C-suite leaders who had experienced outbreaks such as SARS and H1N1 acknowledged that they were lulled into believing COVID-19 might follow a similar, brief trajectory.
The view from the bridge: leading companies through the pandemic and beyond, is a report by the Economist Corporate Network (ECN) exploring how Southeast Asia-based executives are interpreting and responding to the short-, medium- and long-term implications of COVID-19 for their organisations.
The paper, sponsored by Accenture, is based on focus group discussions and one-on-one interviews with executives across the APAC region.
We have compiled a key learning from the report on how CEOs and the rest of the C-suite in Southeast Asia are navigating the crisis, and what they have learned along this process.
Lesson: "There was no point in waiting for things to recover to the way they were"
Asia was a good place to be as the first waves of COVID-19 struck, given the experience of previous epidemics. But it also prompted challenges: how could executives persuade colleagues in other regions, who had not themselves lived through such events, to take the pandemic seriously in its early stages?
Those who had experienced outbreaks such as SARS in 2003 and H1N1 in 2009, acknowledged that they were lulled into believing COVID-19 might follow a similar, brief trajectory. “I don’t think it’s just us, but I think most companies would have never [included] pandemic crisis management as part of their business continuity plan,” says Soma Swaminathan, Asia Pacific GM of PPG Industrial Coatings. “We normally plan for things that could go wrong, say a fire at a supplier, and other various scenarios that we anticipate, but never once did we think about a viral pandemic causing a market crash.”
Laurent Sabourin, Group MD of International SOS, says that most of his clients were taken by surprise. Even as some started to grapple with dusting off their pandemic plans, there was still a widespread view that it would only be for a few months.
“One of the frequent questions we were being asked is, ‘when will it come back to normal?’ We probably had more inside knowledge about the pandemic than any other organisation. We took the view very early in the process that it was unprecedented, that there was no point in waiting for things to recover to the way they were.”
Experience of SARS helped, although it needed context. Anthony Couse, CEO for the APAC operations of JLL, who had lived in Hong Kong through SARS, understood how much had changed since the last pandemic. When SARS hit in 2003, few Chinese travelled overseas. This time, with the first wave of COVID-19 breaking over Chinese New Year, he knew things would be different: much of Asia would be on the move.
“I remember saying to my global CEO,” he recalls, “This is going to become big, and we need to respond quickly’, because it suddenly felt very different to SARS.” Lots of discussions followed, with an early recognition that Asia was going to be the first region in the world to be hit by the pandemic. Couse’s counterparts quickly turned to Asia for answers, not just on coping with COVID-19, but on how markets were shifting as well.
For more leadership lessons, check out the full report.
Photo / ECN