Now is the time for CEOs to showcase their leadership, empathy and strength

For business leaders, this is uncharted territory – yet the responsibility to quickly adapt and guide their organisations through these difficult times is immense

BY JORDAN RITTENBERRY

As the number of Covid-19 cases rises in Africa and industries scale back under restrictive but necessary lockdown rules, it is clear that the pandemic has dramatically altered our lives, perhaps permanently. For business leaders, this is uncharted territory – yet the responsibility to quickly adapt and guide their organisations through these difficult times is immense.

More than ever, employees are looking to their leaders for information and for inspiration. Edelman’s 2020 trust data reveals that employees trust communications from their employers more so than from government or the media. Survey respondents also believe their employers are better placed to deal with a crisis than the government, and that business leaders should take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose it.

If ever there was an opportunity for CEOs to showcase their leadership, empathy and strength, it is now.

It is no surprise that employees want to understand the impact that Covid-19 will have on their organisations, what the crisis means for job security, and what structural changes may lie ahead. To build trust, transparent and constant communication with employees is key, and employers should assure their colleagues that their health is of paramount importance. Of course, this needs to be backed up with action.

Those companies that can are enforcing work-from-home policies, in line with the guidance of governments and the World Health Organisation (WHO). For most, this is a first and teething problems are likely. For remote working to be successful, employees need to be well equipped to work in their new environments, and communication lines should be open and used regularly to keep employees engaged and motivated as they adjust to new systems and ways of working.

Beyond the workplace, there is an expectation that organisations and leaders do what they can to support local communities. It is encouraging to see that many organisations in Africa are stepping up by investing time and resources in the Covid-19 fight and in relief efforts. In South Africa, executives are foregoing large portions of their salaries and directing the savings towards a national relief fund. In Kenya, 15 media companies have donated advertising space to the government-led Emergency Fund, despite their heavy reliance on advertising revenue. Across the continent, clothing factories are developing medical masks – providing factory workers with guaranteed incomes – while beverage producers are now making sanitisers.

As the crisis unfolds, organisations need to ensure they are communicating with every stakeholder group, rather than a select few. Frequent and transparent engagements with suppliers, employees, regulators, consumers and shareholders, among other stakeholders, are crucial.

Detailed scenario planning, which informs business strategies and decisions based on possible outcomes, not only makes commercial sense – it also displays an organisation’s agility and preparedness and boosts the confidence of other stakeholders.

The reality of the crisis we are in is that it is dynamic and evolving fast. Governments are mostly doing what they can to contain the virus through lockdowns and curfews. While necessary, social distancing and restrictions on movement may well impact on the mental wellbeing of employees, while also increasing the responsibilities of parents. Business leaders need to be cognisant of these challenges and should show support to their employees wherever possible. By demonstrating compassion and empathy, organisations will foster trust amongst their employees and build their own reputations – both internally and externally.

Employees are drowning in information – much of which is unreliable or contradictory. In times like these, they want to hear from their employers, who they regard as reliable filters of important news and facts. To do this, organisations need to develop structured internal communication plans and leaders should dedicate time toward engagements with colleagues.

Above all, business leaders should stay authentic, drive a culture of positivity – while remaining honest and transparent – and ensure that they are accessible. Taking the time to listen to employees and respond to their concerns is the best way to build trust.

We believe that the actions that business leaders take in the weeks and months ahead could well determine their reputations for years to come.

Writer is CEO, Edelman Africa

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