True leadership in a crisis: the five behaviours CEOs need to navigate Covid-19

Published on April 2, 2020

CEOs are now facing the challenge of a lifetime.
Not only are they dealing with the colossal impact of COVID-19 on their operations, they’re also now under a harsher spotlight than ever before. Whether your business is big or small, here’s how you can communicate with your people throughout the Coronavirus.


Rally your people

Your people want to know you’re at the helm of the ship, now more than ever. Call them to step up and take action – they’ll know you’re doing the right thing and they’ve got an important part to play in the coming weeks and months.

Stay in touch

Even if it’s just something small, make regular contact with your people. A couple of lines a day are all it takes. Sainsbury’s are leading by example with daily notes from their CEO, Mike Coupe, about what’s going on, what they’re doing and what’s next. Be clear about how you’re helping and the impact it’s having.


Keep messages relevant

With multiple comms circulating, messages will get lost. To cut through the noise, make sure your comms are clear and relevant to your people. Try using the 70/20/10 principle – 70% about your people, 20% about their team and 10% about the wider business.

Make actions clear

In 2015, Bill Gates warned people about a global flu outbreak, which he immediately followed with clear directions and advice to avoid a pandemic. Be clear about what everyone can do to make a difference, at work and home. Break actions into short-term focuses and longer-term goals, such as tasks for today and objectives over the coming months. Remind people that they need to work together.

Signpost further help and resources

Whether it’s a group on your social network such as Facebook Workplace, a folder on the IT system or even just a public notice board, make sure your people know where they can find further help and information. Refer to this in any comms you create, and, you could even appoint local ‘Champions’ your people can contact if they can’t find what they’re looking for.


Work with managers

Managers are supporting staff on the frontline, so they’ll need support too. Arrange daily updates to cover talking points and how they should answer questions. They may need further training and a support network of their own, so put those measures in place and check in with them regularly. Online focus groups, in particular, are soaring right now – they take just twenty minutes and you’ll know what’s going on straight from the ground.

Answer questions clearly

People have lots of questions – communicate regularly and with heart. Tell people what’s happening, what you’re doing and ask for feedback. If you don’t have the answer, be honest and let people know you’ll find out.

Listen and take action

With things changing by the moment, listen to your people and take immediate action.


Look after your people

In times of crisis, it’s vital to look out for your people. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has kept employees motivated by continuously demonstrating how Apple values people over profit. Since the Coronavirus outbreak, Apple has closed stores in high-risk locations, extended their working from home policy to cover more employees and have continued to pay hourly workers as if it’s business as usual. The way people are looked after – and how they’re made to feel – will reflect in engagement and retention down the line. Many people just want the reassurance their salary will be paid. Another great example of this is Tesco, who are offering their frontline workers a 10% bonus. Or, if you’ve got colleagues working from home, why not send them a survival kit?

Recognise and praise

We’ve already come a long way in such a short space of time, so don’t forget to recognise and thank your people for stepping up and adapting to new ways of working. It’s not just a great opportunity to see and talk about the work they’re doing, but to unearth people’s stories and thank them.

Reassure colleagues

CEOs are highly visible at the moment, so it’s crucial to be clear about your purpose and the role you play. Memos, emails, videos or even a CEO’s blog are a great way of engaging your people and reminding them you’re there for them. At Amazon, Jeff Bezos is thanking all colleagues via memo and explaining the safety precautions they are taking. Bezos also reminds people that Amazon is currently hiring for 100,000 new roles, so job security isn’t a problem.


Say something, even if you’re saying nothing.

There’s nothing worse than a vacuum of comms; people are trusting you to speak up when you can. The Edelman Trust Barometer has recently found that employers are more trusted than the Government right now, so honestly sharing what you know is utterly vital. While it’s impossible to predict the future, and although you might not have all the answers, you can always promise to be open, honest and fair.

Gemma McGrattan is Director McCann Synergy, leaders in employee engagement and internal comms. Visit for the latest insight and advice.