Confronting the COVID-19 crisis Special episode from Resilient by Mike Kearney

10 April 2020

There is no playbook for doing business in the time of COVID-19, but resilient, compassionate, and foresighted leadership helps. Deloitte Partner Mike Kearney talks to seven Deloitte leaders on how to lead companies, employees, and clients through a pandemic.   

Tanya Ott: This is Tanya Ott with the Press Room. We’re taking a break from our regular podcast schedule because we’re all making adjustments to our regular schedules, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. I hope you’re staying safe.

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Business isn’t stopping during this massive upheaval, and we’re still working on interviews that address the issues that impact your business. But right now, we want to highlight the work of our colleague, Mike Kearney. Mike is the Deloitte Risk & Financial Advisory chief marketing officer and partner in Deloitte & Touche LLP.

He also hosts the Resilient podcast. If you haven’t already subscribed, you should. He has fascinating interviews and personal stories about what CEOs, senior executives, government officials, board members, and people outside of the business world learned about resilience amid risk, crisis, and disruption. Right now, he’s tackling the measures leaders are taking to confront the effects of COVID-19 on business.

Mike Kearney: This is Mike Kearney, your host of Resilient. By the time you listen to this, things may have changed. Actually, they probably have changed.

As part of a new series on the Resilient podcast, we are shifting our focus to what’s urgent. And that, of course, is the evolving impact of COVID-19. This special series is all about providing actionable insights to help you think through what you’re facing now and what to do next.

Tanya: We wanted to highlight excerpts from some of those interviews, and to urge you to subscribe to Resilient wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find transcripts and more information about resilient leadership in the face of COVID-19 at

But right now, let’s listen in on some of those conversations. Here, Mike discusses the demands on leadership with Deloitte Asia Pac CEO Cindy Hook

Mike: Cindy, as the CEO of Deloitte Asia Pac, you have been actively working with companies on managing their COVID-19 response since January, which seems like yesterday, but a lifetime ago. What are some of the critical, maybe even unexpected lessons that leaders could learn from what you’ve seen in Asia over the last couple of months?

Cindy Hook: Thanks Mike, and thanks for having me today. I would actually pull a couple of things out. One is the importance of action. And if you think of that concept that we often hear about, of speed over elegance, because executives are in a position where we don’t actually have a playbook for this. It really is unprecedented. It’s better to do something even if you don’t have the perfect answer, then to just sit there inactive.

The second lesson I would say would be around transparency. And I think what do you do when you have the first case that affects your employees? How do you act? My advice would be absolute open and honest communication as best.

And the third thing would be around leadership and the importance of calm, confident leadership that is focused on resilience and getting through this crisis.

Mike: Where does hope play in communication in your opinion?

Cindy: It plays high. When you’re in the midst of a crisis, there’s a tendency to just get focused on today, and how do I deal with all the issues and questions and things of today? The leader’s job is to occasionally pull up their vision and look out at the horizon and remember what the long-term goals are. Now, I admit I’m an eternal optimist. I see huge opportunities out of this. How long have we been saying we want to have more flexibility in how our workforce works? Here you go. You’ve got that chance.

Tanya: Communication is a key theme in confronting this crisis. Mike talked with Damian Walch, Business Continuity and Resilience, and Ashish Patwardhan, Crisis Management, both managing partners in Deloitte Risk & Financial Advisory practice at Deloitte & Touche LLP.

He also talked to Steven Hatfield, Principal and Global Future of Work leader, Deloitte Consulting, and Robin Jones, Principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP.

He asked them how leaders should consider their approach to communications. Damian starts, then we hear from Ashish, then Steven, then Robin.

Damian Walch: First of all, you’ve got to be human. Be proactive with communications. Don’t hide. Don’t hide behind having to work from home. So proactive communications, reach out and talk to people. One of the things that’s been beneficial is some of the video technologies that we all have nowadays. I would say, get on the video, have your people see you as much as possible versus just hear you. Number two, think about not only their well-being, but also your customers’ well-being. Think from the outside in, not from the inside out. Those are the two big things that I would say right off the bat.

Ashish Patwardhan: The principal theme really should be one about constant communication with employees, making sure they understand whatever anxieties or concerns they may be having, and reacting with a sense of urgency to those concerns. Stay ahead. Don’t be perceived as reactive by our employees or customers, because at that point they will think that if others are making decisions for you, then you don’t necessarily have their best interests in mind. So it’s critical that leaders stay ahead of this crisis.

Steven Hatfield: I don’t think it’s possible to over communicate right now. All leaders should be thinking about getting in front of their people relatively frequently, once or twice a week, and offering them whatever update is possible and offering them information on what they know and don’t know and being transparent about.

