Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
October 12, 2020

Looking Beyond the Crisis: Reflections and Learnings from Indian CEOs Leading through COVID-19

As the world reels under the impact of the coronavirus pandemic — affecting lives and livelihoods in staggering proportions — even leaders who have seen previous crises acknowledge that no playbook exists to navigate the challenges this ‘unknown-uncertain’ presents.

We spoke with Indian leaders across industries to understand their experience, reflections and learnings in leading through this crisis. Two overarching themes came out of the discussions:

  • What leaders and organizations have built in the past plays a significant role in their ability to navigate the crisis today. That includes culture, leadership capabilities and trust.
  • What leaders learn and do today will impact the future. That includes problem solving, innovation, forward-looking mentality and connectivity.

What you have built in the past matters today

The right culture, a capable leadership collective and trust in leadership provide tailwinds in managing crisis.

A culture focused on learning and purpose. There is no doubt that the COVID-19 situation has accelerated adoption of new ways of working for most organizations. At the same time, the fundamental DNA or culture of companies differentiates those that merely cope from the ones that pivot fast and capitalize on the opportunities inherent in any crisis.

Helping organizations infuse greater learning into their cultures has been central to much of our culture advisory work over the last decade. A Learning culture — characterized by comfort with ambiguity, calculated risk taking/experimentation and an outside-in focus — equips organizations with the agility to transcend defined processes, structures and ways of working to find new ways to solve customer problems.

Similarly, a longer-term purpose helps anchor companies and employees through upheaval. Overnight, the crisis heightened awareness among leaders and organizations of their responsibility to stakeholders beyond their employees, customers and shareholders to include the larger society. Simultaneously, we see many regulatory and policy changes reflecting the new-world priorities of health and safety. In this scenario, a strong purpose can act as the north star that shows people where they need to go and why, even if the how needs to change more frequently.

Innovation is a part of Uber’s DNA, and we encourage our employees to make ‘big bold bets’ for solving tough, real-world problems. Given that we are in the business of moving people and things, we constantly try to find solutions to address our customers’ needs — especially during such a challenging time. During this ongoing lockdown, we have leveraged our tech prowess and global expertise to provide essential lifeline services, such as transporting frontline healthcare workers through UberMedic, ferrying patients to hospitals through UberEssential and enabling last-mile delivery of goods to keep vital supply chains open. Our culture as a fundamentally disruptive company enables us to do all this highly efficiently and at what we call Uber speed. As ideas go, nothing at Uber is ever off the table!
Pradeep Parameswaran,
Regional General Manager Asia Pacific at Uber

A strong leadership team at the helm. The ability to build and lead high-performing teams is a core capability for leaders at the top. Having a capable, cohesive, aligned and empowered leadership team enables the most senior executives to focus their own attention sharply on the most critical demands — while relying fully on their next-in-line for executing plans and managing operations and people on a day-to-day basis. Further, making decisions and solving problems together with the spirit of ‘we are in this together’ enhances not only the quality of decisions but also the morale at the top, which cascades down the organization.

In addition to testing and developing the skills of those in formal leadership roles currently, the crisis also provides an opportunity to identify and groom future leaders. Companies that emphasize accountability and empowerment across levels in their culture will see greater evidence of the latter.

A crisis is an accelerated natural selection process for future leaders, i.e., those who step up and take charge during a situation no one has faced before. Employees who use this crisis as a learning opportunity and bring sound solutions will be the leaders of tomorrow.
Dilipkumar Khandelwal,
Managing Director and Global Head of Technology Centre at Deutsche Bank

Trust in the leadership. Tasked with making decisions in a scenario where there is too much information and not enough information at the same time, leaders have to make judgment-based decisions — some of which may not turn out to be the best ones as the situation evolves. However, when employees trust their leadership based on a past track record of doing the right thing for people and the business, executives are relieved of the additional weight of establishing intent during a high-pressure time.

Trust is not built overnight, it is the equity leaders earn through their actions over time, proving to be the important currency during a crisis.
Rostow Ravanan,
CEO of Factini Advisors and Co-Founder of Mindtree

Lastly, while organizations that have invested in building a strong leadership model may be better prepared today, developing culture, leadership and trust is an ongoing endeavor that must continue on an ongoing basis.

