A CEO in the time of COVID-19

“Guiding an SMME through COVID-19 as a CEO requires thoughtful action,” says Sean Katzen, CEO of Ovations.

Johannesburg, 22 Apr 2020
Read time 3min 20sec
Sean Katzen, CEO, Ovations
Sean Katzen, CEO, Ovations

“More so than ever, during these unprecedented times, CEOs need to be open and honest with their people and teams. They need to share information and challenges through effective communication, ensuring that everyone is onboard and knows where the business is going. This is a fundamental starting point for all leaders in order to manage and reduce uncertainty and anxiety,” according to Katzen.

The advent of COVID-19 and the associated lockdown is impacting service businesses and their clients. And while this hasn’t changed the CEO’s responsibilities, it has changed the manner in which everyone within the business works – including the CEO. “People, teams and clients have had to adapt to a new, virtual way of working that is totally reliant on digital communication. The priority now is to enable a business continuity plan that ensures that the business can overcome any long-term impact of COVID-19. You need to encourage employees to connect more often, virtually, and to use the tools at their disposal more effectively.”

Katzen notes the CEO needs to draw on a plethora of skills during challenging times such as the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s important to be motivational and inspirational, to show empathy and to be understanding of the fact that people and teams are dealing with a fusing of personal and work matters during this difficult time. As a leader, it’s important not to panic and to make tough decisions where required. Thoughtful action, which incorporates various viewpoints, should form part of the modus operandi.

He says it is important for CEOs and leaders to be hands-on team members during the lockdown. This creates an opportunity to get to know the people, teams and clients, understanding their strengths and weaknesses and manage accordingly. “It is key to also acknowledge successes, where individuals have performed exceptionally under trying circumstances. One has to celebrate victories, but also learn from disappointments,” he continues.

He lists three things that a CEO should be doing for their business and its employees at this time. The most important focus right now should be on the safety and health of the people within the organisation. The priority is to follow the guides set out by the government in order to effectively contribute to flattening the curve.

The CEO needs to reassure clients that the organisation is aware of their challenges and to communicate how it will continue to support them. It is key to provide workarounds where needed, as well as clarity on the business’s commitment to continuing to deliver quality. In summary, it is important to reassure employees and clients that the organisation will continue to operate at the same high level of performance.

Finally, CEOs must devise financial and business scenarios that will help guide the business into the future beyond COVID-19. SMMEs particularly need to remain positive and mindful if they wish to survive this challenging period. “There has been a huge amount of information – and misinformation – around COVID-19, and it is important for leaders to make sure that they do not overreact. Rather adapt thoughtful action to make informed decisions that enable you to be quick to respond. Be calm, be thoughtful and be positive.”

The last three points are critical. “We must remember that South Africa is resilient. We come together and we act together. We make the best of a tough situation. Yes, this will be challenging, but we will require calm heads, tough decision-making and strong leadership until we get back to a new state of normality. We will survive.”