Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | The corner office view in the time of a pandemic

An online survey of 70 Indian business leaders conducted by Bain and Co. revealed that most had suspected the initial lockdown to be extended far beyond the initial 21 days. Now, in the middle of the extension, many are beginning to plan for the time when the sun comes up again.

While the pandemic caught everyone by surprise, most CEOs got into a crisis mode speedily, ensuring safety and well-being of employees and helping with relief work. The challenge then was not about what was to be done immediately but what could one say about what lay ahead, when this would pass and what recovery would look like.

Three of four executives we spoke to anticipated the crisis to last until July. Some are more pessimistic—executives in heavy industries expect it to last till November. Despite this estimate, business leaders are still optimistic about the post-covid-19 world—70% are expecting a recovery (growth back at pre-covid-19 levels) by end 2020, while others said only after March 2021. There is a sense that existing cyclical headwinds have been compounded by the pandemic. For recovery to happen, global supply chains will need to be restored, employees will have to settle into new ways of working and customers will need to start spending again.

CEOs identify consumer demand as the single biggest concern. About 40% executives expected customer demand to be slashed by over half of internal targets. Employee engagement and morale emerged as the second biggest concern. They also agreed that employees need to be back in the workplace soon, especially in labour-intensive industries.

So, what are CEOs doing to ‘Act Now’? Leaders soon adapted to operating in lockdown-mode. E-commerce is the new mantra: From having a website to amplifying product presence, companies are rethinking digital to holistically connect with customers —encompassing branding, product experience, purchase and delivery tracking.

Most CEOs are also doubling down on employee communication, reinforcing company values and providing guidance on the way forward. Many companies have set up crisis response teams to take care of employee needs, job security and timely payments.

Many B2C firms are finding innovative solutions to supply chain challenges. Online portals for trade partners are being created for ease of transaction and monitoring, while contracts are being renegotiated with greater focus on indigenous vendors. Others are tapping into the last-mile delivery ecosystem and tying up with hyperlocal startups for delivering essentials.

CEOs now need to think about balancing their immediate imperatives (‘Act Now’) with planning for an uncertain future (‘Plan Now’). About 70% executives mentioned they were already on it.

Dominant ideas of the company have changed about every 50 years. From scale apprenticeships and early industrialists of the 1800s to the rise of professional management in the 1920s and shareholder primacy since mid-1970s, ideas have evolved. Great companies have leveraged downturns to equip themselves to thrive in the post-crisis era.

Most CEOs are using this opportunity to shape strategic priorities and rally the firm behind a big idea. Our research has shown that leaders believed the firm of the future will be defined more by its partnerships than by its assets. In the midst of great changes, rethinking the ecosystem of partners and teams that constitute the firm is back on the CEO agenda.

Previous studies have shown downturns create sharp divergences in a firm’s performance. It is, therefore, critical to both Act Now to protect and recover, but also Plan Now to retool for the future.

Nikhil Prasad Ojha and Gaurav Nayyar are partners and Sujay Subrahmanyan is a manager at Bain & Co.

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