

To put your global business in the best possible position to navigate crises – COVID-19 or otherwise – follow these leadership lessons.

1. Get your understudies in place.

You should ensure that budgets and finances are in a solid place to keep the company going. But perhaps more importantly, figure out who will step in to fill that role if the CEO or any other team leader gets sick.

Figure out who can take over. Can you split the responsibilities among several people? Keep in mind that multiple roles may need people to step in simultaneously, so it's worth the trouble to design an emergency plan with multiple backups.

2. Anticipate changes to travel, meetings and conferences.

Travel during a global pandemic isn't ideal. Companies have instituted no-travel policies and are holding virtual meetings rather than physical ones.

According to a recent survey by the Global Business Travel Association, 98% of its member companies had canceled international trips, while 92% had scrapped most or all of their domestic trips. Travel delays and cancellations are almost guaranteed, so it pays to have a digital plan in case your in-person meeting or conference can't take place.

3. Make morale a priority.

No matter what kind of organization you run, morale matters. This is an uncertain time for employees, and the responsibility falls on business leaders to provide both short- and long-term solutions for keeping morale high. Red flags for low morale include a more negative outlook on company performance, reduced team collaboration, depreciating quality of work, resistance to cooperation and infrequent communication.

Leaders who brought their companies and teams through the Great Recession know how much attitude impacts success. The most influential leaders see a crisis as an opportunity to rally team members and drive their organizations forward.

4. Try to find universal meeting times.

One of the pitfalls of running a global business is just that – it's global. You're working with people in various countries and time zones. While it might be a 10 a.m. meeting for you, someone else might be up at 5 a.m. or logging back on at 8 p.m. to attend that call.

Try to find a middle-ground meeting time once or twice each week. This might be one time that works for everyone, or you could set rotating meeting times so that the same person isn't always inconvenienced. Also consider recording your meetings for anyone who can't attend. If you establish an agenda and talking points beforehand, your team members can stay on the same page without compromising their sleep schedules.

Executives in different countries should also set up office hours so their international counterparts have a direct line to reach them and discuss changes, recent developments or new strategies.

5. Prepare for government agency closures.

Government closures affect small businesses more heavily than others, because they often depend on government-funded entrepreneurship programs.

When the government shuts down, various services are unavailable. Don't worry, the IRS will still collect your taxes during a shutdown – but it won't be available to provide refunds, process returns or conduct audits. Any employee waiting on a passport for international work might need to plan for travel changes in case that passport doesn't arrive on time. When governments can't stay open, businesses and workers suffer.

6. Stay informed on global happenings.

As a leader, don't conflate information with being informed – especially during a crisis. Employees have access to an incredible amount of information, which might make it seem like leaders don't need to keep them informed, but that couldn't be further from the truth.

Create a process for regularly updating your employees and teams with facts and implications. This saves time and keeps individuals from debating or making different assumptions about the facts. By staying current on what's happening in different regions, you can respond more quickly and appropriately to the situation than you could without a holistic view.

Leading a global business is already stressful – a crisis like this certainly isn't going to make that job more manageable. Strong leadership is essential to navigate a crisis successfully and drive business outcomes, which is why it always pays to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

Image Credit: Nikolai Sermiagin / Getty Images
Kevin Xu
Kevin Xu Member
Kevin Xu is the CEO of MEBO International, a California- and Beijing-based intellectual property management company specializing in applied health systems. He also leads Skingenix, which specializes in skin organ regeneration and the research and development of botanical drug products. Kevin is co-founder of the Human Heritage Project.