Episode 4: Leadership in crisis

Emerge stronger through disruption podcast Podcast, PwC United States September 2020

In 2019, 95% of respondents to PwC’s Global Crisis Survey told us they expected to experience a crisis in the next two years. Then COVID-19 struck. How effectively businesses weather disruption begins and ends with strong leadership.

In this episode, host Kristin Rivera and PwC Global Markets Leader Richard Oldfield explore the attributes of successful leaders in a crisis, the impact of lessons-learned on resilience, and how to emerge from the pandemic with greater employee satisfaction and clarity of purpose.

Release date: September 2020

Full transcript

Kristin Rivera: Welcome to our podcast series, Emerge stronger through disruption. I'm Kristin Rivera, leader of PwCs Forensics Practice, as well as our Global Crisis Centre, and I’m coming to you today from my home office just outside San Francisco, California. In each episode of this series, we'll be talking to global colleagues about the challenges and opportunities facing business leaders during disruption. Today, we're talking again to Richard Oldfield about the attributes of a strong leader in crisis.

Richard, can we start by just a quick reminder of your role at PwC and how you've helped respond to COVID-19.

Richard Oldfield: Thank you, Kristin. Look, it's been great being with you and sharing my reflections. I’m the global markets leader for the PwC network, and I'm based in London. I'm responsible for leading the market-facing activities across our network, so think about that as everything that touches our clients. Over the last few months I've been working with a small group of our global colleagues and the leadership teams in the countries we operate in, to manage our response to the pandemic.

Kristin: Well, thanks for joining us again, Richard. There is perhaps nothing more essential to surviving crisis than strong leadership. And while we all hope that we never have to navigate a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic again, we do know from our Global Crisis Survey that crisis is a matter of when, not if.

Everyone is going to face a crisis to some degree at some point in time. And so it's important that we take those lessons learned from this pandemic and build them back into our business in order to be more resilient for the long term. And doing this starts and ends with good leadership. So, on that point, I'm curious, some of the attributes of good leadership that you've observed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Richard: I recently, Kristin, said to my children, that my grandchildren will read about this pandemic and there will be some names carved in the history books of people that demonstrated leadership on multiple levels. So as I’ve talked to the leaders inside PwC, I have used that theme to continue to remind them that maybe over a shorter time horizon people will look back and reflect on, as leaders, how they did and what were their actions in these first several months? Leadership comes at all levels. So maybe I'll split this into two things. I think there's actually how you manage people. And then maybe thinking about the business more broadly. From a people perspective, you can see some great organisations who've empowered individuals to lead in new ways, and those individuals have shown tremendous clarity of communication and purpose.

They've really shown empathy for what their people are going through, what their customers and clients are going through. And they have inspired individuals to manage their way through this pandemic — but not just manage, but in many cases thrive in a really, really difficult environment. So, like PwC, many organisations I believe will have come out of this pandemic eventually with better employee satisfaction than we've seen before, because of that strong leadership. I was talking recently to a client that runs call centers and they have a fabulous CEO, and he was reflecting that here we are, several months into this pandemic. Not only is his employee satisfaction higher, his productivity is higher, and his customer satisfaction is higher, with complaints at a record low. That in my mind is an outcome of great people leadership.

And of course, great leaders are relentless and they're obsessive about how they drive their organisation through their people.

Kristin: I think it's really interesting, your reflection on those leaders that will be remembered for their great leadership, you know, in the future. And what's particularly interesting about that is it's not always immediately obvious when you're in the thick of it. Sometimes you have to make unpopular decisions, and it isn't always clear what will work in the future, when you're making those decisions.

On that point of being obsessive, Richard, one thing we see is that in order to be effective in managing crisis, good leaders need to be preoccupied with failure. And this is a concept that many leaders haven't really had to focus on for the last decade, because we've had a growing economy and most businesses have had the wind at their backs.

But we know from our experience with crisis, that even one small failure can play out in the public domain or on social media and have devastating impacts. So, in crisis, looking at what's working as well as what's not so that you can make shifts is really important.

