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Office Hours #1 : Displaying leadership through crisis 

As the world battles back against the devastating impact of COVID-19, many businesses face growing uncertainty over their future. With Office Hours, we have called on multiple industry experts to share their own experience and tips for guiding companies through the crisis.

Our first instalment features Gillian Tans, CEO of Booking.com between 2016 and 2019, alongside Corinne Vigreux, co-founder of TomTom. Both companies have endured crises before, which meant big decisions had to be made to ensure long-term survival. 

In 2000, TomTom had started designing software for phones. However the internet bubble crisis meant come 2001, these devices never made it to market. 

Corinne explains this led to the company shifting focus. After taking the difficult decision to reduce its workforce, TomTom switched attention to PDAs and began building software for itself. Without that, TomTom’s shift, which ultimately was for the better, would never have happened as quickly.

Summarising, Corinne highlighted three main survival points

  1. “Reduce your expenditure,
  2. make sure you refocus on the important stuff
  3. and be realistic in your budgets.” 

Booking.com suffered massively in that same crisis - “I’ve seen Booking go bankrupt almost three times” Gillian says. 

“A lot of successful companies today actually come out of a crisis” is a reassuring reminder though, and like Corinne’s advice, Gillian stresses the need for strong leadership. 

“Does it make sense to have that campaign out right now?” and “Where do I need to spend my money?” are two huge questions any company owners must ask.

Building this refined vision is also important when feeding back to investors. “It’s important for them to feel confident, that you’re taking action, you’re in control and you’re building a company to last.”

1 - Prioritising survival

Gillian’s experience suggests the key is investing primarily in areas that are consumer facing, things that directly translate to growth.

This must be done with caution though. While under pressure, knee-jerk reactions must be avoided and cutting too much, too fast, will make it difficult to get things back up to full speed.

Both Corrine and Gillian agree that preserving cash must be central, after all, it’s what will ensure your business can still operate once the storm is weathered. 

2 - Treating staff right

As workforces switch to operating from home, adjustments must be made. 

While it may sound obvious, clear and transparent communication is vital. Corrine is quick to highlight that this isn’t just from a business perspective - but a personal one too.

“People are worried about their jobs and their security. As leaders you need a big amount of empathy. There is a caring and a nurturing side in reassuring your employees” she says.

Gillian echoed that sentiment, stressing that employee welfare comes above anything.

“I think reassuring is more important than ever. Think about what communication methods you have. We have a bot that allows us to see how people are feeling, so you can react quickly if you see people are struggling.

“It’s important that people feel connected”

3 - Stepping up to tough decisions

Unfortunately, any crisis is going to involve unpleasant decisions - “If I look at us in 2001, if we hadn’t let people go we wouldn’t be here today. The sense of failure at the time was so strong and I felt so bad about the whole thing - but if we hadn’t done that, we would not be here today” Corrine says. 

It’s a harsh reality of running a business - but this is where leaders must step up.  

Gillian explains “It’s important that you’re visible, that you make these decisions even if they’re hard - but you need to do that to make sure the company is still successful after this crisis” 

Main takeaways

There are two big takeaways from the conversation. One being that however tough things are, there is always hope. The other, a question of whether you’re doing enough to support staff. Once this is over, businesses will hold the label of how they treated employees when things got difficult - when that time comes, how will you be remembered?


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