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There Is a Precedent: Past Action Can and Should Inform Future Decision Making

By Sara Hannah, Managing Partner

Comparative historical research exists to examine past events in order to create explanations that are valid beyond a particular time and place. Whether by direct comparison or dissecting patterns to build a theory, looking to the past can provide comfort or sound the alarm bell of what’s to come.

Even with a litany of infographics making direct comparisons between COVID-19 and past pandemics, the most common word to be associated with the current crisis has been “unprecedented.” After all, for the first time in history, every state in the United States is under a federal disaster declaration at the same time.

The ripple effects on businesses and organizations cannot be ignored. With a recession imminent, there are more questions than answers: Will recovery be U, V, or L-shaped? How long will it last?

And individually: Do I return to what’s familiar? Or, do I take this time to re-boot and pivot? To what degree will my business still be relevant? And perhaps most daunting, will my customers come back?

Eight months ago, 181 CEO’s from major corporations committed to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and, yes, shareholders. This announcement represented a sea change from previous articulations that corporations exist principally to serve their shareholders. Four months later, the first cases of COVID-19 were announced. How do these two now historical events relate? As individuals and organizations, we have new decisions. We won’t all make the same ones, but how the decision is made and who it impacts, matters. Even the New England Journal of Medicine acknowledges that the ramifications of COVID-19 are not purely health related: “Epidemics provide a sampling device for social analysis. They reveal what really matters to a population and whom they truly value.”

One, albeit imperfect, point of reference is the 2008/2009 economic downturn. While there are stark differences in magnitude, length, and degree of uncertainty, business leaders were asking similar questions: Will I recover or be forced to close doors? What is the responsibility I have to my employees? To my customers? To my investors? To the local and broader community? Barry-Wehmiller was not immune. A capital goods equipment manufacturer, and parent company of Chapman & Co., the impact was not a slow slide, but rather swift and dramatic as customers began to suddenly pull orders.

Six years prior, the leaders of Barry-Wehmiller wrote a document tilted, “The Guiding Principles of Leadership.”  The first line reads: “We measure success by the way we touch the lives of people.” The second line reads, “A clear and compelling vision, embodied within a sustainable business model, which fosters personal growth.” When the senior leadership team makes that kind of declaration to the entire organization, you think differently about people and business. Traditionally, people and business have often been juxtaposed or referred to as two entities that must be “balanced.” The term balance implies the exact amount of focus on each, so the pressure is equalized and neither side has an advantage. Yet, without people (all stakeholders), business ceases to exist. How does an organization respond when it declares to all its team members that is measure success by the way it touches the lives of people? Quite differently than a team focused on balancing people and business.

Barry-Wehmiller chose to put in place a furlough program in lieu of layoffs. This simple act has been well documented, both in our book, Everybody Matters, and in a more current historic reference point. With thousands of retweets and “likes,” the approach serves as inspiration for current times. Now referred to as shared sacrifice, the foundational principle is everyone suffers a little so that no one suffers a lot.

Having personally worked for Bob Chapman and Barry-Wehmiller for the past 15 years, I can attest to both the business and human implications: a faster recovery in 2010 and record performance every year thereafter as well as increased levels of trust, empathy, and understanding.

In truth, there are more differences than similarities when comparing ’08-’09 to current challenges. However, the thinking and the process is worthy of repeating: If we measure success by the way we touch the lives of people, then how would a caring family respond? All family members would absorb some pain so that no member of the family had to experience dramatic loss.

As the Managing Partner of Chapman & Co., a consultancy that works primarily with outside organizations to align their people strategy with business outcomes, we have a deep understanding of the linkage between culture, people, strategy, and business outcomes. As business leaders wrestle with imminent decisions, what will be revealed about what you truly value? Our experience would reveal that the process we undertake is equally as important as the ultimate decision:

  1. People and Business in Harmony: Everyone wants to know that who they are and what they do matters. This looks like making decisions based on your values, listening as a leadership behavior, and prioritizing the health of all employees.
  2. Focus on The Human Element: Technical challenges can be solved with new technology, systems and processes. Adaptation is a human challenge and requires engagement. Solutions to adaptive challenges reside not in the executive suite but in the collective intelligence of employees at all levels (Harvard Business Review). From relentlessly reducing expenses, to transitioning your team to virtual communication, organizations that acknowledge the human element of change adapt more successfully.
  3. Focus on Value: Readiness for what’s next will be influenced by the value we create today. Defined as, “the importance, worth, or usefulness of something,” value is being found in unexpected places as organizations are being forced to pivot their business model. Readiness will require the creation of new value (products and service our customers need right now), more value (increased operational efficiency), and better value (enhanced relationships externally and internally).

Unprecedented times call for extraordinary leaders. Leaders that make the most informed, thoughtful, and caring decisions moving forward. At some point in time, COVID-19 will be a historical reference. Future leaders will be looking at the decisions made today as either a guide, or a vivid reminder of what not to do. We all have collective responsibility for which it will be.


This story was featured in the St. Louis Business Journal. Read here or download the PDF.

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