Corona response: 7 questions business leaders should ask themselves

We are entering a critical new phase of the global COVID-19 pandemic. In Canada, the infection rate grows at concerning rates – though our healthcare system is not yet at a breaking point. We are just starting the workplace shutdowns caused by social distancing that are leading to job loss. The United States appears to be even more at risk, and potentially unstable.

Everyone now knows someone in isolation, on layoff or displaying concerning symptoms. Already, I have friends and students whose personal economic situations have been shattered. Their shifts, or jobs, are gone – and they are not coming back any time soon. And the crisis will likely last far longer than many leaders have officially told us.

What are the responsibilities of institutions, of institutional leaders, of system leaders and of working professionals at this time? It is a time for national mobilization – for each institution of society, each formally empowered leader and each person with those organizations to bring her or his resources, abilities and creativity to bear on this national crisis. And no institution can be on the sidelines.

In particular, leaders and institutions that are not delivering essential public health services need to ask a series of questions – to answer the question, quite simply, of what they can do for their country.

Which institutions and systems are doing which work?

Pretty much every aspect of the health and social services system, and every worker in these systems, is attending to the crisis with stretched resources. They are putting themselves at risk while continuing to attend to the populations and people who have other needs.

Many other institutions in society are doing their part. Some are racing (scrambling?) to provide essential services – food distribution, transportation, electricity and water, telecommunications, supply chain management – to deliver on those essential public health needs. Others are providing free access to information, entertainment and other services that they’d usually ask people to pay for.

It was heartening to see prominent members of Canada’s business community write an open letter urging that every leader in the country “immediately shift focus to the singular objective of slowing the pace of transmission of this coronavirus,” demonstrating their understanding of what is at stake. Friday’s federal announcement of a plan to mobilize Canada’s private manufacturing capacity toward public health needs is an important step, following on the work by some businesses and public institutions (for instance, in manufacturing hand sanitizer and donating supplies) earlier in the crisis.

Other institutions are still on the sidelines. As they struggle to keep up and serve their staff, constituents and clients, they will need to turn their attention to the greater good. They are proceeding with business as usual, though with greater uncertainty, and working remotely.

What other work could be done?

Every institution and institutional leader has to look within and ask a series of questions in this era of national mobilization. They need to answer them in relation to some of the essential systems we need right now, although this is surely an incomplete list: health and public health, social services, education, food distribution, transportation, customer service operations, electricity and water, telecommunications, supply chain management, media and entertainment.

Here are seven questions that leaders and institutions that are not in the core of the crisis response could run through with their teams and organizations:

1. What resources do I have that can be given up now for those essential systems?
2. What expertise is within my organization that can be made available to others?
3. What practices, resources or networks do I have access to that can be retooled for national mobilization?
4. Can I abandon any of the natural competitive impulses within my sector, in the name of co-operation and national mobilization?
5. Are any of my people better situated elsewhere – in those essential systems, or in those co-ordinating institutions, rather than staying in my organization?
6. What business-as-usual practices can we abandon to help us work quickly to answer questions 1 to 5?
7. For businesses and large public-sector institutions: to what extent am I willing to sacrifice the primary objective around shareholder return or client or staff satisfaction — beyond what will already happen due to the recession — to help me answer the five questions above? To help keep other key institutions afloat, am I willing to cut salaries, accept job loss or more? In the short run, many professionals are still getting paid and supported, though this will change.

One possible benefit of this work is that institutions will have to make true on their brand promises – or dispense with those claims they make that aren’t really true.

Some implications of answering these questions might lead to the following (again, this is a very partial list):

• a move by senior and technical specialists into governments and other coordinating institutions on a dollar-a-year basis to help lead the response;
• more manufacturing capacity being redirected toward adjacent system needs;
• more technologists working on public purpose technology;
• the sharing of distribution channels, mailing lists and other tools that reach deep into populations for public service messages;
• the retooling of a larger number of assets and asset classes – say, real estate (especially hotel and dormitory beds);
• the evolution of professional services work toward pro bono offerings for the main institutional players; and
• more attention from other players in society toward those public systems and public workers that could be the secret casualties of this crisis without immediate attention (especially K–12 public education).

Hopefully, posing these questions can spark discussions within organizations and unleash new creativity, and a new sense of mission.
Everyone will need to sacrifice, and we will be able to tell when leaders and institutions don’t make those sacrifices. We will need political leaders – the prime minister and premiers in particular – and other institutional leaders to make specific calls for people and institutions of means to make sacrifices and to turn their institutions toward the needs of national mobilization.

Without collective sacrifice and national mobilization, our ability to respond to COVID-19 and our social cohesion are at risk. I am confident that Canadians, and Canadian institutions and leaders, are up to the task.

Karim Bardeesy is the executive director of the Ryerson Leadership Lab and a board member of Corporate Knights, Inc. Please email kbardeesy@ryerson.ca with reports and stories of leaders and institutions that are doing the hard work of retooling their work in an era of national mobilization.



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