CEO responses to COVID-19: The good, the bad and the ugly

Jeff Bezos, Satya Nadella and Elon Musk have all taken different approaches to the crisis.

by Management Today
Last Updated: 20 Mar 2020
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Coronavirus

Few CEOs in business today will have faced a sterner test of leadership than what is required of them now. 

A crisis as sudden, unprecedented and unknowable as the COVID-19 outbreak places extraordinary demands on leaders. Fairly or otherwise, their responses will be judged by employees, customers, investors, communities and posterity.

Did they react swiftly enough? Did they take the hard decisions? Were they right? Were they clear and reassuring in their communications? 

Here are some high-profile examples, so you can see how you measure up.

The good: Satya Nadella

Microsoft employees began working from home when the first signs of the coronavirus outbreak were appearing in Kirkland, Washington, where the company is based. On March 4, CEO Satya Nadella asked everyone who could work from home to do so, in advance of guidance from local officials on social distancing and for the over 60s to stay at home, and far in advance of most other large employers, reported the NY Times.  

Since then Microsoft has been helping other businesses deal with the outbreak, sharing information on its plans with other executives in Challenge Seattle, a local group whose members employ a large number in the area, and offering its Healthcare Bot service to organisations dealing with COVID-19, which includes screening patients for potential infection. 

The NHS is also supported by Microsoft, which has let NHS workers use Microsoft Teams for free so that they can communicate throughout the outbreak. 

Nadella has made a textbook response to the crisis, characterised by swift, decisive action; clear and regular communication (including daily emails updating staff); informed decision-making (the senior leadership team followed the advice of an in-house public health expert, and met daily to discuss the issue as it developed); and humanity (Nadella’s motivation for acting so quickly was fear for people like his son, who are especially vulnerable to the disease).

The bad: Elon Musk

If any boss was likely to use the coronavirus outbreak as a PR opportunity it would be Elon Musk.

The Tesla boss responded to a request from a Twitter user that his companies will be able to make ventilators if there is a shortage. He’s also questioned how severe the COVID-19 pandemic is, tweeting to his 32.5m followers that “coronavirus panic is dumb” and sharing false information about the scale of the outbreak in the USA. 

Of course Musk has history when it comes to wading into international catastrophes - and spouting his views to the twittersphere. He infamously labelled a cave diver a “pedo guy” after they criticised SpaceX’s generous and not-at-all-publicity-driven decision to manufacture a submarine to rescue the 12 boys trapped in the Tham Luang Cave. (An LA jury found him not guilty of defamation.) 

To be fair to Musk, if the company can get it right, his offer to manufacture ventilators would be welcome given concerns over the lack of capacity in health care systems around the globe: being a keyboard warrior does not necessarily make you a bad boss, though feeding your staff false information and putting them at risk probably does.  

Last week, according to the LA Times, he circulated a company wide email further downplaying the risk of coronavirus to Tesla staff - although he did reassure workers that if they had concerns they were welcome to stay at home and not feel stressed. 

Musk initially refused to close Tesla’s Fremont car factory, despite local authorities ordering all “non-essential” businesses in the Bay Area to close. Tesla has allegedly agreed to cut numbers at the factory from 10,000 to 2,500. 

If leadership during the coronavirus is all about showing your staff that you care, as Alliance Manchester business school’s Cary Cooper says, Musk needs to sharpen his act.

The ugly: Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos is rightly famed as one of the world’s most successful bosses, a visionary with a sharp understanding of the big picture and a relentless drive to deliver. But Mr Warm Hugs he is not.

True to form, the Amazon founder’s response has been relatively muted as far as public statements go (no Twitter oversteps here), but a lot’s been going on behind the scenes. 

The ecommerce giant’s main priority has been, as ever, its customers. While ramping up capacity, Amazon is prioritising medical supplies and household staples, cracking down on third-party price gouging and allowing customers to indicate whether there’s ‘no rush’ for an order, so that those in need can get deliveries first.

Amazon’s actions towards its employees have received a more mixed reaction. While white collar staff have been told to work from home, warehouse workers have complained of overwork in overcrowded conditions, with the company’s offer of unlimited unpaid leave serving only to encourage people to come in when it would be safer for them to stay home.

As one US worker told the Guardian, “There are people coughing in here. There aren’t paper masks. We are getting unlimited unpaid time off, but I still need to pay bills and rent.”

Since then, Amazon has offered two weeks’ paid leave, as well as hiring 100,000 new temporary staff and upping wages by £2/$2/€2 an hour, though The Atlantic reports that it is still requiring staff to come to work at a warehouse in New York where a worker tested positive for COVID-19.

While all this has been happening, incidentally, Amazon’s share price has recovered to January levels, and Bezos has also taken the opportunity to reconcile with Donald Trump, apparently by assisting the White House in its coronavirus response. Silver linings abound.

Image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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