Lessons from a Leadership Coach on Navigating Business After COVID-19

Published: Mar 27, 2020

 Remote Work       Workplace Issues       
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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact virtually every sector of our economy, scores of workers across the country are facing the prospect of unemployment. According to Moody's Analytics, more than half of American jobs could potentially be at risk. Vault recently connected with Jocelyn Kung, a leadership coach whose clients have included Oracle, Apple, Microsoft, 23andMe, and Juniper Networks, about how companies and employees can plan strategically for what's to come. Jocelyn is one of the most sought-after leadership coaches in Silicon Valley; she has coached many CEOs - from startups to Fortune 500 companies - through crises and has developed a playbook for strategic planning in times like these.

Vault: The projected job losses resulting from the coronavirus pandemic are staggering. Can you talk a little bit about the fallout we can expect from the current situation? How many people are at risk of losing their jobs? From which industries? 

Jocelyn Kung: With the caveat that I am not an expert on specific economic trends, I would say that fallout is still coming in the form of layoffs and even total shutdowns of some companies that may not survive (anyone in the travel sector being an obvious example). What we are experiencing is a catastrophic event economically - and it is unprecedented in all of American history. Consumer spending is a key driver of the American economy, and “consumers” are indefinitely locked in their homes.

A recent survey found that 18% of Americans have already either lost their job or had their hours reduced as a result of COVID-19; that’s 1 in 5 Americans, already, and this pandemic has not yet peaked.

From what I’m seeing and hearing through my organizational consulting work, the major industries that I believe will be most impacted are;

  • Automakers

  • Tech (due to supply chain issues related to China)

  • Restaurants

  • Theme parks

  • Retail

  • Construction

  • Airlines

  • Fitness (gyms, yoga studios, etc.)

  • Transportation

  • Hotels

  • All forms of live entertainment (concerts, sports, etc.)

  • Shipping

  • Film production

  • Conventions

With that said, the few industries that are growing now are in e-commerce (from Amazon to pizza delivery), collaboration software, grocery and supplies, and healthcare. 

Vault: As the situation currently stands, is there anything that can be done to mitigate or curb the number of job losses, or have we passed the turning point? What does recovery look like at this point?

JK: It is a day by day exercise in adjusting revenue projections, cash on hand and impact to resources. The best leaders are doing everything possible to avoid layoffs including executive salary cuts, furloughs, and slashing non-essential expenses in things like branding or new product development (on the plus side, there are significant savings on the travel budget).

If there is any positive outcome from this, it will force leaders to clarify goals, assess the performance of all staff, and pinpoint the specific roles required - in a sense, right-sizing the organization for the crisis while keeping a strong bench for the recovery.  One CEO I’m working with today is immediately resetting plans with 3 priorities: 1: taking care of employees, 2: reaching out to customers to keep important services going, and 3: analyzing the competition for opportunities to excel in the recovery. There will be winners and losers in the recovery and for companies that can keep their doors open over the next 6 months, they may be able to gain market share as some of their competition falls.

Vault: What advice do you have to people bracing for the possibility of losing their jobs? Given the circumstances, is there anything they can do to be proactive when facing a potential layoff?

JK: This is a wake-up call for everyone. For hourly workers in impacted industries living paycheck to paycheck - look for companies who are hiring hourly workers to meet the exploding demand in food, basic supplies, and collaboration services- eg. Safeway, Amazon fulfillment and drivers, food delivery, or virtual technology companies. For professionals who are worried, keep or find side hustles that can ramp up in case of job loss, finding part-time opportunities or consulting gigs that augment their day jobs. Balance personal care with personal productivity. 

Make sure your head is clear-- notice when anxiety and fear (which everyone is feeling) cross over into paralysis or panic. Paralysis may look like depression, feelings of helplessness, or unwillingness to try new things-- seek out resources to maintain mental health. Examples of panic include selling off all stock to keep cash in the mattress. 

Some positive things to do are: be proactive in reaching out to your customers to find out how to best support them- and follow through, actively network with professional contacts to source ideas and opportunities, ramp up or learn how to communicate through social media and virtual communication technology. Use any free time well; keep mentally active and take online courses in things that will help you grow in your career or things that give you joy. This is the time to examine the things that you’ve always wanted to do and learn. It is an opportunity to reflect and make a personal change. Check out Udemy, Coursera, and the plethora of online learning offerings.

Vault: As we look towards the future, what skills do you think will become the most in-demand over the course of the next year or so? How can workers prepare now to meet companies’ most urgent needs and position themselves to thrive in a recovering economy?

JK: The people who survive this massive crisis are the ones who can adapt to change. This is the universal leadership skill needed to navigate and it is easier for some personality types than others. Managing through ambiguity requires A) self-awareness and resilience to handle personal stress B) an ability to read the environment, differentiating between real signals and noise, and C) experimenting, testing new ideas and learning rapidly. Getting comfortable with remote communication technology is another must-have skill. Staying in touch with how your markets are affected, customers’ emerging needs and trends in the future recovery will help determine what skills to develop at this time.

Vault As a leadership coach, you have worked with executives at companies that run the gamut from startups to Fortune 500s. What are some of the biggest challenges those companies face right now?

JK: Priorities are in this order: stabilizing the employees, preserving as much of the current business as possible, and having a strategy for the recovery that includes competitive analysis and opportunities to keep/take market share. For employees, keep in mind that the manager is the most trusted voice (see Edelman Trust Barometer), much more than the government or media. They carry enormous power in shaping employee confidence and attitudes. So being transparent with the truth, quick to get in front of people (regularly), and demonstrating authentic empathy are things that leaders are being called to do now. 

Fortunately and unfortunately, both the strengths and weaknesses of leaders will be amplified in this crisis. For those who truly care about their people, they will create as much assurance as possible and come out stronger in the end. For those who are conflict-averse, they will be slow to react, come across as unclear, and continue to waste time and resources. One key tactic in moving to wartime leadership is to convene a small crisis team that includes a communication strategist-- the challenge is to develop a fast interim crisis strategy that allows for central command and distributed leadership. Meaning that the small leadership team makes the big strategic decisions and empowers the people in the field to act independently- making their own decisions on the best ways to implement. The strategy should have 3 components: what will be cut/changed, what will be preserved, and where risks will be taken.


Vault: What is the “Stockdale Paradox” and how can leaders leverage it to guide their people through this crisis?

JK: Admiral Stockdale was the highest-ranking survivor of a POW camp in the Vietnam war over an 8 year period. While many perished due to “optimism”, he was able to accept the brutal facts of his situation, devising many tactics to stay alive while having faith that he would get out. This faith was long term and not based on a false hope that he would be rescued or sent home by certain dates. That mindset is what leaders need to take on to survive-- this is a longterm problem with massive implications to the way we will work in the future. Acknowledge the brutal facts of this pandemic- sort the real losses (like revenue and job cuts) from the perceived ones (like teamwork and collaboration), devise short term tactics to secure people and assets where possible and test different survival tactics. Have faith that you will get through this in the long run-- there is no end date in view for this problem.