March 19, 2020

Leadership in Crisis

As our CEO & host, Drew Neisser so aptly puts it, “this an unusual episode for an unusual time.” There has been a lot to think about in recent weeks, and with the current COVID-19 pandemic affecting nearly every facet of life, it’s tremendously important—now more than ever—for leaders to step forward, take action, and lead by example. That’s why, on this week’s episode, Drew reflects on how you can take care of the people in your orbit: yourself, your family, your employees, your customers, and the world at large.

His valuable insights incorporate the input of 7 CMOs who have shared their recent actions and thoughts concerning the current crisis, including Sarah Larsen (Brightcove), Jeff Perkins (ParkMobile), Paul Sparrow (Chief Outsiders), Janine Pelosi (Zoom), Mandy Dhaliwal (Dell Boomi), Sara Varni (Twilio), and Alicia Tillman (SAP). For more, take a look at Drew’s tips on our blog post, “Leading Through a Crisis,” here.

Full Transcript with Drew Neisser

This is an unusual episode for an unusual time. I thought we should talk about leadership in a crisis since that’s exactly where we are. I’ve thought about this quite a bit, in fact, I recorded one episode already that I completely scrapped. My experience dealing with crises goes way back to 9/11, to 2008, and what I’ve found is that the most important thing leaders do is stay positive and have a plan. That doesn’t mean the plan is going to be perfect, but it does mean you’re going to have one. What I wanted to do in this episode is to give you a very broad framework for thinking about this crisis and getting control over your own head right now, because I think that’s the hardest part.

We’re seeing the news and we’re seeing all this bad stuff happening and you just feel like you don’t have any control over the circumstances. I want you to get a pen out, a blank piece of paper, and in the very center of it, draw a little circle. We’re going to draw a bull’s-eye here. In the very center, put you and your family, and then surround that circle by employees, and then surround that circle by customers. The last circle will be prospects and the world at large.

You and Your Family

I put “you” at the very center of this because you are the center of your universe. We all are. The term “I” comes into play here and I just want to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself and your family and your thinking about their health and making decisions that are in everybody’s interest in your family. So, for example, if you’re still going into work because you think that’s the right thing to do but you’re not taking precautions, that would be a bad decision right now. That would not be putting yourself in the center. If you’re working like crazy, that’s fine, obviously, this is a crisis, but make sure that you’re taking some time off. I know it’s really hard to get exercise right now that’s why people are using bikes so much but take care of yourself because so many people are relying on you as the rock, as the leader, to be healthy and optimistic, to have a plan. You need to stop and think, am I doing all the things the CDC recommends, not just sending them out in an email?

Your Employees

Now let’s talk about you as the leader of your marketing department and a senior executive at your organization. I’m going to assume that you’re either on a crisis management team or have a direct line into that, and those folks are thinking about all the implications of this crisis for your business. So, as we think about this from an internal standpoint, there’s a sense of tempered optimism: we will get through this, but we need contingency plans. As the leader of your organization or at least your department, you’re thinking about safety. That’s first and foremost and, in writing, I’ve interviewed 7 CMOs about their action plans as they relate to the COVID-19 crisis. The first thing that everybody talked about, of course, was safety. What are we doing for employee safety? The answer has been work from home, or #WFH. Many of them have limited travel if not canceled travel completely. In fact, there was only one of the CMOs that I talked to that hadn’t completely canceled travel at that point. That was Mandy Dhaliwal of Dell Boomi and the reason why they hadn’t completely canceled travel is that there were some service needs that required emergency service and therefore someone would have to get on a plane or get in a car to go somewhere.

So, we’re thinking about safety first, right? That’s fine, that’s good. That’s really important. That has led to the cancellation of events, of course, but the thing I want you to be thinking about is the well-being of your employees. What are the implications of everybody working at home? If you’re not used to working at home, the sense of isolation is going to be pretty significant. Also, because of the craziness with hoarding right now, there could be food shortages. There certainly are toilet paper shortages. One of the things that I think CMOs could be thinking about in regard to their employees is just checking in and saying, “hey do you have enough supplies?” and maybe getting the team together virtually and saying, “hey who has an excess of something just in case it’s needed?” Again, you’re putting yourself in this situation and saying “I can help. I can help because I can lead the team through this.”

