Matthew Miller
Jun 5, 2020

What good leaders do in crisis: Tips from Twitter, Grab and L'Oreal execs

Empathy, agility and focus are critical to help leaders guide organisations through current changes.

Clockwise from top left: Hari, Goh, Campaign's Atifa Silk (moderator), Phadke
Clockwise from top left: Hari, Goh, Campaign's Atifa Silk (moderator), Phadke

In a forthright and revealing Campaign Connect panel discussion Wednesday (June 3), APAC leaders from Twitter, L'Oreal and Grab shared their personal recommendations for leading in times of crisis. 

Make people the priority

"The one principle that I would say outshines and outweighs everything else—if there's only one thing we do as leaders, and we don't do the rest—it would be putting people first," said Maya Hari, VP and MD for Twitter in APAC.

Hari pointed to examples such as Brian Chesky of Airbnb, who pledged to do whatever he could to help laid-off employees find work and later set up a talent directory promoting those staffers the company had let go.

For Umesh Phadke, president director of L'Oréal Indonesia, putting people first meant a major effort to upskill the workforce on the fly. 

"We have upwards of 2000 beauty advisors," he said. "These are women who stand at counters day in day out and deal with consumers." Suddenly they were confined to their homes. So in addition to offering reassurance that their jobs were safe, L'Oreal educated this workforce in about two weeks on how to do virtual consultations, accept virtual payments and manage deliveries.

"And today, with social commerce and e-commerce put together, even though almost 90% of our luxury business distribution is closed, we are able to recover 60% of the business," Phadke said. 

Be agile

"One of the first things that we did during this period was to really change the way we looked at decision-making," said Cheryl Goh, CMO of Grab. "We looked at, what can we decentralize? What should we centralize? And that's primarily to make sure that the most relevant things get done in a certain country."

Goh said this helped the company respond with specific local actions, such as a quickly rolled out programme to help transport people for COVID-19 testing in Singapore and an effort to help local vendors in Malaysia and Indonesia by creating virtual replacements for cancelled Ramadan bazaars.

Being agile might also mean acting before input from authorities is even available, Goh said. For example, Grab required drivers to self-certify that they're well at the start of their shifts, and has also rolled out selfie verification to make sure drivers are wearing masks. "We've also made some changes to the app, where both drivers and passengers can decide to cancel if they feel that safety protocol isn't followed," she added.

Don't be afraid to take a stand

Not everyone has liked all the decisions Grab has made in terms of safety policy, Goh continued. "We decided in most of our countries that the maximum number of people that can ride in a car during this period is two," she said. "So the driver plus two other people. And of course, that does inconvenience some passengers. But we feel that it's hard to practice social distancing if four people jump into one small car." It might have been easier and better for business to not make that stand, but it wouldn't have been right. "Especially when it comes to health and safety, this is what people are expecting of us," Goh said.

Hear everyone's opinion, to a point

"I think the one thing which is extremely important is to clarify to everyone, especially in a crisis-management committee, that everyone's voice will be heard, but then there will be one decision-maker," Phadke said. "Democracy is nice, but at the end of the day, as an organization, we have to make a decision and move forward." 

He added that as a corollary to that, leaders cannot be ashamed or embarrassed to change decisions when warranted. "You know, sometimes it's better to roll back a bad decision than to go ahead with with the wrong one," he said.

Hari agreed. "Owning the leadership message right from the top, and taking the onus of some complex and ambiguous decisions out of people's hands, when it comes to the most complex of things, is much appreciated in such times," she said. It's also important to be clear from the start that some decisions are subject to change as new information comes in, she added.

Allow for emotion

Hari shared that the crisis has taught her to allow space for other people to experience the emotions they are feeling. "One of my approaches has always been to be someone that seeks solutions and finds solutions, not only identifies challenges," she said. "And in this instance, what I realized is that jumping into solution mode in this crisis was not necessarily the best thing to do right up front. There was almost a holding space and a grieving time for people to just absorb what was going on. You know, when when you tell people they're going to be working from home for at least three months or four months and schools are going to be closed, it's so unprecedented, that it took a while for people to just absorb that emotionally. There's no accelerating that. And jumping to solutions too quickly doesn't help in that scenario."

Make time to focus

Goh said she has come to a realisation about multi-tasking and the quality of decision-making. "I think when people multi-task, it's not that you're able to do multiple tasks at the same time," she said. "You're actually just switching your focus very, very quickly between things. And when we are in this period where decisions matter a lot, I think focus is very, very important."

It sounds self-evident, but the best decisions come when one makes time to focus, as being in quarantine has proved to Goh. "Right now, I'm spending 14 days in a hotel room without any human interaction, and I think I've gotten a lot more focused than ever," she said. "And I feel that the quality of my decision-making and my interactions with people have greatly improved."

Embrace opportunity, but don't be opportunistic

"Times of crisis also are times of extreme change," Hari said. "It's very important to identify the opportunities for us as business leaders and brand leaders. But the subtext there is also incredibly important. You've got to embrace opportunity, but also be very careful not to be opportunistic, because that's the worst kind of behaviour leaders could really embrace." 

As a positive example of a move that promoted a product without going too far, she pointed to Sundar Pichai of Google, who made the advanced features of Hangouts available to anyone with a G-Suite account at a time when people were concerned about the privacy aspects of Zoom.

Hari also noted that it can be easy to fall almost accidentally into practices that might come off as avarice. She cited not only obvious changes like raising prices at a time when consumers don't have a choice, but also subtler alterations such as shifting the order in which a company processes incoming orders to favour clients who are willing to pay more. "I think these are little traps that are easy to fall into, especially when you're dealing with so much in a crisis," she said. 

Be like Jacinda

The panelists agreed that New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern has emerged as a role model for handling crisis. Goh cited Ardern not only for what she represents as a female leader but also for "the quality of her decision-making, her honesty, her humility, and how she's very calm."

Absorb the lessons

Hari made reference to a "pearl of wisdom" usually attributed to Winston Churchill: Never let a good crisis go to waste. "Shame on us if we spend all of 2020 living through this crisis and not upping our game on how to lead by putting people first, by building human connection, and by knowing where to lend our voice," she said.

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