Sunday, October 25, 2020
Leadership in the Era of COVID-19: An Interview with 3 CEOs

Leadership in the Era of COVID-19: An Interview with 3 CEOs

Excerpt from the Corporate Leadership Breakfast Series hosted by California Lutheran University

Interviews with:

  • Janet Garufis, Chairman and CEO, Montecito Bank & Trust
  • Larry Scherzer, CEO, Scherzer International
  • Deborah Sweeney, CEO, MyCorporation

Q.  What changes have you made in your leadership style to deal with the COVID-19 crisis?

GARUFIS:
A shared leadership model — based on trusting management teams and associates to do the right thing — serves an organization, its employees and its shareholders best. When the pandemic erupted, MB&T quickly and safely mobilized to serve our clients and communities. Our incident management team was invoked immediately and met daily to make decisions in a constantly changing environment. In less than two weeks, our remote workforce was in place and associates at our bank locations were taking every health precaution. When the CARES Act was passed, our associates worked to establish an online portal, expand our website for business customers, and start accepting applications within two days. Our ability to meet these challenges can be attributed to our culture of encouraging everyone to be a leader.

SCHERZER:
My focus is on business continuation, taking care of our employees, and doing everything possible to not only survive but emerge as a stronger company, ready for new opportunities. I asked the management team what changes they observed in my leadership style. They said that I have been quicker in making decisions, noting the shift to remote work in about 48 hours. They also mentioned that I fine-tuned my communication so that information and action items are presented more clearly. This has been challenging because of the rapid dissemination of conflicting information that comes from competing sources and becomes quickly outdated.

SWEENEY:
I have tried to elevate my leadership style to support the team and encourage engagement and connection. Communication in leadership is critical. Otherwise, people draw conclusions, many of which don’t serve the employee or business well. The more communication in uncertain times, the better. I share with my team what my expectations are, communicate actionable strategies and encourage feedback and engagement. It is critical as a leader to remain positive and focused on opportunities while being practical. Remain calm and directed, be open minded and thoughtful, recognizing that everyone responds to crisis in different ways.

Q. How do you motivate your employees and maintain relationships with your constituents or customers during times of social distancing?

GARUFIS:
Our associates are self-motivated to maintain relationships by independently reaching out to the customers to check in and see how they are doing. They have offered payment deferrals and relief loans and asked how they could be helpful. We have been supporting associates who are working on site by bringing in lunch from local restaurants and providing them with gift cards. It is our way of saying thank you for a job well done.

SCHERZER:
Frequent communication to address concerns and seek input as well as our “we’re all in this together” mantra have been crucial to maintain company culture and employee motivation. I’ve had more meetings thanks to Zoom and Microsoft Teams within the last few weeks than I usually have the luxury for. The whole team is also regularly checking in with clients and vendors via phone and email, and one of our salespeople has been sewing masks and offering to ship them to employees and clients. Anyone who needs a mask can request it! We all understand the seriousness of the situation and appreciate staying connected. 

SWEENEY:
To motivate our employees and maintain relationships with our customers, we work hard to engage and be responsive. We have Zoom meetings to connect with each other and keep us on our game with our customers. It’s a great time to communicate and listen. We send out fun email updates and “chat” throughout the day. We focus on developing and sharing great content about small businesses – from how entrepreneurs are coping to how they maintain customers and remain innovative. It’s important to focus on opportunities that will arise. From chaos, we often find order.  We are working together to identify issues we can solve for our team and our customers as we emerge from this difficult time.

Q. What advice do you have to navigate the challenges and  opportunities in this business environment? Or, what will the new normal look like once we emerge from this crisis?

GARUFIS:
Don’t be afraid to do the right thing. Be open to adapting when working remotely or visiting with customers virtually. We’ve learned how to be extraordinarily productive under very challenging circumstances. We’ve reworked processes and streamlined activities. We will be forever changed by these experiences, becoming more flexible and open to doing business differently. This pandemic helps us understand that we are all equal and all in this together. The world has an opportunity to push the reset button. We are rediscovering what it means to be in our homes with our families, what it means to truly help our neighbors and friends by staying home and safe. It’s an opportunity to expand our thinking and explore the very best we can be. I hope we all take this opportunity to rethink what normal can be.

SCHERZER:
Use this time to look inward for incremental improvements and breakthrough ideas. Moving our entire operation to working remotely has shown us what is possible, but also what can be improved. Are there areas that can be automated or streamlined that were previously done manually? I can’t say what the new normal will look like – every company is reacting and adjusting to the situation as it changes. But, if we take this time to question the ways things have always been done and look for new ways to solve problems, then we will emerge better than we were. I may be an eternal optimist, but I believe this crisis is an opportunity to define what the new normal looks like.

SWEENEY:
From difficult times come great opportunities. Entrepreneurs and business owners/leaders often seize the moment to improve and grow when change and challenges happen. Be innovative. Be aware. Be strategic. Take downtime to think and create. Identify new areas to learn and grow. Take a great class to expand your thinking or improve your mindset. When the new normal happens, there will be areas that go back to being “the same.” However, a lot will be different. As business leaders, we need to be nimble. Maintain communication with colleagues to continue to evolve and brainstorm. Even though you may be distancing, don’t isolate.  Be at the forefront of change. Successful business leaders will emerge ready to hit the ground running with strategic ideas to improve all areas of business and life.

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