In terms of practical things, if you’re not used to working at home, then you’re not used to Slack and perhaps using Zoom video conferencing. This is something that cultures that work at home all the time have in place and are used to. This may take some training, and I know a lot of companies with employees who have never used Slack or Zoom, so have a little patience with those folks. You personally have a chance to do a Zoom meeting, maybe you need to do one every day. Now, here’s an interesting thought. Because no one’s commuting anymore, most people had an hour, a half an hour commute, so maybe that’s an opportunity, that’s a time where you can reach out to your employees and have a chat to ask their plan for the day.

It’s interesting, some people are concerned that, because their employees are working from home, they’re not going to get as much done and if you’ve had a remote workforce in place before you know that’s just not true. David Baker, who is a great consultant in the service area said, “people can be lazy anywhere” and I think that’s so true. It is important, however, as a leader, that what’s expected of folks is clear. What maybe needs to happen is to say. “okay, we’re going to work work work work and then we’re all going to get on and just talk about our problems and share what we’ve heard to make sure people are getting the right information from the right sources. Rather than ignoring the gorilla in the room, we say we’re going to take some time and focus on it so we can have that moment and then we can somehow or other get back to work.

This whole issue of productivity is going to be on the minds of not just CMOs, but all leaders. What’s interesting here is, again, the companies that have distributed workforces are way ahead of the game and, since that’s the future, this is the time to test your skills as a leader of a remote workforce. Start to test things: what do you need to do to check-in, to know what’s going on, to motivate, to set goals, to say, “we’re all going to get through this together?”

Lastly, this is a really good time to focus on agility. Sarah Larsen, who is the CMO at Brightcove, mentioned that her biggest takeaway from this experience is the need for agility and she’s shared, “While marketers are usually an agile bunch, this is an extraordinary time, so be available and help problem solve. We’re the creative thinkers of the organization. Perhaps it’s time to reach out to your peers in other departments and ask, what are the challenges that you’re facing? Maybe we marketing wizards can help you solve them.”

I want to recap this section by simply saying, you’ve thought about yourself and made sure that you’re staying healthy and doing good things to take care of you and your family, you’ve thought about your employees and how they are feeling and how you’re showing empathy and optimism—tempered optimism, it’s not Pollyanna time and a little sense of realism will go a long way—but we’re going to get through this and we’re going to get through it by taking advantage of the marketing muscles that we have, the creative muscles that we have, to solve new kinds of problems, maybe even to anticipate some of those problems. But think about your employees first, make sure they’re at the top of your list, everything that you as a leader can do for them right now. It may mean there are problems they’re facing that you just haven’t thought about yet, so make sure you’re talking to them, if not daily, weekly. Also, make sure your direct reports know that this is a top priority for you.

Your Customers

In the very center of this bullseye, you’ve got yourself and your family. We expanded that to your employees, making sure that you’re taking care of them. Now, let’s talk about your customers. Now more than ever you will show your true colors, you will show whether you are partners with these folks or not. The first thing that almost any company that I interviewed in the last couple weeks mentioned and noted is that they’ve canceled events and they’ve canceled on-site visits. This has a huge ripple effect on your entire ecosystem. It is not a small thing that these events have been canceled. It means that there’s less training going on because a lot of these events are user events where there is training. There’s a lot of networking that didn’t happen so ideas weren’t shared. One of the things that it begs is, with a world, at least for the next 3 months, without any physical events, what can a marketer do to fill this gap?

I spent a lot of time this weekend looking for really good at virtual event solutions and unfortunately, I didn’t find any but maybe some of you listening have more experience in this area. To me, I think this answer is to rethink your mega event experience on a much smaller scale, focus on 50 to 100 people as opposed to 1,000 people. For that, you can use Zoom, it’s probably the best solution out there. Think about what your micro-events are going to be like, are you going to do a lot of AMAs? Are there lessons on crisis management that you can share with your customers? As we’re looking for substitutes for big events, we’re going to have to recognize that it’s going to be nearly impossible to produce them. There’s nothing that can really substitute for individual one-on-one interaction, so we’re going to think about this very differently. We’re going to think about more webinars and more AMAs and more things that you can do, and we’ll schedule these at different times.

What I think is interesting right now is that people aren’t commuting, so maybe there’s some way to take advantage of that. Maybe you do things from 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning. Another thing to think about is that people, when they work from home, tend to work odd hours, so does this mean, for example, that maybe instead of having live chat during business hours, you have live chat all the time because your customers might be working different hours? It’s something that you could at least test in the short-term. I do think that live chat is going to become more important than less.

