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  • Writer's pictureRachael Annabelle

How have CEOs grappled with the Covid-19 Pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic took the world by storm, forcing most of us to throw our 2020 plans out the window. Travel had come to a standstill, and borders started to close for the first time in decades. Business leaders around the world feel the immense pressure, which begs the question — how can they continue to create value for their company and employees during and after this unexpected crisis?

Before I jump in, here’s a shoutout to Wild Digital for consistently hosting great webinars, and Marcus Luer, Founder and CEO of TSA (Asia’s global leader in sports content, consulting, and branding solutions) for moderating the session.

Let me also do a quick introduction of the panelists:

AirAsia Berhad is a Malaysian low-cost airline headquartered near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It is the largest airline in Malaysia by fleet size and destinations. AirAsia Group operates scheduled domestic and international flights to more than 165 destinations spanning 25 countries.

OVO is a digital payment service based in Jakarta, Indonesia. It is a digital platform for simple payment and smart financial services, with affiliated merchants, business partners, and members in its ecosystem. OVO is the leading digital payment service in Indonesia based on transaction value

iCar Asia is a network of online automotive sites that provides a platform that connects buyers and sellers.

Here are my main takeaways from this session:

1. The economy is coming back, just differently

Many industries have been significantly impacted, and travel is definitely not one that has been spared. The plus point is that the effects of Covid-19 are not immediate, giving businesses time to adapt and react to the situation. Pent up consumer demand for travel is definitely at an all-time high, but in the meantime, businesses have been spending time to adapt to the situation and pivot their businesses. New consumer habits and trends have formed, with e-commerce soaring in popularity. AirAsia has hence entered the e-commerce industry, with over 160% of new consumers on board as compared to pre-COVID levels. First and last-mile fulfillment has also become another stream of revenue. Now, they plan to take the world by storm and become the “Amazon of the Air” For companies like OVO, they were able to move quickly to redeploy their resources and engage their customers, resulting in 276% of new registrations. Stone, the CEO of iCarAsia is also expecting consumer behavior to change, and is expecting more online transactions to take place. In light of this, they are preparing for more contactless deliveries, especially since consumers are placing a higher emphasis on safety and social distancing now. Sanitized and safe travel will be the priorities of the new travel norm.

2. Spend time on the intangibles — mental health, culture and the future

During this period, take the time to check in on your employees and community. Check if they need support and assistance, and provide access to counseling or resources if it is within your means. Air Asia developed an internal hotline for their employees to reach out for assistance, and have also started internal fundraising to provide more resources for their staff. The focus is now on survival, and not growth. Make the most out of the lockdown. Spend time with your family, have meals with them. Take the time to reflect, be introspective, and collect your thoughts. Workout, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. As Karen put, “Understand that you cannot change everything overnight. Take things one step at a time, and remain positive.” Not every meeting is focused on maximizing productivity, despite boosts in this due to the more flexible schedules, reduced time spent commuting and increased communication.

3. Lead with Empathy, Humility and Transparency, instead of Experience

It is alright to say “I don’t know”. No one expected this situation — most if not all lack experience in grappling with such a situation. Learn to not take the little things for granted, such as being able to see a loved one, going to the office, and enjoying a cup of coffee from the local deli. In dealing with the crisis, the CEOs found it helpful to be prudent in managing their finances. Talk to suppliers for discounts and renegotiate payment terms, and match that with their daily cash collection rates from partners and customers. Figure out a way to allow everyone to have a comfortable working space. Open up the office at different timings to different teams and functions, to ensure business continuity. Rotate schedules and clean the shared spaces regularly. Be invested in your team, and understand how they have been physically, psychologically and religiously impacted. Have open dialogues. The current situation may pose difficulties in building camaraderie within the team, however being able to share problems and strategies with your colleagues has improved productivity, mental wellness, and even happiness, with overall feedback and employee satisfaction rising by 17 points in the second quarter. Over a thousand employees at AirAsia have stepped forward as volunteers to help the customer service team, even people who are no longer with the company. Think about how you can repurpose some of your staff, instead of laying them off if possible. Even if you have to, do so gently. (More tips here)

4. Startups should adapt their mentality

While the focus has consistently been on pumping money into growth, it is now a good time to recheck how much we actually need to borrow and build, and instead, think about how we can leverage the other giants and more established players to hit the market fast. Don’t waste the crisis, and value the time spent in the market. Reprioritize and think about how you can start engaging in more partnerships and collaborations to drive value. Jason was able to successfully tailor OVO to the Indonesian market, building a specific payment system for them by using existing enterprise systems to accelerate certain parts, and overlaying it with localization. Perhaps it may be a good time to re-allocate certain areas of your budget and spend less on marketing, and more on social media content and PR. AirAsia realized that of their 75 million database of users, 80% of them were organic traffic. People love traveling, but they are uncertain of when and where their next trip will be to. They were constantly thinking out of the box to pull customers back to their site. Other than duty-free products, they extended their product catalog and scaled to even more countries to allow cross border transport of fresh produce. New campaigns also included offering an unlimited fly bundle, whereby consumers were able to buy now and fly anytime later within the next 12 months.

5. All things will pass, but the virus is possibly here to stay

While the virus may remain for a long time, it is possible for us to overcome the challenges by pivoting and diversifying our sources of revenue. Remember the people in your life that you are trying to make a difference for — the customers, partners, family, friends, and everyone else around you. Develop barbell strategies to sustain a business by anchoring on more than one vertical, and moving with the trends and changing preferences of consumers. Understand that no one should go through this difficulty time alone, so work on collaborations, and learn to stay come in the midst of panic. As a leader, people will look up to you. Empower your team and employees, to help everyone stay streamlined, focused, and motivated. Focus on the quality of output, over the quantity. Leverage on each other, and bring people together to build a network to survive.

6. Be a courageous leader

It is a time for us to understand the importance of humility, being real, and prioritizing courage over caution. With so much uncertainty and everything up in the air, we need to be able to communicate your vision and plan. Continue to be decisive despite the vulnerability, and don’t let fear drive your team.

7. Leave a strong culture as a legacy

Having a strong and great culture, in the long run, will pay. While we are bogged down by the daily operational woes, don’t forget that people and culture will be the ones that create a legacy for your company, which is what you should be keeping in mind as a leader.

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