What leaders do today will impact the future

Problem solving, innovation, planning and connectivity are taking on new relevance and forms today.

Problem solving. As they respond to external events and explore the opportunities presented by the crisis, leaders are focused on finding solutions to emerging issues and also making progress on important priorities that may have been difficult to address in business-as-usual conditions. With many business models getting disrupted as a result of the physical distancing measures, more companies are partnering creatively with those outside their organization to solve business and societal problems — replacing their traditional problem-solving paradigms with greater ecosystem thinking today.

Consumers are looking for quality, safe daily essentials and the demand for Pillsbury Atta and our ready-to-eat snacks and cake mixes has never been higher. The supply chain and logistical challenges meant we had to find different, innovative ways to get our products to consumers. We have partnered with Dominos, Zomato and Box 8, so consumers can use these companies’ apps and have our brands delivered directly to their doorstep.
Salil Murthy,
MD India and SEA at General Mills

Innovation. Having to solve compounded problems in a short time period has naturally accelerated what many organizations have been trying to inculcate for years — accelerating innovation, embracing experimentation with new ideas and agile techniques (like daily scrums) and cross-functional collaboration, and breaking down of hierarchies to tap into ideas from across levels. Innovation — traditionally seen as driven internally by people coming together physically for ideation — is also getting redefined in a virtual world with a focus on finding creative ways to respond to the external challenges and opportunities. Greater adoption of technology is also driving the realization that many activities traditionally seen to be needing significant investment can be done with a lot less.

With print distribution getting disrupted due to the lockdowns, we launched Mid Day in pdf form instead. Overnight, this has increased our reach from 22 lakh readers in Mumbai, to 10 crore across the world — accelerating digital adoption by our employees as well as consumers.
Apurva Purohit,
President at Jagran Prakashan Ltd.

Planning. Contrary to the discourse about today being only about firefighting and survival, leaders we spoke with highlighted the importance of spending time on planning ahead — and not just for the short-term. However, the days of the deterministic ‘five-year plan’ are gone, with every strategy having the potential to get disrupted even without black swan events. Using data and observing trends, leaders who will be most successful will anticipate multiple possible scenarios and develop strategies to address each scenario, and dynamically adjust their execution. With a fast-changing external environment, ‘plan-experiment-evaluate-improve’ is the new mantra.

As we consider and plan for the near-term work-from-home scenarios, it opens up multiple possibilities for us to test and take into the future too. For example, how can we use such models to bring the best skills and capabilities without getting limited by physical/location constraints that often hinder our ability to do so? Would having multiple smaller offices in different locations instead of a big one enable our employees to become even more productive by reducing commute time?
Pankajam Sridevi,
Managing Director (India) at Commonwealth Bank of Australia

Connectivity.In light of the greater dependence on technology for virtual working, a lot has been said about the changes in the modes of communication recently. The leaders we spoke with, however, believe there have been even bigger changes to the very nature of engagement with their colleagues. Walking the tightrope between managing the expectations and motivation of employees and creating a sense of community when people are physically distant is important for every leader today. From virtual meetings to group yoga sessions, the camera function on devices has seldom been used so much as it is today. These peeks into colleagues’ homes and lives have blurred the lines between personal and professional lives, necessitating and even enabling stronger empathy in many ways.

For many, more frequent connections with their peers in other countries and even competitor organizations provide helpful insights and information during this time.

In addition, the leaders we spoke with are also making efforts to remain connected with their clients, distributors, suppliers and other partners — with the strong belief in the importance of nurturing these relationships beyond business-related transactions to have greater human connection during this challenging time.

Being humane and sensitive is important, as is being realistic in communicating about the situation. As a leader you also have the responsibility to create and tell a story that helps people believe that collectively, we can overcome the difficulties.
Ashish Sinha,
Managing Director of Epsilon APAC & MEA


It will perhaps be some time before we can calibrate the real impact of the COVID-19 on businesses. It is evident that many are suffering a significant shock, while some are finding ways to thrive. Nevertheless, the Indian leaders we spoke with believe that, by embracing the challenges COVID presents, leaders will build the fundamental traits and capabilities that are needed for navigating the new world — resilience and agility — in themselves and their organizations. As a nod to this, “we will come out of this stronger” seems to be the sentiment that arose from these conversations.