GEP conference discusses leadership skills to excel in crisis situations with Maggie Wilderotter, Patricia Russo

MHI MODEX Photographee.eu/Adobe Stock

On the second day of the GEP Innovate Digital 2020 virtual conference, Maggie Wilderotter, former CEO of Frontier Communications and current chairman and CEO of Grand Reserve Inn, and Patricia Russo, former CEO of Alcatel-Lucent, discussed the important role leadership plays in times of crisis.

From the boardroom to the contingent workforce, crises affect an organization in all levels. There is no way to anticipate how companies come through in the end, especially in certain crises like this most-recent COVID-19 disruption.

Throughout every topic discussed during the fireside chat, it became clear that leadership is a catalyst for affecting how companies respond to crisis situations. Employees will look to leaders to understand the truth and find hope for a better tomorrow.

Russo stressed the importance of linguistics in these times. Leadership should use the term “we” when referring to anything company-related. Ultimately, regardless of how much experience one has, people care about the human element. People will respond best to those who lead with realness and honesty.

“I always hired for who people were, not what they did,” Russo said. “The culture of who you are, your DNA, mattered more to me than your work experience. It’s your intuition, your curiosity.… I wanted people that serve others, not just themselves.”

Leadership is responsible for building resilience during crisis

Both women acknowledged that the COVID-19 disruption has led to many companies pivoting and changing their offerings and organizational structure. In some instances, the pandemic has helped companies find new ways of attracting customers.

Wilderotter, who sits on the board for Lyft, said the company was able to pivot in this environment and find a new revenue stream which was essential in the early days of the pandemic. Lyft — known for its rideshare options — found success with its option for riders to share rides with random strangers which cut down costs and mileage for consumers and drivers. Lyft, and especially that portion of its offerings, struggled during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown days when consumers were confined to their homes.

To pivot, Lyft began using its gig driver model to deliver prescriptions, not people. And it became very successful. Not only did the prescriptions help people get their needed medications, it helped keep pharmacies and rideshare options in business. Walgreens and other drug stores reduced delivery costs by around 60% to 70% just by using Lyft, according to Wilderotter.

“It’s important for all of us that are involved in companies, whether they’re the companies we work for or ones we’re on the board of, to really understand the tenacity, grit and resilience that’s in the culture,” Wilderotter said. “Even with great companies, you hit roadblocks. You have to work around those. It’s how companies respond to those crises that really determines if you succeed or fail.”

Diverse leadership is essential to succeed

In many aspects, 2020 has been a year fraught with crises for all companies. Wilderotter acknowledged that there is a lot going on that the corporate world is dealing with and responding to. This year has introduced the growing importance of stakeholder capitalism.

Wilderotter explained that it doesn’t affect just boardrooms, rather the whole employee base and culture of an organization.

Another crisis that more companies are focusing on this year is the role of social justice in business. Wilderotter said that at a very basic level, more companies are focusing on hiring diverse talent. It begins with the job description and providing more opportunities for people with varying levels of education to be hired.

Diverse employees will lead to more diverse leadership roles eventually. It can’t be changed overnight, but both Russo and Wilderotter see more effort being made to promote and provide more leadership roles to women and minority groups.

“What’s really key around leadership qualities today — regardless of whether you’re a woman or a man — is self-awareness, humility and the ability to listen to people who have different points of view,” said Russo. “I do think that based on your background and who you are, gender is an element of it for sure, but it is not all of what makes up each and every one of us. Different viewpoints, different experiences result in better discussions, much better debate, much better decisions.”

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