Duke Group

#CoronavirusSA: ‘Crisis reveals character’

by Wayne Naidoo (@WNaidoo)

As I write this, we’re only on day four of lockdown and what a wild ride it’s already been. While this most certainly will be remembered as one of the most-devastating human and economic crises of our time, I can’t help but marvel at humankind and how we’re choosing to show up at in this uncertain time. We’re seeing the best of some and the very worst of others; as American actor, Denis Leary, aptly put it, “Crisis doesn’t create character; it reveals it.”

As early as the first day following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to the nation, in which he declared a national state of disaster (not even lockdown yet), we already saw companies and individuals shouting about force majeure. We hadn’t even snatched our first pack of toilet paper off the shelves and some were looking at ways to get out of contracts and having to pay others.

Yes, there’s the distressing reality of businesses that’ve been forced to close their doors and those who’ve lost their livelihoods, but I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about those self-serving corporates which panicked and kicked their staff and small suppliers in the teeth instead of coming up with workable payment arrangements and work agreements to keep everyone going.

By contrast, there’s Standard Bank which were the first to show the other side of the spectrum by giving small businesses and students a three-month payment holiday. There are those who are crowdfunding to pay their employees, entire animal shelters that have been emptied by generous foster families who’re providing food and shelter for 21 days (and longer, judging by the number of foster fails already) and average humans like you and I who’re setting up entire feeding schemes.

Don’t be a parasite

People will remember how you treated them during this time and it’s companies and brands that go the extra mile to help their customers, suppliers and staff that will ultimately gain our business when we come out on the other side. Pay your suppliers, check in on your clients, look after your staff and, if you can’t, then talk to them to find workable arrangements to try and help each other out. Be a partner, not a parasite.

While we’re talking about partners, our current situation is proving to be a good test of how on-board your team really is. Once again, it’s an indicator of people’s true colours: are they buckling down and getting the job done amid the home-schooling and family admin or are they MIA, missing deadlines and making excuses? Do you have those who make stuff happen or those who whine about how difficult it is? Times of crisis reveal character, leadership and adaptability. Those who’re able to remain dedicated, focused and continue delivering on time in difficult circumstances are your keepers and, as for the rest, be grateful for the opportunity to reveal them to you.

The other eye-opening aspect of working through this difficult time is how teams are managing to work remotely and function without each other. Skype and Zoom and all the digital tools have been lifesavers for businesses and individuals needing to connect with others; however, they’vehave also highlighted how we’re battling to communicate efficiently and effectively. Yes, I do see the irony of the communication industry not being able to communicate but I’m currently drowning in email messages as I wade through conversation threads trying to make sense of it all. Our new way of working means we need new protocols as to how we communicate. Not every conversation requires a Zoom meeting — how about just a regular phone call? If you can’t fit your message into one short email, then pick up the phone.

Human connection

While technology’s most definitely been a lifesaver in providing us with the ability to continue working, learning and staying in contact, it’s also highlighted how transactional and sterile it can be. WhatsApp and email allow for misinterpretation and miscommunication, and seldom offer the authenticity of face-to-face interaction. Human connection remains a vital part of our business and, now more than ever, as we find ourselves removed from others, we’re realising just how important relationships are. Having a difficult conversation with a staff member or client needs a relationship and it’s not possible to develop relationships without connection. Perhaps we’ll value our human connections more when we emerge from this.

Business leaders will know that this is most definitely a time of VUCA (vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity and authenticity). How we deal with this won’t only reveal a lot about us but it may also be an opportunity to forge greatness. Now, more than ever, we’ve the opportunity for creativity and problem-solving — we’ve never had more time and certainly never had more need. As John F Kennedy said, “Great crises produce great men [and women], and great deeds of courage.” We’ve been given the opportunity to do the right thing, to be good citizens, to care for our people and show what South Africans are made of.