Another thought to be thinking about is the fact that you’ve got a bunch of people who were used to dealing with inbound calls on your service team or were doing your customer support via live chat. Maybe it’s time to use those folks for outbound and just do a series of calls that ask, “Hey how are you doing? How is your family? How is your company holding up? How is this impacting your business?” Those calls could go a long way and as you talk to those customers you may also be able to gather information about the solutions they’re coming up with to deal with this crisis in terms of managing remote employees, supporting their customers, and maybe even acquiring new customers.

As you look at your customer support team as a potential outbound resource that’s going to gather the information that you can feed back into the loop, it’s something positive that you can do and it will make those employees feel good because they are participating in solutions, not just waiting for the ax to fall. I think there’s going to be so much fear right now. They talk about idle hands and we really need to think about how we can deploy people to help work towards solutions. I did want to make a note here, there’s another opportunity for you as a leader of your department and your organization. Maybe it’s what was going to be inevitable anyway, but it’s interesting that Alicia Tillman, CMO of SAP, said, “This is an unprecedented moment in time for all businesses, making the need for contingency planning essential.” She mentioned that they had already canceled SAP Concur, SAP Ariba, and participation at all of their third-party events. Now, of course, they’re looking at doing these events digitally. Her thought is, “While remote won’t replace the power of face-to-face communication, it may transform the way we conduct business moving forward, and this is a great opportunity to strengthen our digital offerings.” In other words, there’s a product opportunity here because if everybody’s going to be working remotely and we’re going to be in this new virtual world, then you as an organization have an opportunity to test how your employees engage digitally, how you engage with your customers digitally, and make sure that you’re up to date with the latest.

I also heard from another CMO who thought this is the end of the old way of doing business. Everything that e-commerce and the internet brought is going to become a new reality. If there’s anything that you can do to learn from this, to test and help you make sure that you are 99% digital with the ability to have a remote workforce, remote customer service, and all of those things, now is the time.

Just to put a cherry on the top of the idea one of the folks that I interviewed, Mandy Dhaliwal of Dell Boomi, mentioned that this problem, the situation that we’re currently in, in some ways they were prepared for. She says “One of Boomi’s key differentiators is that we can manage our customer’s data management and data integration platforms remotely without being onsite. Our centralized, cloud-based management of Boomi’s platform is key for this remote work situation. All of our users are able to continue working with their on-premise integrations just as easily from home as they could from their offices. A lot of our work can be done remotely, such as maintenance activities. It is so valuable, especially with today’s situation.” Now, I know that sounded a bit like a commercial, but the point is that because of the way they’re structured and the fact that their product is in the cloud, they were prepared in some ways for this situation.

If your work isn’t in the cloud already, this is the moment where you realize you better have everything that you need to operate up there in the cloud. Speaking of being in the cloud, I thought Sarah Varni, who was CMO of Twilio, had an interesting insight. Since they’re getting rid of their corporate-sponsored events and any third-party industry events, how do they stay in touch with their developer community? She’s followed the developers. Developers are on HackerNews, Stack Overflow, Twitch, and Facebook groups, so surely, Twilio needs to be there too. It makes a lot of sense: follow your customers, figure out where they’re going and meet them as opposed to trying to get them to come to you.

As we wrap up this section on customer-centricity, something that we always talk about on this show, I want to share one other example from Jeff Perkins who is the CMO of ParkMobile. He says, “We have been in constant communication with our clients during this time. They work with a lot of venues that are canceling events, so they’ve had to issue refunds for parking and communicate that to the users.” His key insight is being transparent and working our way through it. That’s really all any of us can do, be transparent and work our way through it. They’re posting updates on their website because people want to know what companies are doing in this crisis.

Your Prospects and the World

Now we have to look at the broader world. How about your prospects and the rest of the world? With every crisis comes an opportunity. This is the moment when leaders are tested, we’ve already talked about that. You’re going to be tested on a moral purpose basis. Imagine, for a moment, that you’re Brightcove or you’re Zoom. The demand for your services is going to skyrocket and there could be a temptation to profit on this situation, but that would be known as profiteering.

