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COVID-19: Early Leadership Lessons from Executives in China

By Spencer Stuart's Greater China Team
April 2020

How can we protect our workers who interact with thousands of people daily? How can we adjust the workday to help our employees care for their families? What do we tell our teams when we don’t have any clear answers ourselves? These are just some of the questions that leaders in China were asking themselves as the coronavirus outbreak began to unfold and questions that now confront many leaders around the world.

There will undoubtedly be numerous studies once the crisis is over about what should have been done and how. But with still so much that is unknown at this point, we talked with leaders in China from state-owned companies, privately owned companies, startups and multinationals who all experienced the first wave of this crisis for their perspectives. We hope that leaders and organizations in every country can benefit from these early lessons.

1. Lean on your culture.

At a time of such uncertainty, many companies in China used their culture as their compass. “What we did truly demonstrated the Starbucks culture of caring and family,” said Angel Yu, VP of HR of Starbucks China. “During this difficult period, we wanted our partners to focus fully on taking care of themselves and their families, so we made the decision to continue paying our partners their full salary even when our stores were closed. We firmly believe it was the right thing to do. We also upgraded our insurance benefits and simplified the application process for financial support in the event that our partners or their family members needed assistance related to coronavirus. We also launched a Partner Assistance Program to offer mental health counseling during this difficult period to all 60,000 partners and their immediate family members free of cost.”

Many organizations responded to the unprecedented situation with agility and perhaps most importantly, empathy. “Now it’s not only about work/life balance,” said Janet Yuen, CEO of KFC Hong Kong. “It’s about family/work/life balance. As children need to stay home, so many of our staff need to rearrange their work hours to take care of their families. As an employer, we must think creatively and with empathy to take care of our staff.”

Others drew from their collaborative cultures to gather multiple perspectives on how to best adapt and to lay the groundwork for effective virtual work. “All the technology in the world won’t make people come together and support each other if there isn’t already a culture of collaboration,” said Andrew Lo, CEO of Asia, Invesco. Amy Cho, CEO of Hong Kong and head of intermediary, Asia Pacific, at Schroders, echoed that sentiment: “Leaders need more empathy and to create a collective sense of accountability.”

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate … and then communicate some more.

Uncertainty combined with a barrage of information, and sometimes misinformation, coming from all directions can create confusion and anxiety in people. To cut through the noise, leaders must provide frequent, clear communication that anticipates the questions people are likely to have. “You can never communicate enough to your staff or your customers through social media or any other channels,” said the Asia CEO of a fashion company.

It’s important for organizations to remember that their actions also speak for them. “We heard from our employees that efforts to obtain masks and hand sanitizers and provide taxis to avoid public transport conveyed a message to them that leadership cared and would get people what they needed,” said Nick Hoar, Neuberger Berman’s CEO of Asia.

In normal operating times, leaders frequently focus more on what they want to say and the messages they think the organization needs to hear. In a crisis, listening becomes an even more integral part of the equation — to understand people’s fears and concerns and to surface issues and ideas. Lihong Wang, chairman and CEO of Rise Education, said, “I listened. It was important to let people tell their thoughts openly and for me to get firsthand information. Then I made ‘executive decisions’ for direction, but they could be changed as we went along.”

3. Examine how you’re managing talent and your time.

For some, the crisis and shift to virtual work have revealed how typical ways of working and managing people could be improved. According to the general manager of China of a luxury goods company, the crisis has forced leaders to review standard ways of working — everything from supply chain processes to the structure of team meetings — something typically overlooked in normal circumstances.

Early in the crisis, many leaders were concerned about what would happen to productivity when a large percentage of employees started to work from home. The leaders we spoke with said respect for their teams’ ability to balance work and other demands has made the experiment in remote working successful. “As long as they can deliver their assignments, we are not concerned with their work location, work hours or work pattern,” said Liza Cheung, CHRO of Greater China for Amway. “It's about results, trust and productivity. Working from home is an inevitable trend. Current and future employers just have to be flexible in mindset on how they operate.”

After navigating the initial stages of the crisis, some leaders told us they plan on investing even more in their people. “We used to complain that there is not enough capacity for people development,” said the head of talent for an Asian conglomerate. “Now instead of headcount cuts, we can spare time to invest in learning and development for our teams.”

Another early lesson of the crisis is that talent management and development must be grounded in purpose, according to Mark Konyn, CIO of AIA: “Firms need to provide guidance to a new generation who have new aspirations and ways of engaging. Purpose is particularly important to retaining talent.” Talent will also be looking at how organizations respond to the crisis when making career decisions. Konyn cautioned, “Complacency around moral judgments isn’t going to be tolerated anymore.”

4. Don’t overlook employee engagement.

Much has been written about the impact of loneliness and isolation on the human psyche. Daily interactions, such as going to lunch with a coworker or meeting for a quick brainstorm, were all but eliminated during the crisis. Many organizations in China faced the challenge of helping people still feel connected and engaged when working remotely.

Virtual meetings by video, one-on-one “care” calls and opportunities for virtual coffee chats, lunches or happy hours can help people engage with other team members and reduce the sense of disconnectedness that many feel when working remotely. Hui Ding, managing director China, IKEA Center, said the company organized contests — for one, employees had to upload photos of their home workspace to WeChat to determine the “best workspace” — and also held an online award ceremony for outstanding employees.

