A leader should demonstrate concern for employees, not worry exclusively about the bottom line during these times
By Vineet Nayar
Companies are facing a crisis of survival. This is the sort of crisis where all contingency plans may come unstuck. Yet, I believe a leader cannot simply abandon the employees right in the middle of the crisis.
Many companies laid off employees in the first week of lockdown; some sent their employees on indefinite leave without any benefit, others-imposed salary cuts. According to the International Labour Organisation, nearly 400 million full-time jobs were lost in the April-June quarter due to the pandemic. In such a crisis, even the best corporate leaders face uncertainty and dilemmas. They have to weigh the risks carefully as their actions can create opportunities for the company, or compromise its future. Uncertain times are like driving through a dark, unfamiliar tunnel with your vehicle’s headlights off. You aren’t aware of the bends, or how long the tunnel will stretch. How you behave when you are driving through such a tunnel is the utmost test of leadership. Do you panic? Do you transfer your frustration to your employees? Or do you look for that light that can help you drive safely? The tunnel that pandemic has created seems unnervingly dark and long.
Indeed, it is one of the most challenging humanitarian crises.
In my 30 years of experience as a corporate leader, I have seen that during a crisis self-preservation takes precedence over everything else. You try and save yourself first, and, therefore, you tend to be selfish. Once you feel a little secure, you move to the second phase, which I call an ‘optimisation phase’. In this phase, you reach out to society, other corporate organisations, to reduce your cost, increase your revenue and profitability. Then you step into the third phase–the greater good of the society. This is a sequence which repeats itself in every crisis. Many say that a leader’s response depends on how deeply the pandemic has affected the organisation, and how long it is going to last. Well, it doesn’t really matter!
What matters is ‘what are you going to do about it?’ Remember, you have to chase an impossible dream to come out a winner. Such a determined pursuit in the face of daunting adversity can lead to magic you never thought you were capable of creating. Life throws unprecedented challenges at you, and it will keep doing that.
Whatever you do today will be remembered forever and will become your legacy. So, ensure that your decisions have moral underpinnings, and are driven by a sense of duty towards employees. Make ‘my problem’ into ‘our problem’. If you stand by them in these times of crisis, one day they will return the favour by giving their all for the organisation’s growth. This is the path you need to follow. Demonstrate that you are concerned, involved, and on top of the situation. And, that you prioritise welfare and health over profits. Corporate leaders must remember their role—it is not just about the bottom line, but it’s also about getting the employees rowing in the right direction. And great leaders know what an enormous responsibility that is. And what it takes to fulfil it!
The author is Former CEO, HCL Technologies and founder-chairman, Sampark Foundation