Robin Jones: Leaders need to acknowledge the kinds of questions that people may have on their minds but have been afraid to raise. [In] our firm, we use a system that allows people to submit questions on their mind and then vote them up. It’s been a really effective tool to get in front of every communication and leadership team that can find that way to tap into what the people are thinking, what they’re worried about, what’s on their minds. Certainly, job security is one of those that keeps popping up and companies that we’re serving. And it’s really important to get in front of those. And even if you don’t have all the answers, acknowledging them to people can help temper some of the anxiety.

Tanya: A big part of responding to the crisis involves crisis plans. But Chris Ruggeri, Risk Intelligence Practice Leader and Principal of Deloitte Risk and Financial Advisory of Deloitte & Touche LLP, told Mike that a plan alone is not enough.

Chris Ruggeri: One of the challenges of an actual crisis event is moving from the conceptual to reality. Most companies we see have some semblance of a plan. It may not have ever been tested or it may not be fit for purpose, but for those companies that have a plan that they’re finding is not appropriate for this particular event, the first step is to really stand up your crisis response office. And that means, establishing the leader’s intent of your organization is the North Star for the overall crisis response. This is the type of environment; this is the type of situation; this is the type of event where it really needs direct c-suite engagement on a daily basis. Also, formalizing work streams and accountabilities around the crisis response office. And sometimes, we see companies have a plan, but they don’t think about how it will morph and change over time.

And by definition, crises is uncertain. And this particular pandemic situation fits that profile. So making sure that you have clear accountabilities is critical. And making sure that you have your executives informed: There’s a regular communication protocol, there’s a cadence, and someone to manage the flow of information, the flow of data so that decision-makers have the best available information that they can have to make decisions in real time.

Let me give you an example. When you’re embroiled in a crisis that’s unfolding like this COVID-19 situation, and you just don’t know what the duration of the event is going to be, every day you get new information, you get more information that may be moving closer toward making decisions where you have to trade off one element over another. For example, imagine a situation where you’re dealing with an increasingly threatened cash flow or you’re confronted with a potential event or shortfall and you have to make decisions about how to conserve cash. Making decisions that potentially could put the brand and the reputation of the firm at risk could disrupt the customer relationship that may be difficult to recover once the crisis settles, or you might squeeze a vendor where you damaged that relationship. So, having a decision-making authority that’s clear and consistent is really important.

Tanya: Another issue we’ve encountered involves a workforce that is suddenly out of the office and into the home. And that takes some adjustment, as Erica Volini, principal and Global Human Capital leader, Deloitte Consulting, told Mike.

Erica Volini: The key for me is that organizations need to recognize that remote work isn’t just about does someone have a place in a laptop and a camera and a way to dial in or be on a video conference. Working remotely is about shifting your mindset about how you can still deliver in a productive way. How you can manage the complexities with what might be going on in your home life. And that can be very different for different individuals. How can organizations look at metrics, data [to] start to understand their workforce at a more detailed level so that they can really start to confront the challenges with bringing a remote way of working into their culture and sustain it for the future.

Tanya: Meetings are a necessary part of work—and now that in-person meetings aren’t available, Erica has tips for making virtual meetings succeed.

Erica: It’s interesting because I personally ran one of my meetings for my team which had 21 leaders around the world—we were supposed to meet in Shanghai. Obviously, that changed, and we moved into a virtual meeting and we did 14 hours of virtual meetings. It was a good test to see what works and what doesn’t. The first is be considerate of time zones. Many of us are working not just with people in our own time zone, but cross time zones. So how do you split the load of people who have to work off hours? Or this goes back to the point around understanding people’s individual preferences. My leader in Asia Pac said, “I’m fine waking up at four o’clock in the morning. I don’t want to be on a call at 11 o’clock at night.”

So understanding becomes paramount and thinking through that. Super important. Steve mentioned getting agendas out early. I think that’s really important and it’s not a directional agenda. It’s literally “in this time period, this is exactly what we’re discussing” so that people know if they have to step out for personal reasons, care for their child, pick up food, get a delivery, whatever it is, they know exactly what’s going to happen within that time period. And sticking to agendas is going to be more important than ever before. Oftentimes we think about agendas as directionally what’s going to happen and now it has to be very thoughtful in terms of how you’re going to spend your time. Clearly, video helps with virtual meetings to see people and what they’re doing. As Steve mentioned, there’s a lot of other tools, a lot of the tools out there allow for white boarding.

That makes it feel like you’re not just sitting there receiving information but actually contributing to the meeting and to the content being developed. So how can you use things like whiteboard functionality so that people can say things and then see their ideas physically in front of them on the screen? You talked about productivity—and productivity directly relates to your employees feeling like they have meaning in their work. They’re actually contributing. Small things like that, small visual aids can make the connection between what a person is saying and feeling like it’s translating with the action when you don’t have that physical presence to convey that same thing. So those are a few tips I can think of off the top of my head. I don’t think any of them are necessarily rocket science, but there are things we often take for granted when meeting in person because they happen naturally. We have to be much more deliberate moving forward in the virtual world.

