What executives learned from leading amid the pandemic

Corporate leaders share lessons on dealing with the current crisis in Part 1 of BusinessWorld Insights Leadership Series

As the pandemic challenged businesses in diverse ways, chief officers are at the forefront of responding to its impacts and adapting to its disruptions.

The speakers at the first session of BusinessWorld Insights series on “Leadership in the C-Suite” recalled the challenges that their companies have faced during the crisis, out of which came remarkable lessons that can spur today’s business leaders to lead with agility, wisdom, and determination in spite of uncertain times.

The online session last Jan. 20, themed “Inspiring Courage: Leading during Uncertain Times,” had in the panel Atty. Emmanuel P. Bonoan, vice-chairman, chief operating officer, and head of advisory at KPMG in the Philippines (R.G. Manabat & Co.); Kenneth S. Yang, president and CEO of Golden Arches Development Corp. (GADC); and Steven P. Tan, president of SM Supermalls. BusinessWorld Editor-in-Chief Wilfredo G. Reyes moderated the session.

Setting an ethical framework

Atty. Bonoan of KPMG Philippines shared that the crisis further intensified what he does as a leader. For instance, their firm has been reviewing cashflows on a daily basis, while he has been listening more carefully to every part of their organization.

But more than these, the crisis further intensified his sense of ethics and morality. He stressed that more than testing the management skills of corporate leaders, the pandemic has presented a direct challenge in making decisions that balance the sustenance of businesses and the well-being of its employees.

To strike such balance, he recommends employing an ethical framework to guide leaders towards sounder decisions.

“In these times, more than ever, a leader has to rely on a moral and ethical framework. This framework should have been developed not in this time of crisis, but during ‘ordinary times’,” Mr. Bonoan said.

This framework, he continued, is grounded on one’s personal outlook or moral compass formed by his or her experiences, the company culture, and the discernment of the company’s purpose.

“If the leaders have committed to the welfare of their employees, then their actions in time of [this pandemic] would most likely be guided by that philosophy that they have set for themselves,” Mr. Bonoan said.

Going back to purpose can be maximized by leaders to motivate their employees, he added.

“For us, it’s a commitment to our clients, commitment to our people, and a commitment to our communities,” the KPMG Philippines executive said. “When you’re aware of that purpose, when you live it out, then your employees believe in you and are motivated by that.”

Mr. Bonoan also noted that as companies rebound at present, leaders should have the ability to plan around shorter time frames and look at cashflows more closely and, at the same time, ensure they are not scrimping on the quality of their service. “Now is the time to show our commitment to our clients, that we’re going to go the extra mile for them,” he said.

Preparing beforehand, communicating constantly

Mr. Yang of GADC, which operates the McDonald’s (McDo) franchise in the Philippines, recalled that they have addressed the pandemic’s impacts by implementing safety protocols and leveraging delivery, drive-thru, and other innovative channels.

The protocols, in particular, were set in place through the M Safe program, wherein Mr. Yang communicated in a video how they ensure safety at every McDo branch.

As Mr. Yang shared, the company has prepared for this response even before the pandemic hit the country.

“We were actually prepared in the sense that we’ve heard the news already from China and globally…and so we anticipated that,” he said. “The video is just one small thing because behind that video was a whole set of operational procedures which we continue to update today.”

This kind of preparation will be more crucial for leaders in the now normal, he added. “When things are really fluid, you really need to have the ability to plan for multiple scenarios. You need to have consultations with all the stakeholders, including the government,” Mr. Yang said, adding that execution is only assured when there is thorough alignment in the whole organization.

The CEO also stressed how valuable communication is within employees. “[E]nsure that communication is there, telling them the truth about what’s happening [and] what we need to do. If that is really clear to them, they will actually step up and are self-motivated to do what they need to do,” he said.

Agility and collaboration

Mr. Tan of SM Supermalls shared that consumer confidence has not yet fully returned to normal in spite of malls being open again. Yet, he hopes this year will be a year of recovery for their business.

He believes achieving that rebound requires teamwork. “In order to recover, this has to be a collaborative effort to rise above this adversity,” Mr. Tan said.

The SM executive saw this teamwork when the company cut the rents paid by tenants to support them during this difficult period. “We really feel that working together with our tenants is really key to be able to help… the businesses, the MSMEs, [right up to] the employees of our tenants,” he said.

Aside from this action, the business also accelerated its digital and mixed channels such as its online shopping platforms and curbside pick-up points.

All these pivots visibly have come at a fast pace, as Mr. Tan emphasized that leaders should learn to make agile actions when the unprecedented comes.

“Agility is key. You have to be fast. You have to be responsive. Forget about the past; move on. Move forward so that you could really address the situation,” Mr. Tan said, adding that leaders should also be transparent and always give an open ear to their employees.

Taking care of employees is likewise important for the SM Supermalls president, and he sees SM Supermalls do this by living up to its culture of malasakit (compassion).

“We make them feel the bayanihan spirit of helping each other. If they see that you are really helping a lot of people, they will really make sure that they will also protect the business,” Mr. Tan said.

“Help your tenant and work with your tenant partners, work with your employees, and help your community. Anyway, we are all interconnected,” he also advised.

BusinessWorld Insights Leadership Series is presented by InLife, with the support of Management Association of the Philippines, British Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines, Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and The Philippines STAR.

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