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How to Effectively Lead Your Team Through a Company Crisis

Siddharth Taparia

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At the beginning of March, I was promoted to oversee all of SAP’s global events, our sponsorship portfolio, and our Global Experience Centers.

For those who don’t know, SAP hosts more than 3,000 events around the world each year. There’s our HR conference, SuccessConnect, with 3,000-4,000 attendees. We have our procurement conference, Ariba Live, our travel and expense conference, Concur Fusion, as well as many others. Our largest event is SAPPHIRE NOW, which saw over 25,000 attendees last May. 

In addition, SAP’s sponsorship portfolio includes relationships with the NBA, the NHL, FC Bayern München, the San Francisco 49ers, and Levi’s Stadium, as well as the San Jose Sharks and SAP Center in San Jose, California. 

If you’ve been following the news and status of the world at all, then I’m sure you know where this story is going.

Less than a week after being promoted to oversee all of our company’s events, I was on the phone with our CMO talking about the impact the coronavirus was having on the world. A few days later, the company made the decision to cancel almost 100 events, including two of our big conferences in the month of March. A week after that, we canceled, postponed, or decided to go virtual with all company events through June, including our largest conference for the year, SAPPHIRE NOW. 

In stepping into my new role, and managing teams through this global crisis that directly impacts a very large aspect of our business, there are a number of things I realized that are essential aspects of successful leadership during a stressful time like this.

1. First, you have to project calmness.

People are rattled enough in their personal lives in terms of what’s happening in the world and in the workplace. 

You can’t fuel the fire.

In the past few weeks, decisions had to be made at hyper-speed. And at a company like SAP, employing more than 100,000 people around the world, crystal-clear communication is the key to keeping all chains of command informed. 

The impact the coronavirus is having on the world, for example, is it’s forcing all of these decisions and communications to happen within a pressure cooker. News is breaking by the day, sometimes by the hour, that drastically changes the way businesses can operate and how people can live their lives. This places a tremendous burden on each and every person, wondering how the state of the world is going to impact their job, their family, their personal life, etc. 

As a leader, you must have compassion for people and keep their emotional needs at the forefront of everything you do. The more you can communicate with these needs in mind, the more you and your team will remain as a unit.

2. Make rapid micro-decisions that move you as close as possible to a future you can clearly imagine.

At the beginning of March, the notion that companies were closing physical locations or canceling events like SxSW seemed drastic. One week later, those decisions not only seemed valid, but obvious. 

Part of the challenge of making these kinds of decisions, however, is that most things in life require lead times. In order to host an event in September, you need to put the groundwork in place now. If you wait too long, the event won’t happen in September—and if you don’t wait long enough, you might invest resources into something that can’t actually happen.

Most of us have never experienced a global crisis like COVID-19 before. There’s no playbook, no blueprint to follow that provides the answers on the right thing to do.

The only real solution, then, is to make micro-decisions as you go. What makes sense today, based on what we currently know? How can we best mitigate our risk? How can we keep our options open to change course?

This is crisis leadership.

3. Do what’s best for everyone long-term.

Right now, companies all over the world are revealing who they truly are by the way they are handling the coronavirus crisis.

I am a firm believer that the best path forward is always the one you are willing to stand by well into the future. The decisions you make today have to be decisions you’re proud of down the road. And one of those decisions is deciding how you are going to handle things financially.

In canceling all these events, there is a tremendous amount of financial implications. People who purchased tickets will need refunds. Sponsors who put up their money to be part of the events need refunds, as well as employees and contractors—the list goes on. 

You have to always do right by everyone involved, as much as you possibly can.

4. Speak directly to, and manage, fear.

In a time like this, what is on everyone’s mind is the safety of their job.

We have a large number of Event Marketers. And so the obvious question is, “what happens to my role?” Part of being an effective leader is speaking directly to the tough questions—not glossing over them, not avoiding them, and certainly not pretending like they’re not there, because they are. 

In our case, our primary focus now is engaging our customers where they are. This means repositioning the vast majority of our team.

It’s not that their jobs are going away. They’re just changing. In order to do this effectively, this means spending time on both unwinding the past (e.g., previous contracts, rescheduling) and, more so, focusing on the future. What can we do digitally? How can we meet our customers in the moment? 

Over-communicating, and reinforcing to your team members why you are doing what you’re doing, and what role they can play in the continued success of the organization, is what keeps people from showing up to work feeling afraid—and instead, having the confidence to press on.

Siddharth Taparia is the Senior Vice President and Global Head of Brand and Experience Marketing at SAP where he has the global end to end responsibility for SAP's Corporate Marketing functions including Brand, Media, Advertising, Sponsorships, Digital Content, Events and Experience Centers. He is responsible for growing the SAP Brand, the 17th most valuable in the world and the most valuable brand in Germany as well as driving awareness and demand generation.

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