How CEOs Lead Through Crisis

July 1, 2020

Remember when the news of the day was that a couple of British royals stepped away from their duties? That happened just a few months ago, in the beginning of January. It seemed newsworthy but benign compared to the near-daily alarm bells we’ve been getting ever since. The world has changed in ways we never really imagined, including major headlines about global events, and, of course, the novel coronavirus pandemic harming millions and slowing economies almost to a halt.

Seeking to break the news cycle with some levity, the internet responded.
Seeking to break the news cycle with some levity, the internet responded.

And it’s only July. Now, at halfway through the year, it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting back to our previously established normality any time soon. We’re clearly going to have to find new ways of living and getting back to business.

For seasoned business leaders, though, even those who’ve steered organizations through past major disruptions like ebola outbreaks and 9/11, this crisis can feel different. Perhaps because this isn’t just one crisis. In the U.S., and perhaps more widely, we’re having a “dual conversation” around both the pandemic and social injustice, where “one is impacting the other to a greater degree.” (Lillian Montoya, CEO, Christus St. Vincent Healthcare)

Leading through complex global crises is a more challenging role when there’s no playbook to help make important decisions, both for people and for business. So, we brought together four noteworthy CEOs in a recent webinar to talk about how they’re managing and what they’ve learned. At the end of June 2020, we spent an hour with CEOs Lillian Montoya of Christus St. Vincent Healthcare in New Mexico, Melvin Tennant from Meet Minneapolis, Chrissy Taylor of Enterprise Holdings, and John F. Rizzo of Deem. (Deem is a wholly owned subsidiary of Enterprise.)

During what was a compelling and too-short hour, our conversation ranged from leadership in both industry and community to the return to work and travel, continuous learning, and creativity. When asked what trait they draw on most in these times, Melvin Tennant summed it up: “It's communication. It sounds simple, but really, communication.” This was, in fact, the one theme that resurfaced throughout the conversation; communication is critical and may be the most important skill for all leaders during crises.

Leadership in industry and community

Leading a company or a community isn’t a one-person job. It’s too big, too complex and requires many hands working in unison to accomplish the greater goals. So, how do executive leaders think about leadership?

Leaders need to have teams they can believe in, made of other leaders. Leaders don’t require titles to lead – what they do need is compassion. They need to have prior experiences from both business and their personal lives they can rely on, especially during a crisis, to help keep them grounded and remain calm and collaborative.

By relying on personal experience in addition to their business backgrounds, leaders have the opportunity to be their authentic selves. By being genuine and not being afraid to show their vulnerabilities they can build trust with their teams. Everyone needs to feel they’re in it together and that includes the leadership. Melvin Tennant offered this advice: “We have an opportunity to really show our real selves. And I would say for experienced leaders as well as emerging leaders, authenticity is the key. We can always get better but be who you are and utilize the tools that you've been gifted with.”

There also needs to be accountability for leaders. Lillian Montoya explained what that means to her: “I have to lean on my leaders. I certainly have a role to play and I'm accountable, which means you can count on me. But it also means that my leaders are accountable…to their people. I often talk about how people don't leave organizations – people leave people. So, it's incumbent upon my leadership team and me to be that person that represents that, to serve as the role model to be the advocate and to learn and ask questions.”

Communication strategy

How do we work collectively to solve the problems that we all face? At Deem, we regularly hear from John Rizzo, our CEO, on the state of our business but also in ways that are balanced with messages of encouragement and information on how we can stay safe. How we can still be productive and take good care of ourselves and our families?

One strategy is to start with your team to get aligned and build consensus. Then, build out with your communications to the various stakeholders, in virtual concentric circles from closest to you to more broad groups, to reach as widely as you need to. Some organizations may be called upon to be part of even wider conversations than just within your organization or city, such as a hospital being part of a statewide initiative in combatting the COVID-19 emergency. By starting with internal teams, you may discover that your people want to work with and help more than just their immediate contacts. Compassionate leadership often inspires the same in others.

