If you’ve felt blindsided by the unprecedented events of the past couple of months, you weren’t alone. In a recent webinar, we brought HR leaders together to explore and learn from personal experiences on leading people through the crisis. Among a wealth of insights, here are three key takeaways, by Aditi Sharma Kalra.

It would be fair to admit that no one necessarily has a playbook for what we've experienced over the past couple of months. Business and HR leaders have found themselves on the frontline of an unprecedented crisis, and have had to manage everything from employee related issues like productivity and safety, while looking ahead towards the future on leading their organisations through massive change.

With this in mind, Human Resources Online and IBM partnered to bring together industry experts on a virtual panel discussion held on 19 May, sharing the leaders’ personal experiences on leading their people through the crisis and their thoughts on what lies ahead.

The power-packed panel discussion featured the following respected speakers:

  • Andrew Campbell, Talent & Transformation Leader, Asia-Pacific, IBM Global Business Services
  • Kevin McGuigan, Managing Director, 3M South East Asia
  • Matthew Kimball, Vice President - Human Resources, Global Commercial, Royal Dutch Shell
  • Genevieve Goh, Director, Talent Management, Mastercard
  • Moderated by: HRO’s Aditi Sharma Kalra

Excerpts from the conversation are shared below, and we’re confident you’ll find the key takeaways for your new-normal strategy! Read on:

Takeaway 1: Leadership is redefined to demonstrate empathy, be more human

Genevieve: At Mastercard, we were very vigilant in monitoring the situation as the COVID-19 crisis emerged. We knew it was an anxious time for our employees, their families and people around the region. In response, we took immediate and extensive steps to prioritise our employees’ health and safety. We made it clear that we trust their judgment when it comes to knowing what they need to do to keep themselves and their families safe, and that they are empowered to do what is practical and prudent when it comes to flexibly and practically managing their work commitments.

Secondly, leadership at all levels of the company has been making great efforts to keep the lines of communication open with employees and to check in frequently to understand how people are adjusting and feeling. It has also been made clear since day one that, now more than ever, there’s a need to tap into our basic human decency in how we approach our work and relationships. This means that, as a company, we must continue to show up as a force for good, not only for each other, but also for our communities and the world.

Andrew: While all of us had business continuity plans (BCP) when the crisis first hit, perhaps they weren't tailored to something of this scale or this size. So as an organisation, it is very important to employee sentiment for leaders to demonstrate that they are empathetic. This whole pandemic has redefined what it means to be a leader. It is not just about meeting business goals or aggressively working towards your targets - it’s very much about the human touch as well.

At IBM, we came up with a work-from-home pledge, wherein rather than just managing this whole crisis through excessive policy, we came up with a list of items for leaders to be mindful of while everyone is working from home. For example, it's okay to account for the family. We completely understand that the kids can be running behind you on the camera. It's alright to show up to a meeting while looking after your baby. Not only have leaders pledged this, but they also shared this in their team meetings.

This whole pandemic has redefined what it means to be a leader. It is not just about meeting business goals or aggressively working towards your targets - it’s very much about the human touch as well.

Takeaway 2: Effective crisis management needs cross-functional collaboration

Kevin: As the world's largest manufacturer of personal protective equipment like the N95, we're well-prepared to handle these situations, so we very quickly jumped to daily meetings which continue to this day, to talk about how are we looking after the health and safety of our employees and their families. We pulled together a cross-functional team, which includes myself, HR, and the manufacturing operations, to start a cadence around email communications. We have roundtables upto two a week, led by HR and I, and with 12-15 employees, to just understand what's going on, what's keeping them up at night, what's working well, and what we can offer them.

Furthermore, we've rolled out a survey to better understand what employees need to be effective. What has been so beautiful about this initiative is we've been able to step back and engage our employees in ways that we have not done traditionally. In fact, we have seen a significant spike in the number of attendees in our L&D programmes. This is the time for us to build our capabilities, so when we find that new normal, we can be out there bringing competitive solutions to our customers.

Takeaway 3: Secrets of the best leaders: Authenticity, tech-savviness, and fun

Matthew: Going forward, leaders are going to have to be leading through technology, which is going to be accelerating through this period. Leaders will look to be really agile and flexible about how they interact and how they engage with employees, but at the foundation of it, it has to be authentic. You have to be very true to yourself to get that followership.

Kevin: If we cannot embrace fun in the workplace, I think we are going to have serious challenges. I’ve lived by this in my 17-and-a-half years in 3M. Work becomes work when it's no longer fun! That needs to be a mantra driven across corporations, because if we can have fun, energy levels are high, productivity increases, and employee retention is expanded.


If you’ve felt blindsided by the unprecedented events of the past couple of months, you weren’t alone. We hope these personal experiences from industry experts help you in chalking a leadership path onwards and upwards.