Leading Through COVID-19: A Checklist for Chief Operating Officers

Corporate management is facing a once-in-a-generation challenge in response to COVID-19 and its impact on the interlinked issues of employee well-being and business continuity.

Thoughtful employers recognize that balancing the mental and physical well-being of their employees is a critical business function, as companies struggle to maintain business operations.

As a Chief Operating Officer, you’re often tasked with “knitting the pieces together” between the company’s Human Resources and broader business goals. It’s a huge challenge and I want you to know you’re not alone.

In this COVID-19 checklist for employers, I wanted to share a few key steps that can help you and your company:

Model Your Cash Flow

How: Put together a 12-week cash flow statement now. Ask finance to run a sensitivity analysis on revenue losses of 10%, 25%, and 50%. Understand which direct costs and which operating costs are fixed and which are variable. Your goal here is to understand any potential liquidity challenges that could arise, and have a plan to address those challenges before the business is in a cash crunch.

Why: This metric is critical to managing business objectives for the rest of this year, and will allow transparent communications with your employees about what can be realistically achieved.

Revisit Key Goals

How: Bring your decision makers together and identify those company goals that are still critical and those that are no longer relevant or realistic. While it’s tempting to go “all in” on your team’s response to the pandemic, it’s essential to be managing business objectives with an eye on post-pandemic realities.

Why: This exercise will provide clarity for the leadership team and a collective sense of agency around areas that are within the team’s control. It also sends a tangible signal company-wide that the business is being proactively managed through the crisis. During such an unsettling time, when employees at every level are dealing with high levels of stress and unpredictability, clearheaded communications and discussions about the business will provide a welcome sense of normalcy.

For Example: At Aduro, we use the OKR process to set quarterly objectives and measurable key results. We report out every two weeks to the company. When COVID-19 began to spread, we evaluated which Q1 objectives needed to stay and which ones were no longer relevant or business critical in light of the challenges, and we adapted our business thinking accordingly.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

What: Put together an internal communications team and over-communicate to your employees—consistently and with one voice. Now is not the time for silos, so make sure you are sourcing information from all corners – not just the corner office. Timely, comprehensive, and coherent communication will instill confidence across the company.

Why: Consistent and reliable communication creates a sense of leadership and trust. Employees want to understand how leadership is thinking as much as what. A lack of information creates a vacuum that is rapidly filled with misinformation, speculation and fear.

Rethink Performance Plans

What: If your company uses quarterly performance plans, think about the effect these have on your employees. As explained above, just as it’s important to revisit key goals for the business overall, identifying which factors are and are not within the control of your employees is an extension of that process. Everyone will benefit from candid discussions around key performance indicators and business goals.

Why: Being up front about individual expectations and transparent about the larger business realities will assure every employee that there is a plan and that the leadership team isn’t simply in reaction mode. Clarity and candor in these scenarios engenders trust and loyalty — all essential qualities during challenging times.

For Example: At Aduro, we’re working with our clients to analyze whether their well-being-related incentive plans are still relevant, what might need to change, and what will best help employees manage and stay resilient through an incredibly difficult time.

Show Your Humanity

What: Lastly, and, most importantly, be empathetic and even vulnerable. Being a leader doesn’t mean projecting strength; it means creating a sense of connection.

Why: People are scared for themselves, their loved ones, their jobs, the economy, and the world at large. Remember: You’re human, too. Simply saying, “I understand how you feel. I’m feeling that way too,” doesn’t project weakness; it connects you to each other and a common set of goals and outcomes.

Today more than ever, the role of the COO in “knitting the organization together” is critical. I hope this COVID-19 checklist for employers helped you personally feel more confident in your role — and helped you communicate more effectively with your employees so they know they are safe, valued, and feel a sense of purpose in navigating this incredibly challenging time.

Do you have tips to add to this COVID-19 checklist for employers, based on your own experiences? If you’d like to share them, you can message me directly.