CEOs’ Keys to Surviving a Crisis


Joshua Pardo Blumen, McGill University students MBA program, contributed to this piece.

I am confident to say that the Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the most significant business disruptions I have witnessed in my life. In the second half of 2020, I invited over 40 CEOs and other leaders to our CEO Insights course at McGill University to learn more about their first-hand experiences with the pandemic. From Ola Källenius of Mercedes-Benz to David Bensadoun of the Aldo Group to Tabatha Bull, CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, they shared their perspectives on this pivotal moment we are all living through. As we approach 2021, I thought it was a good time to reflect on the lessons learned in these difficult times and the lessons my guests have learned from them.

The most obvious skill leaders need in this context is adaptability. At the onset of the pandemic and as it continued to transform, leaders had to change their normal operating procedures in order to survive a crisis that has the potential to permanently shut down 225,000 businesses across Canada.

However, adaptation itself is not enough; change must be implemented quickly. Antonio Park, owner of Park and Kampai Garden restaurants, said he turned to a take-out and delivery model as soon as possible so he could continue to earn income. Not reacting in real time could have cost Park its restaurants.

“It’s simple: if we hadn’t moved quickly to a take-out format, our customers would have gone to other restaurants,” he explained,

A disruptive event like a pandemic can also allow leaders to seize opportunities that might not otherwise exist. Lightspeed CEO Dax Dasilva explained that the point-of-sale software provider has broadened its portfolio and taken advantage of the opportunities that are blooming as businesses expand their digital capabilities and the e-commerce boom. Their Lightspeed supplier network, which aims to help retailers replenish their inventory more efficiently by connecting them with independent suppliers, is an example of a new feature that has emerged from this unique situation.

Likewise, venture capital and private equity firms have benefited from an opportunity to expand their portfolios. Venture capitalists can invest in start-ups that increase their value now that digitization has become more crucial than ever, while private equity firms are able to acquire companies that have been affected by the pandemic. For example, in 2020, Paul Desmarais III, CEO of Sagard Holdings, the multi-strategy alternative asset manager, launched a private equity platform that targets the mid-market in Canada.

The pandemic has given companies the opportunity to step back and rethink their operations, or relaunch ongoing initiatives that were progressing at a moderate pace. Aldo has used the end of non-essential in-person purchases to accelerate the pace of an ongoing transformation project. When the world shut down last March, the Canadian group was migrating from a traditional brick-and-mortar business model to a largely digital one. Its CEO, David Bensadoun, said that in the first weeks after the start of the pandemic, the shoe and accessories retailer closed around 40% of its stores and boosted its e-commerce platform. with online sales 77% higher than in 2019.

Likewise, Conrad Sauvé, President and CEO of the Canadian Red Cross, said the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted a critical strategic direction for the organization: a need for funding for greater capacity. reserve. In response to this need, the organization created a civilian reserve to support long-term care facilities at the onset of the pandemic. Although, in the case of both organizations, these measures would likely have been implemented within a few years, their implementation has been accelerated by the current pandemic, proving that some organizations will emerge from the pandemic stronger than before.

Based on the ideas of CEOs who visited the classroom, companies betting on diversification ahead of the pandemic could likely weather this storm with less difficulty. Claridge Investment’s portfolio includes companies in a variety of industries such as renewable energy, hospitality and real estate. Stephen Bronfman, executive chairman of the Montreal-based private investment firm, explained that in the haze of cross-industry disruption, he was able to balance the headwinds in the live entertainment industry with the tailwinds in the realm of entertainment. technology.

Looking to the future, it looks like maintaining an organization’s culture and passing that culture on to new hires will become a long-term challenge. Most CEOs agree that the pandemic has exposed the flaws of traditional office life, and many have said they plan to take a more flexible approach to where their employees work. Nonetheless, almost all of our guests also agreed that a great degree of creativity was required to create a fully remote or hybrid workspace in the absence of full-time contact between employees. Phillip Crawley, editor and CEO of the Globe and Mail, shared some of his ideas for making gatherings easier while respecting security measures, which included summoning small groups to high-capacity spaces that would allow them to distance themselves.

The past year has been marked by historic changes but also by vital learning for companies. The pandemic has reminded leaders that the ability to remain adaptable and forward thinking is essential to weather any crisis.


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