Richard: It was really interesting, Kristin, this came home to me very recently. I was making a proposal to our global leadership team, and our US senior partner said to me, “That's great, Richard, but what can go wrong?” And of course I've expected him to ask me, you know, all the things about what could go right, and what was the payoff, and what was the investment. And he went straight to the point of what could go wrong. And it stopped me in my tracks — and actually it was the right question, because only by focusing on the details of what could go wrong, could you actually frame the proposal that you were making — not just for the positive, but to mitigate the negatives, which, as we thought about it, there were many, so it was a really good learning point that I personally took away.

Kristin: And these times definitely reinforce the importance of considering what could knock you off your strategy. And particularly given that we've had, you know, basically a decade of a growing economy where, for many businesses, the wind was at our back.

And so really focusing on what could go wrong is a bit of a shift, but is critically important. And that's actually a nice segue into this topic of resilience. We think of resilience as an attribute, a skill that you can build. But it's also a prerequisite for emerging stronger. And that's sort of an end state.

It's the goal that we all strive for. Resilience is definitely something that you can build and cultivate in leaders. And I'm curious how PwC has gone about that process of cultivating resilience.

Richard: Resilience — it's interesting, isn’t it, because I think if we'd gone back a few years, it wouldn’t have been an attribute that we would have said was really critical to our leaders, but we've really focused on that in the last few years.

And my reflection is, as leaders, we have just been through the best learning exercise of our careers. And the important thing that we have done is we suspended our leadership development programs — not actually because we were trying to save money or not focus on people. But because at that point we'd just been through this phenomenal period of time and we have built time for our leaders to stop and reflect.

Not as we talked about before, on what the organisation did right or wrong, but actually as individuals, how we have responded and actually how we could do that differently to make ourselves more resilient. Because I think only by every leader taking time to understand themselves and what they do under pressure and how they respond, do you build that both mental and physical resilience that we know is so important to driving organisations forward.

Kristin: I love that approach. And I hope other companies will emulate that. It's almost like thinking of the pandemic as a master's class in strategy. So many real-world life lessons in such a short time frame.

It's inspiring to hear that we're taking the time to capture those lessons learned and use them to help our leaders to become more resilient. In fact, that makes me think, you know, this is a trend that we've seen in previous pandemics, with Ebola and SARS and MERS, there were absolutely lessons learned that I think in hindsight, we all wish we had taken more seriously.

It might be as simple as the number of isolation beds that hospitals might need in order to treat their patients if there were a pandemic. There's an impulse, particularly again, when you've got a growing economy, to just move forward and not rehash the negatives of the past. But when it comes to emerging stronger from crisis, taking stock of those lessons learned, baking them into your procedures and processes and your corporate DNA going forward is a big part of being resilient.

Richard: Kristin, I was just chuckling to myself then, as you were speaking, because they are great examples. And I immediately thought of that definition of insanity, you know — keep doing the same thing and expect a different response.

So actually if we don't stop and we don't really think about what we want to change, the next time a pandemic or a crisis hits, we are going to have the same outcome as the one we've just experienced in the last few months. And we just talked about resilience of leaders, but I think actually resilience is a word that we need to think about for organisations more broadly as we go into the new normal.

So I'm hoping in boardrooms there's going to be a lot more discussion about the resilience of supply chains, broader operational resilience, financial resilience — and that is going to be critical that we've all stopped and taken the lessons of what we have learned in the last few months and really put them into practice.

I think the other thing that's really important from my perspective is — I love the phrase that “Companies with purpose last and people with purpose thrive.” And so now is a turning point for leaders, when we think about resilience, to really reassess not only how they drive success for their shareholders, but how they co-create that success with society more broadly to really build resilience and long term thinking for their organisation.

Kristin: ”Companies with purpose last and people with purpose thrive.” Richard, I can't think of any better way to end this episode than on that note. Thanks again for joining us. It has been wonderful to have you a part of this series. Remember to subscribe to our podcast so that you don't miss out on any of our future episodes.

If you have any questions about PwCs Global Crisis Centre, visit pwc.com.

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