With good communication, leaders can help push fear into the background. “The challenge with fear is that it tends to freeze most everything,” John Rizzo offered. To help dispel fear among Deem employees, he records videos a few times per week to share with the company. In this way, he tries to “give people faith and confidence that they're getting good information that's true and authentic, unbiased, and fact-based…[so] they realize that we're all in this together. It takes a lot of effort and it's important for people to know who you are.”

““Communication is the most important thing that we can be doing right now – what do we need to do as leaders, and that is, stand up and communicate. That’s through video. That’s through notes and email, and that’s for facing the brutal facts.”

— Chrissy Taylor, CEO, Enterprise Holdings

Leading the return to offices and travel

The big question facing many businesses right now is how to safely allow people return both to offices and travel. Establishing safety protocols, offering clear communication about them and having an open dialogue helps leaders understand what makes consumers and employees feel comfortable.

Chrissy Taylor also added some guidance from the founder of Enterprise, her grandfather, Jack. “He had simple philosophies, including, ‘Customers and employees first, and everything else will fall into place.’ Health and safety and creating an inclusive work environment for all is really, really important.”

Part of the challenge of leadership is making difficult business decisions. In some cases, the business’ operating model may need restructuring to accommodate enhanced safety measures and to inspire confidence in staff and customers. Providing the right tools to teams to execute on the brand promises is the next step in building that trust.

Those tough business decisions should be made after collecting information from many different sources, to make data-driven decisions for positive outcomes. This happens by asking the right questions around major issues, and having the right people involved in those conversations to get to answers that work. And there must be a willingness to have the conversations – especially the uncomfortable ones. Using that data to imagine the entire traveler journey, from start to finish, helps leaders ensure they’ve considered each touchpoint for safety. In this way, travelers are confident they’re getting the right information they can trust.

Leadership lessons

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to lead is to follow, that is, follow ideas and things that can broaden your understanding and experience. “My number one advice is to remain curious and to be courageous,” shared Lillian Montoya. “If you're curious about learning, curious about experiencing and courageous, then you'll be open to new opportunities, even those that are unlikely…. That [experience I’ve gained] has prepared me for this experience in a way that I could never have imagined.”

But, she adds, having new experiences is not the full picture. To become an effective leader, a bit of introspection is necessary. “It is really important to reflect on your previous experience. Every time I've made a job transition, I thought about, ‘What did I learn from that experience about myself? What do I like, what do I not like, and what do I need to reshape as I go into the next experience so I can be a better version of me?’”

At Deem, there’s a set of six core values that the HR team worked with employees to develop. It’s as important for the leadership to embody the values as it is for the staff. And if they sometimes miss the mark? “We give permission to the employees to call us on it, and they do,” said John Rizzo. “Make sure that you're all aligned as a leadership team, that you share the core common values. And also reward teams who manifest those values – and we don't reward as much those who don't. It's really important to do that.” Again, accountability is an important part of building a healthy culture.

Creativity in leadership

Steve Jobs’ quote about people who change the world hangs over my home office desk.
Steve Jobs’ quote about people who change the world hangs over my home office desk.

This iconic quote from Steve Jobs inspires leaders in many different industries, not just creative fields. Part of enacting it, though, requires the ability to give permission to people to fail. “If you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough,” said John Rizzo. It’s important to build a culture where people feel like they've got the freedom to be creative and the freedom to fail, but also have an eye toward achieving deadlines when they need to be achieved.

John approaches it by understanding that the company has to be nimble, thoughtful and questioning of everything. “We've got to rely on data, and we have to think about doing things entirely differently than we did four months ago,” he continued. “If you reward an organization for making those mistakes and being creative, then ultimately that will cause you to be able to change the world, which I think people really will. They really will rise up and exceed your expectations if you give them that opportunity.”

Challenges can be a great catalyst for transformation. And, right now, we've got a whole host of challenges. “The only reason that will stop us from transforming is choosing not to,” said John. “So, it's up to us – and we can do it.”


Michael Jarrard

As VP of Strategic Sales at Deem, Michael built and now leads a data-driven, client-facing sales team. Over his 25-year career in the travel industry, he’s held various sales leadership roles and has been a regular presenter and subject matter expert at industry events. Michael’s sales philosophy is guided by the famous quote, “Strive not to be a success, but rather, to be of value.”

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