(Our colleagues at Kincentric also offer some good advice for how to manage the employee experience in a COVID-19 world here.)

5. Don’t let short-term plans derail long-term strategy.

A rapid response is required in a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic. However, leaders in China advised that those short-term plans should not undermine long-term brand equity and strategy. “When we made decisions, we asked ourselves whether they were consistent with our brand and our values,” said Rise Education’s Wang. For example, when the company needed to switch to an e-learning model, it went beyond simply moving the existing content online. “We actually redesigned the course. For instance, we made them shorter durations because children cannot concentrate for prolonged periods. It required extra investment, but we thought it was the right thing to do.”

6. Revisit your approach to risk management.

China has been a growing market for many companies. Some have taken continued growth there for granted, according to some senior leaders. A senior leader from a large global healthcare company observed: “This crisis has made all companies think about risk management when we operate in countries like China. While we have been enjoying the growth, we also need to be mindful of the crisis happening and have contingency plans in place.” In light of a crisis of this magnitude, senior leaders and boards will likely need to re-examine and adjust their worst-case scenario projections.

7. Reassess digital readiness.

Digital transformation has been an ongoing agenda item for nearly every organization. The pandemic has amplified its importance. “The outbreak has triggered a faster pace of digitization,” said the head of talent for an Asian conglomerate. “For example, we have a supermarket business and it activated more omnichannel needs, such as online shopping and delivery services. With more data available in the future, we can focus on customer needs, do more targeted business and better prepare for change.”

For others, it’s about investing in the right digital capabilities for their employees and adapting how they work as a result. Invesco’s Lo said, “We are fortunate that we had already heavily invested in technology to facilitate communication out of the office. However, working more with technology and conference calls means that your message has to be sharper. Meetings require more preparation and thought in advance to ensure that points that would otherwise be socialized in a face-to-face environment are clear.”

Startups such as Group were able to rely on their strong digital infrastructure to not only efficiently manage their supply chain and distribution, but also to protect their workforce, enabling staff to report their health status daily and assess the location of a cluster of the virus so appropriate arrangements could be made for these areas. Its digital platform also enabled the company to explore new ideas. “As the Chinese proverb says, ‘every crisis presents an opportunity,’” said Steven Liu, CHRO of Meicai. “And startups thrive on identifying opportunities and creating innovative solutions. In coping with the challenges during COVID-19, where some of our merchant clients had to cease operation, we started to experiment with direct-to-customer delivery. We tasked a few teams to meet the emerging needs of customers while we refined this new business line.”

8. Rethink how decisions are made.

A few leaders from both privately owned and state-owned organizations shared how they witnessed a shift in how decisions were made and by whom. Traditionally, these companies have centrally controlled management systems. Because the coronavirus situation differed from region to region, it posed a great operational challenge for companies with multi-regional locations. They adapted in different ways. Some decentralized management control and decision-making, allowing locally based executives to make locally based decisions.

Others shifted from a focus on process management to a results orientation, requiring command-and-control leaders to become more agile. In these unprecedented circumstances, organizations had to let go of highly ingrained processes in order to respond to the crisis effectively. The leaders we spoke with anticipate that more companies will move away from the traditional centralized leadership approach and empower their teams to make decisions closer to the local market and customer.

Looking ahead

While it’s too soon to determine the long-term learnings of this crisis, the response of business leaders in China can provide some direction for others that are in earlier stages. The leaders we spoke with observed that a number of companies in China have been gradually resuming a nearly normal level of work. This is in part because citizens and companies followed guidelines to help stem the spread of the virus. This is empathy, agility and collaboration in action. And it’s a leadership lesson that applies to us all.


We would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to the leaders who have shared their perspectives with us as they, along with their teams and colleagues, navigated an extremely challenging situation, including:

  • Eddie Omar Ahmed, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, MassMutual International LLC
  • John Brisco, Chief Executive Officer, Coherent Capital Advisors
  • Frank Cancelloni, Former Asia President, PVH Group
  • Ben Chan, Head of Talent Development, Sun Hung Kai Properties
  • Liza Cheung, CHRO Greater China, Amway
  • Amy Cho, CEO of Hong Kong, and Head of Intermediary, Asia Pacific, Schroders
  • Hui Ding, Managing Director China, IKEA Center
  • Nick Hoar, CEO Asia, Neuberger Berman
  • Florence Hu, VP Marketing and Sales, Universal Beijing Resort
  • Antony Hung, CEO Asia, Santander
  • Lawrence Hung, Director of Human Resources, Chinachem Group
  • Mark Konyn, CIO, AIA
  • Esteban Liang, CEO China, GB Max Ltd, Max Mara Group
  • Josephine Liang, General Manager China, Longchamp
  • Steven Liu, CHRO, Group
  • Andrew Lo, CEO Asia, Invesco
  • Rainbow Pan, General Manager, Wealth and Pensions, Sun Life Hong Kong Ltd.
  • Roger Steel, Managing Director, Hong Kong and Macau, Willis Towers Watson
  • Kwang Hooi Tan, Senior Vice President, Asia Pacific, Flex
  • Victoria Wang, Asia President, Havi Logistics
  • Lihong Wang, Chairman and CEO, Rise Education
  • Gerard Yang, Chief Executive Officer, FTLife Insurance Company Limited
  • Angel Yu, VP of HR, Starbucks China
  • Janet Yuen, CEO, KFC HK