A measured and tactical response to unpredictable external forces can be the difference between success and failure, so business leaders need to make decisions that can steer their organizations to not just endure, but possibly thrive in difficult times. Here, some of Wavestone’s senior executives share their leadership stories in times of crisis—what they’ve learned in the past, and what they believe companies should do to prepare for the future.
Focus on Today with an Eye on the Future
By SIVA SARAVANAN, Chief Digital Officer
As a leader, you have to provide clarity to the people around you during uncertain times. Even if you don’t have all the data you need to make a decision, you still have to provide a path forward with the best available information. Right before the 2008 financial crisis, I was at a POS company that had just started a global rollout of an application to support supply chain operations. As the crisis mounted, there where questions and concerns as to whether we should halt the rollout. Based on the data we had, we decided to skip several countries where we knew we’d have difficulties due to the economic factors, but we still rolled out to more than 30 other markets. When the economy finally started to pick up, we were in a great position to handle the growth. That rollout laid the foundation for several successful M&As.
I strongly believe in communication via the right medium, especially during difficult times. Being empathetic, using the right tone, and conveying emotion are key in getting the message across. Most of the time, email doesn’t project that effectively. Having virtual conference calls regularly, when face-to-face meetings aren’t feasible, is essential to keep the team engaged. Providing opportunities in those forums for them to voice their concerns, feedback, and addressing those concerns with authenticity and as much transparency as possible is vital for the organization to keep team morale up and productivity steady. Defining and assigning roles and responsibilities is also a critical component for success. It sounds basic, but during a crisis, the collective focus is crucial, so reiterating short- and long-term priorities helps set the path for the entire team.
CIOs and technology leaders need to step up and lead the way, not just during times of crisis, but going forward. How employees within the organization interact and collaborate, and the technologies that help run the business—these things have shifted greatly. With that comes a different set of expectations in terms of internal and external IT services, IT support, and self-service capabilities. More than ever, the need for modernization and digitization of the tech landscape is key to emerging stronger from these difficult times. CIOs need to be on the lookout for new technologies that will determine how the business will operate in the future.
A Tale of Two Crises
By DAVID ENDICOTT, Managing Director
I was employed at Sabre during two major crisis events.
At the time of 9/11, Sabre was still owned by American Airlines (AA). I can remember driving into work about a mile out from the Dallas/Fort Worth airport (American’s headquarters at the time was just south of DFW) when I heard about the attack on the radio. I almost drove off the road in shock. I raced to get to the office because I knew it would be chaos. When I arrived, I can remember Donald Carty, the CEO of AA at the time, addressing everyone through the PA system, saying that we needed to pull together as a team and that AA would survive.
As VP of IT Infrastructure, I immediately talked to my direct reports and key leaders to rally them and their teams. I had some oversight of the AA data centers in Tulsa, so we immediately reviewed our disaster recovery plans and modified them to account for a possible terrorist attack. As a result, the data centers were locked down and security was increased. All personal leave was canceled, so everyone was prepared to assist where needed. I had a daily standup with the team to keep them up to date on how AA’s business and operations were handling the crisis. Everyone’s focus was on how to keep AA in business while doing whatever was needed to help the airline industry and the country recover.
The financial crisis of 2008 presented an entirely different set of problems. At that point, Sabre had spun off from AA and was fully independent. I was SVP of the Airline Solutions division and was responsible for all airline software product development and supporting infrastructure. The financial crisis did not impact Sabre greatly, because of Sabre’s recurring revenue model. However, it did present an opportunity in the airline software product industry. A lot of the players in that market space were small and the financial crisis hit them hard. Sabre decided to take advantage of their weakness and moved forward with a series of acquisitions.
As the technical leader, I had to form a nimble team that could support the acquisitions and integrations after deals were closed. We had to quickly assess the current state of technology of the company that was being acquired, develop plans to transition them to Sabre’s systems, and execute those plans, while not impacting their ongoing business. I led the development of a repeatable process that could be used to support these rapid acquisitions. Oftentimes, I had less than 24 hours’ notice before I jumped on a plane to serve as the executive sponsor for an integration. I had to reassure the people and leaders of the company that was being acquired that they had a future at Sabre and were valued for their expertise. As a result of our efforts, we were able to retain key talent and IP. Sabre not only gained market share, but also added some great talent to the team.
Elevate others for an outcome of greatness
By DOUG SMITH, Managing Director
I spoke recently with a colleague who is responsible for patient safety and the COVID-19 task force in one of the largest health systems in the country, serving both rural and metropolitan populations. She mentioned a quote from researcher Amanda Ripley: “The best leaders trust the public and make them allies. The public does really well when they are treated like grown-ups and told the truth.” People crave facts. People don’t panic when they are informed—they are spurred to help. Nowhere is this more evident than with healthcare workers across the globe. They deal with crises every day, and in these trying times, they are also dealing with shortages in supplies they need to do their jobs, forcing them to make critical decisions about their own health and the patients they care for. Trusting their willingness to do the right thing in the face of very difficult constraints is the best thing to do.
In the series of crises we have endured over time, leadership styles are evolving—mine included. The tools we use to communicate and collaborate have evolved significantly, and there’s been a proliferation of distractions in the form of “news updates”, market reports and a variety of inputs that can cause unease or panic. Practicing transparency, engaging teams in both asynchronous and synchronous ways, ensuring the emotional aspect of the crisis is acknowledged and tended to, and demonstrating accountability by example are all ways in which leaders inspire during a crisis. Shackleton found that absent traditional support structures, the greatest challenges he had to battle were anxiety, disengagement, and pessimism.
One of my kids plays lacrosse and recently received a “Character Packet” from his coach. At the top of the first page is a simple equation: E+R=O. It means Event plus Response equals Outcome. These are supported by the concepts of Character, Commitment, and Family. As the events around us continue to unfold, I believe it’s important for leaders to inspire others by connecting through the core values of integrity, effort, selflessness, and accountability. The best way to do this is to connect on a level much bigger than the individual—whether that be a team, a family, or a larger construct. Elevating others for an outcome of greatness is all the more relevant in times of crisis.
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