Mike: Let me go back to Steve. Steve, what do you think the impact of virtual work is on productivity? And I would imagine in certain circumstances it actually increases productivity.

Steve: That’s a great question. Honestly, it depends upon the dynamics of the work domain, the job, and the kind of sector and industry we’re talking about. But broadly speaking, it’s possible to be very productive in virtual work environments with a few tips and techniques. One, use the right tools. If you’re trying to do a brainstorming session, there are tools that are better for white boarding, virtually—use them. If you’re just trying to do a quick team meeting, there are [specific] tools for video you can use—use them. Putting yourself on a collaboration toolkit and getting used to it will also be really helpful. The dynamic of understanding, at what point in the juncture of the work do we need to be separate? When do we need to be together and what tools do we use to be together and operate effectively are critical parts of what the team leader will help bring to the table to create that productivity.

Tanya: Both Steve and Erica emphasize the importance of leadership in making these new work arrangements effective. That’s not just through tech tools and virtual meetings. It’s also through understanding their needs outside of daily tasks.

Steve: It means, understanding that there are these ebbs and flows and we’re all human and these emotions have their weight and their import and give them their space. But it also puts a real onus on the team leader within these dynamic teams that are working remotely to be checking in on people, to be modeling the fact that it’s okay, and to be doing some things that enable social interaction, sort of, wellness breaks. The Japanese have a word for having a drink digitally. It’s called On-Nomi. Perhaps we need to be doing more On-Nomis, right? Things of that sort will go a long way in keeping people buoyant in these times.

Erica: That’s one of the big challenges right now is, it’s not just about how do I feel because of the environment, but do I have a future? Is my future secure? Being incredibly transparent around what’s going on keeps employees very engaged [be]cause they feel like, I understand where things are, and that has to occur with an increased degree of frequency than it’s ever occurred before.

How do you create some type of normal schedule? Normal cadence? Help them understand that what they’re doing is producing results? Having an impact on the bottom line of your company. It’s having an impact on the community in which they’re serving. Give them a reason to continue to show up and feel positive about what’s going on around the impact that the organization is making. That becomes incredibly important as well.

Tanya: Purpose. Reassurance. Understanding. We can all use a little of that in the face of this crisis. But we can also look ahead, to what comes after the crisis has passed.

Mike: What can leaders do now to learn from this crisis so that they could build a more resilient organization in the future? Chris, once again, I’ll start with you.

Chris: Don’t assume that plans on paper will work in practice. Understand what some of the implications are and also appreciate the fact that you will be encountering the unexpected and be ready to move quickly, make decisions under uncertainty, and evolve as the crisis unfolds.

Mike: Damian, your turn.

Damian: Chris alluded to the idea of plans and testing plans. I would take it a step further. Leaders need to start to design for failure. They need to build strategies and architectures into systems and some diversity in their workforce and diversity in locations in order to ensure that a business service is available at all times. They have to design for failure.

Mike: Ashish, what are your thoughts?

Ashish: The key part here is, organizations should prepare for fast-moving risks where they’ve got capabilities around traditional risk management, enterprise risk management, etc. But these are situations, especially in today’s volatile world, they’re going to happen more and more. These are fast-moving risks. How can you anticipate them better and, obviously, prepare, plan, and exercise for them?

Mike: I would say the one upside of crisis is innovation and we’re seeing it all around. What innovation are you seeing as it relates to the crisis that we’re going through? Steve, I’ll start with you again.

Steve: The thing that’s emerging now is our teams are learning how to operate together in this way and it’s providing them the ability in some ways to transcend space and time to work in a different way and in a way that can, in many ways, be much more productive.

Mike: Erica?

Erica: Innovation related to how we sense what’s happening with our workforce in real time and the ability to get not the standard analytics that are out there right now, but a new level of knowledge and insight on a real-time basis in terms of what’s happening with our workforce. That can change the way we interact with them, moving forward.

Tanya: These are just some of the highlights from Mike Kearney’s conversations with leaders practicing resilience in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. There are lots more—on supply chains, on the economic effects, on cybersecurity, to name just a few topics. And there’s plenty more to come.

Subscribe to Resilient wherever you get your podcasts, or check out all of the episodes at We have more information on dealing with the crisis at

I’m Tanya Ott, and thanks for listening to the Press Room podcasts from Deloitte Insights. You can find more of the interviews on our website, You’ll also find reports, videos, and all kinds of other resources.

We’re also on Twitter at @DeloitteInsight, and I’m at @tanyaott1. Subscribe to the Press Room podcast wherever you get your podcasts. It’s easy and free.

I’ll let Mike take us home:

Mike: Until next time, stay safe and remain resilient.

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