I was able to talk to Sarah Larsen of Brightcove as well as Janine Pelosi, the CMO of Zoom, and both of them independently had the same reaction. I want to quote from Janine Pelosi. She said, “We believe every business has the social responsibility to contribute back to the community and to society, and it’s critically important during these times of crises.” By way of example, she noted a couple of things that Zoom is doing and I’m going to quote, “We temporarily lifted the 40-minute limit on meetings with more than two participants for our Basic Free users in China, giving them unlimited time to collaborate. We’ve also temporarily lifted the 40-minute limit on meetings from our Basic offering for K-12 schools in certain countries. We’re scheduling informational sessions and making on-demand resources available so anyone can learn how to use the Zoom platform with ease — and at their convenience.” There is an opportunity to do a little good or to do well by doing good.

On a similar vein, Sarah Larsen, the CMO of Brightcove, a video streaming service, has had to cancel their biggest annual event, so they’re pushing to make that video powered and do it online. They’re also very aware of what’s going on and they heard from their customers in Asia about the need for video solutions after suddenly having to go remote. If you think about this, some companies are going to really struggle to have business continuity: How do they keep their businesses going and keep them moving forward? I’m going to quote Sarah Larsen, she says: “We quickly put into action Brightcove’s continuity offer, which provides organizations with 50 hours of live streaming, at no cost.” Again, here’s an example of a company that people are going to be leaning into. They’re capitalizing but they’re not being profiteers. There’s a subtle difference here, but this is where it really helps to have a moral compass and a North Star.

We’ve talked about doing well by doing good. I think there’s another important part of this that I want all of you to do right now. Go back and look at your ads in your Instagram feed and make sure none of them seem tone-deaf. In fact, we found an Instagram post that we did for one of our clients with a humorous brand and it mentioned a zombie apocalypse. Now, this was probably four months ago, but we’re going to go back and remove that from the feed just because we don’t want to have this brand seem tone-deaf. If you have an ad that shows a bunch of people crowded together, it’s probably time to take that down. You may have a big crowd on your website because we like to show people gathering together. Maybe you don’t want to have that right now because it just reminds people of the fact that they can’t get together. Now that could be an overreaction, and I look forward to hearing what you think, but now is the time, and this could go on for a while. While we don’t want to make knee-jerk reactions, no brand wants to risk appearing tone-deaf, so make sure you’re doing a review of every single marketing material you have out there.

If you have direct mail going out right now that was supposed to go to the office, put that on hold. Nobody’s going to be there to sign for it. It’s a problem. A lot of ABM programs depend on high-impact direct mail. Unfortunately, that’s not going to work right now because no one’s going to be in the office to receive it.

Next up is the question of content. How much content needs to be COVID related? Everybody has already created their COVID email. Renegade did it, and I got at least 30 over the weekend from various brands about their COVID policy, so what’s after that? What can you do to help your customers and prospects through the challenges that are being created by this pandemic? I thought it was interesting that Paul Sparrow, who is the area managing director and CMO with Chief Outsiders, an organization that puts part-time CMOs in place, talked about how you really need to think about sharing a variety of resources and tools that your clients can take advantage of. On their website blog <link>, they posted a lot of content about how businesses can pivot during this crisis. This is how you can be in the moment without feeling like you’re profiteering. You’re educating and you’re providing content that is in the moment. Anybody that has insights into virtual conferencing, now is the time to write about it. If you have insights into managing and motivating workforces that are remote, now is the time to talk about those things.

I think it’s also a very good time to put out content that is optimistic, that will remind us that the sun will rise tomorrow, and that, at some point, we will be through it. There’s a question of whether or not one should be humorous. I don’t think this is the time to suddenly become funny, but if your brand had a sense of humor, there’s no reason to suddenly become somber. It’s not gallows humor, it’s just humor, and we all appreciate it. Frankly, we need it now more than ever. If you’ve been humorous, thank you, keep going.

Finally, to wrap this up, I want to suggest that there’s an opportunity here for us to come together as people, as employees, as marketers, and as citizens of the world, to think about and share about how we can be part of the solution moving forward. I’m not talking about the pandemic because we’re already taking action there, but I’m talking about the recovery. I would welcome any ideas that you have that are corporate initiatives or shared initiatives where we marketers can step up and help in the post-pandemic world in a way that brings us together and shows how much we really care.

Alright, that’s all I got. I’m expecting you all to have a bunch more ideas that you’re going to share with me as soon as you can. You know I love hearing from you. I hope you all are staying safe and being smart and making a difference. Until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.