Leadership lessons of the COVID-19 crisis

Of course, I committed to writing an article long before we even knew that coronavirus existed, and here I am, smack dab in the middle, going 24/7. But a commitment is a commitment.

“Without the dark, there can be no light,” a zen Buddhist said once upon a time. That fact could not be truer as we learn our way through this crisis. Never has leadership been more tested. And the learning has made us even stronger.

Be transparent and communicate. Often when a crisis occurs, leaders hole up in a room to solve the problem. And while the solutions and strategies are important, what may be more important is taking time to be visible to the entire organization. Days into this crisis, we published our plan, which included not only what we are doing, but what we might need to do. We held system-wide conference calls every couple of days that were open to the entire company. And we set up an email account that allowed any of our 5,000 associates to ask questions or submit ideas. We also put a face on our communications with frequent video “comfort” messages from myself and our chairwoman.

While the issues are difficult and sensitive, holing up and hiding is the worst thing you can do. As I am writing this at my computer, Jane Grote Abell (our chairwoman and founding family member) is literally on the phone with a couple of drivers who have concerns. And when the media calls, “no comment” is never a good response.

Plan on multiple levels. One of the problems with crisis management is the uncertainty of what could happen. It’s critical to quickly put together a simple but clear strategic focus. For us, it falls into three buckets: Taking Care of Our People. Taking Care of Our Customers. Modifying Our Operations. And then within each strategy are: 1) What do we do immediately. 2) What we are ready to implement if needed. 3) Potential longer-term solutions based on varying future scenarios. By keeping the frenetic discussions bucketed, it helps manage leaders’ anxiety and give people a sense of action. We were constantly asking one another, “Well that’s great, but what’s important now?”

Take care of yourself. Since it is not always clear how long a crisis may last, making sure your leaders are taking care of themselves is critical. Every day, I wake up and list what I’m grateful for. Every day, I take at least one power walk in the woods and listen to music. Every day I try to eat well. When an organization is looking to leaders to lead, managing your emotional state will have a multiplying effect on the organization.

 

We will see if my beliefs are realized, but I know we will get through this crisis. I also know we will get through it in a way where we are even stronger than we were before. By being transparent and communicating well, by planning on multiple levels and by taking care of ourselves, we can handle just about anything.

 

Tom Krouse is president and CEO of Donatos Pizza. Tom has over three decades of restaurant industry experience, countless civic contributions and an award-winning career in marketing and management.