IMD: How exactly should organizations be prepared in advance for events like coronavirus?

Gauthier Porot (GP): They key words are preparedness, anticipation and action. There is no need to bring paranoia into your activities — a simple three-step plan will suffice. Firstly, you should identify the top five scenarios that could deeply affect your business; you know — pandemics, natural hazards, social and political unrest and so on. From these scenarios, conduct a business impact analysis, or BIA, to identify what operations or activities are vital to the existence of your company or your business.

Based on this, implement simple but transverse business continuity plans. Step three would be to test those contingency plans with overarching crisis simulation to identify existing strategic and/or operational gaps and take action on it. That’s really the key.   

IMD: So that covers anticipation. How about the action side?

GP: On the action side, information is crucial. Something like COVID-19 is barely predictable, meaning access to timely, accurate and verified information is really important. It means you can make well-informed decisions to trigger your contingency plans.

Technical expertise is really important. When this expertise does not sit within the organization it should be outsourced to reliable third parties. This is typically the support that I provide to companies today. Outsourcing low-value execution tasks to specialists can help as well. It is critical that the Crisis Management Team focuses on strategic leadership and anticipation.

Finally, you must be able to monitor the situation with a part-time or full-time dedicated Critical Management Team. It doesn’t need to be a big team, but it requires some organization.

This team’s job is to provide leadership and a clear overview of the situation to be able to identify viable options in case action is required.

IMD: How prepared are companies, in reality?

GP: Since January 2020 this year, I’ve seen it all — the best and the worst, and I‘ve also seen companies go from being the worst to the best. The good thing is that things move very quickly so if a company didn’t have a plan they can still do something about it.

Take the example of Italy right now. Now the situation is critical because they had no time to react. They took a very brave and bold counter-intuitive measure. For the other countries, let’s stay tuned. The same drastic measures might have to be taken by them in the next couple of days.

How do you view the media’s take?

GP: I think they are trying to do the best with what they have. Some are bringing good dynamics to the current situation. Others, on the other hand, are just adding to the noise. It’s very grey right now. You have to check multiple sources but the key element is global footprint – people on the ground knowing what’s happening in Wuhan, knowing what’s happening in Italy…

IMD: What opportunities have arisen for companies as a result of the coronavirus?

GP: The situation has enabled some organizations to reinvent their 360° communication channels and approach towards collaboration with partners, authorities and the media. Others have expanded their home-office policies and developed new IT capabilities. You know, things that have been pending for many years!

Some of them have put in place spontaneous and successful emergency organizational capabilities very quickly. There are hundreds of ways to turn this risk into an opportunity. Usually when a storm is gone we tend to relax but it’s exactly when we shouldn’t. Companies should carry out an after-action review to gather all the lessons learned and put in place an action plan. You also need to review your measures and how you handled the crisis.

IMD: What takeaways would you relay to leaders navigating the current crisis?

GP: In extraordinary times, use extraordinary tools. Do not hesitate to be bold and make counter-intuitive decisions. Get out of your comfort zone and think outside of the box.

We live in a world of communication, so make sure you always communicate, but divulge the right amount of information at the right time, at the right level.

Develop your own appraisal of a situation and don’t be afraid to let your staff challenge it. But when a decision is made, stick to it. Being a leader is a lonely job, so make sure you get support where you can and delegate what is not necessary for you to do.

IMD: Was there any part of your military training with the Swiss Army or training with the guards in Rome thereafter that you would draw upon to advise companies in the current crisis?

GP: Many things, but if I had to choose one it would be to stay focused and calm. Panic will never help; on the contrary, it will make things worse. In action you never want to react. I have seen  some of best practices at a major pharmaceutical company in Switzerland. They see the current COVID-19 situation almost as business as usual. They have activated their business continuity plans — panic is not an option!

So, you have to put yourself in a resilient mindset, meaning that as a leader you should accept the fact that the situation can and will get worse — Murphy’s Law always invites itself to the table. If you know that, the element of surprise then stops being an issue and becomes an opportunity.

Related links