In interviews with executives from nine global companies, researchers from the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard University (NPLI) and Disaster Recovery Institute International (DRI) explored cross-sector leadership lessons learned from the pandemic response from early 2020 through August 2021. Among their key findings are:
- Preparation Matters: Interviewees reported consistently that investments in preparedness and business continuity capability allowed them to effectively transition intro response mode everywhere from the supply chain to frontline operations. While not without hiccups, the more mature the business continuity function, the smoother the pivots throughout turbulent times.
- The Power of Presence: Circumstances required greater visibility and accessibility from senior executives in settings from “all hands” town halls to crisis team meetings. Interviewees reported that, for the most part, their CEOs grasped this quickly and stepped up to the challenge. Internal communications were particularly important to reassuring workers and keeping them resilient during trying times. It is expected that employees will continue to expect to hear from and interact with senior executives going forward.
- Accelerate Learning: Novel threats can require novel responses. While all respondents reported revising strategy and tactics in response to unexpected contingencies, some spoke of deeper, “double loop” learning that questioned underlying assumptions and orthodoxies. The latter approach is essential for an agile response to unforeseen circumstances.
- Always Connect: Connectivity up, down, across, and beyond the organization were critical from sensing initial warning signs through the supply chain to supporting workers as they either worked from home or worked on location under novel protocols. Interviewees reported great benefits from constant listening to workers, customers, medical experts, and others to maintain accurate situational insight.
“The great value of these findings is that they cut across industries,” said Eric McNulty, Associate Director of the NPLI and lead researcher for the NPLI team. “Organizations looking to go beyond an internal after action review to understand broader takeaways from the first months of the response will find useful, actionable insights.”
The NPLI research team included Eric McNulty, M.A., Brian Spisak, PhD., and Jennifer Grimes, M.D. The DRI team included Lyndon Byrd, MSc, Chief Knowledge Officer, and Chloe Demrovsky, M.S.
The interviews were conducted under the Chatham House Rule of non-attribution. The companies represented the aviation, education, energy, industrial goods, medical/healthcare, and retail sectors. As each organization has distinct expertise and perspective, NPLI and DRI have created separate, yet complementary reports on the findings: NPLI and DRI.