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Leadership in a time of crisis

(Image credit: Image Credit: Ra2Studio / Shutterstock)

1918. You have to go back 102 years to find a global event that’s remotely comparable to what we’re going through right now. It’s doubtful there’s anyone currently on earth who recalls the Spanish flu pandemic. But sadly, we can now imagine it far more vividly than we would’ve ever thought possible.

According to the CDC, about one-third of the world’s population was infected by the Spanish flu, leading to at least 50 million deaths worldwide. Economically, many businesses “suffered double-digit losses in revenue” due to the Spanish flu, while “other businesses that specialized in health care products experienced an increase in revenues,” according to Thomas A. Garrett of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Sounds familiar, right? So how do we learn from history to pivot and adjust, rather than being doomed to repeat it?

It starts with resilience; with leaders who lead by example and stand firm as they face uncertainty. When others are panicking or struggling, it’s imperative to keep a calm head. Leaders who can harness this inner strength to make confident decisions—no matter how difficult they may be—empower their people to innovate and get through any obstacle.

We’re already seeing how it plays out on a global level. Those countries that have prepared in advance and taken decisive action are faring best and seeing infections falling from their peaks. And companies that made moves to embrace a digital future are the ones that are more easily adapting to the new reality of this world.

At O’Reilly we’ve had to make hard decisions in the face of this pandemic. For 25 years, our in-person business and technology conferences have been loved by attendees and presenters around the world. But in a snap Covid-19 deemed them untenable. So, we needed to pivot and move. We immediately made the difficult but necessary decision to transform our in-person events to virtual ones. The first, our March 17–18 Strata Data & AI Superstream, was a two-day online event of live sessions, interactive courses, and case studies. It drew more than 4,600 attendees who were sheltering in place but still hungry for knowledge. And we put it all together with just eight days of prep time.

The world had changed, and we needed to immediately adapt to get through it intact. Pivot and move.

Companies that aren’t afraid to experiment and move to new technologies have historically been best prepared for disruption. Early adopters of digital tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams have had a far easier time embracing the new remote working environment. But companies that clung to in-person meetings have been far more disrupted. We’ve seen it before. Remember the days when most companies had a fixed phone connection at work? Yet the forward-thinking companies invested in mobile as the leverage the technology provided became apparent. How about organizations that took an early leap into the digital world, while others soldiered on doing it “the way we always have”? We know how that turned out for companies like Kodak, Borders, and Blockbuster...

Upskill for a new tomorrow

Business leaders need to reassess their priorities and their business plans. And they need to do it yesterday. Because driving meaningful change in business can be hard when times are good. Doing it with a team that has to overcome a pandemic’s worth of external factors requires a great deal more patience—and a prioritization of critical business requirements.

It’s essential to factor in the human element. Teams are inevitably struggling with family problems they’ve never before had to consider: elderly parents they can’t see or care for, sick relatives, home-schooled kids, unemployed partners. These are their new realities, and if leaders want to get the most from their people, supporting them through it all is mandatory.

Companies also need to look at upskilling their workforce for a new era of remote working and devolved responsibilities. Things are very unlikely to go back to “normal” anytime soon (if there is such a state in business). The reality is many people are likely to consider remote working as a new way of doing things. More than 40 percent of O’Reilly staff were already working from home full-time before the pandemic, and with offices in both Boston and the Bay Area, over 80 percent of the company was remote to each other. So pivoting to that model was easier for us as a company because the technology and processes were already in place. Google is extending working from home until mid-2021, and Mark Zuckerberg has predicted that 50 percent of Facebook employees could be working remotely within five to 10 years. Twitter announced that employees can work remotely forever. Think about that.

If more companies make the same decision, cities could become less populated as people seek out less expensive housing and a different way of life. Economic activity would spread out around the country. Or the world. But it would inevitably lead to a contraction within cities, if not a collapse of them. And the hard choices organizations are already facing could get even harder.

Unemployment has shot up at a record pace as a result of the lockdown and economic retraction. We’re at the highest level since the Great Depression and we got there in weeks. It’s mind-boggling. Organizations have been forced to tighten their belts and do more with fewer resources. If there has ever been a time to look at how technology can unlock automation and productivity, this is it. Business leaders need to have their managers on the lookout for easier ways for teams to complete manual processes and tasks. And they need to have a laser-like focus on business processes and technology innovations like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).

A new way forward

As leaders, we need to use this time wisely. Our greatest asset right now is the power of acceptance. We cannot reflect on our old ways of doing business. Instead, we need to scan for the new opportunities that are out there.

For O’Reilly, the elimination of our in-person event business was a turning point. Any leader who says decisions like that don’t keep them up at night is lying through their teeth. We tried to do our best by people, providing long-term severance packages, extended health benefits, extended stock options, and their company laptops. It was one of the most heart-breaking things we’ve ever had to do, but it was necessary for the company to be able to move forward. Pivoting our conferences from physical venues to online helped an even wider audience understand all that O’Reilly online learning has to offer. As early as the week of April 5, O’Reilly online learning saw highs in page views and cumulative minutes of members learning and solving problems with us—significant growth over the last week of February, prior to the national shutdown. And today, over 20,000 members are registered for our continued online event series.

Perhaps the greatest lesson we learned from this crisis is simply having the courage of conviction and doing what’s necessary to get through it. But corporate decisions should always be viewed through a lens of maintaining a balanced ecosystem—one that keeps the interests of employees, customers, and shareholders aligned and equally weighted. You can’t always lean toward profitability; that’s short-sighted shareholder thinking. And you can’t lean too far to the side of employees; that hurts the company’s ability to continually invest (which in turn hurts employee growth in both wages and opportunity). You have to act as the equalizing force, working to balance the decisions that can set all sides up for long-term success.

Perspective is key, and so is sincerity. Be honest with yourself, your colleagues, and your staff. Be upfront with your teams about the reasons for your decisions and always provide context. Don’t hide behind the facts or “spin.” Your company can only get through this with a vision your people can understand, buy into, and support. Give them that chance.

Your organization can pull through this. Show your resilience, confidently make the hard decisions, dig deep when needed, and keep working together for a better tomorrow. Pivot and move.

Laura Baldwin, President, O’Reilly

Laura Baldwin became O’Reilly’s first President in March 2011 and is currently responsible for O’Reilly’s businesses worldwide.