STRATEGY ARTICLE | Leadership in times of global crisis. Comparing 9-11 attacks with COVID 19
I am advising many of our clients during this pandemic about their next strategic moves. During this COVID crisis, I have the advantage of using my experience as a former board member of the Global Virus Network (GVN), the leading system of virology labs around the world.
The founder of GVN, Bob Gallo, is the co-discoverer of HIV as the cause of AIDS. While at GVN, we dealt with the worst type of viruses, including Ebola, Hanta, Zika and HIV.
Preparing for the things that only happen in blockbuster movies: Black Swan events vs unthinkable scenarios.
The world (national leaders and global policymakers) knew that viral threats are genuine and the most significant danger to humanity, only second to nuclear weapons. The thing is that no one expects for global pandemics to happen (except virologists) or ICBMs to be launched in mutually assured destruction (MAD). Those are unimaginable scenarios that occur only in disaster blockbuster movies. Well, there you go. They happen in real life. Do not confuse unimaginable scenarios (potentially happening events) with Black Swan events. A Black Swan event comes as a total surprise. 9-11 was a Black Swan event (a big surprise for everyone). Pandemics are not a surprise; they are just waiting to happen. SARS, MARS and HIV were not enough of a warning for policymakers to put in place clear measures, responses and education to be ready to fight these threats before they got too big. Now that we are all wearing masks and everyone refers to Bill Gates’s Ted Talk warning us years ago that it was a question of when not if, it is unavoidable to ask and demand why we were so unprepared for such a scenario. Endless pandemic enquiries are coming soon.
A similar global threat: The 9-11 attacks on America.
As an entrepreneur, when I launched Opodo, the internet travel company focusing on selling air tickets and travel products, I faced another global crisis, the 9-11 attacks on America (a Black Swan event), directly affecting my business. I watched in horror from my Opodo office as the World Trade Centre towers collapsed and the Pentagon burned in flames. The event affected every country in the world and started two wars, one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, that are still unresolved, and cost in the trillions of dollars. Like COVID, the 9-11 attacks affected the travel and hospitality industry massively. Like in a disaster movie, at Opodo, we faced ruin and the collapse of our shareholders, the global airlines. We had to make daily decisions about our business that would determine whether we lived or died as a company at a time of tremendous chaos and uncertainty.
Five Key Strategy and Governance Recommendations to use in times of global crisis.
When 9-11 happened, there was no rulebook. Nothing like this had ever happened. Here are five strategic things that I used at Opodo during the 9-11 crisis that saved the company, gave confidence to our investors and customers and got us through the toughest of times. We were all better men and women after it.
1. Don’t overreact. But don’t underreact. This advice seems like a paradox, but it is really about balance and equilibrium. Think before you take action. It is time to put your reflection skills to the test and act like a true leader. Deciding precisely the right timing of any move is vital. Too soon and you might crash, too late and you miss the last train.
2. Manage and prioritise stakeholders and their different needs. Each business is different, so you have to identify whom to prioritise quickly. At Opodo, we immediately prioritised clients. During 9-11, America shut down U.S. airspace grounding all airlines and air travel. Travellers were stuck all over America (and the world) unable to return to their homes. Just like COVID 19, people could not travel or become stuck someplace. Communicate with your customers to make them feel calm and that you have not abandoned them. They will become loyal for life.
3. Find a pivot for your business model. After an airliner has been hijacked and flown into buildings, no one wants to fly anymore. People would not fly anywhere even if you paid them (we tried as part of packages)! I quickly switched to prioritise the car rental product over air ticket sales until people got the willingness to fly again. Car rentals became the best selling product and the primary vehicle to go on holiday.
4. Information & Communications. In a crisis of such magnitude, you are managing panic, and people’s psychology becomes critical. Reassure your teams that there is a future and answer any questions they might have. Communicate your new strategy and recommended steps and get them on board fast. Your teams are part of the solution.
5. Use your brand to your advantage. Maintain a positive attitude. We repositioned our brand strategy to focus on the feelings of people. The mood of the world was dark—people where scared everywhere of global terrorism and the brutality it was capable of doing. Feelings of anger and retribution were rampant. We brought hope with a series of campaigns using nature and mindfulness to make people feel good again.
6. Be transparent but remain strong. A few days after the attack, our airline shareholders were pushing us (overreacting) to immediately implement draconian cost cuttings to the point of shutting us down. We politely refused. They asked us to return part of the investment. We politely declined again (this time with legal advisors). We stood our ground. They respected us for it. They thanked us later.
Because of our strategic moves during the 9-11 crisis, we saved the company and Opodo went on to thrive as a travel business bringing substantial returns to shareholders. Opodo was later sold for 500 million Euros to a private equity group and is now part of Odigeo, a travel consortium. The COVID 19 crisis is far from over. I hope this comparison between 9-11 and the present pandemic to give the reader insights, hope and time for reflection during these hard times.
Nicolas De Santis is the CEO of Corporate Vision and co-founder of Opodo.com. He is currently authoring the book, Corporate Vision: the definitive guide to mastering organisational and global complexity.