Navigating a global organization through a global health crisis in a world of provincial thinking

Everyone can’t be right

As CEO of a data management software company with a team of highly-skilled people scattered across the globe, this is something I have to tell myself, and members of my leadership team, on a regular basis. 

Until recently, this meant it was often my responsibility to evaluate recommendations from different, and occasionally dissenting, but always well-informed sources. And then to make the best decision for the organization based on the most trustworthy information and insight possible. 

That is the beauty of leading a confident, yet humble, organization where everyone is in it to win. And where it’s clear that what is best for all of us supersedes what is best for any one of us (myself included).

Then came the Coronavirus / COVID-19 and suddenly, living in a world where “everyone can’t be right” creates a whole new challenge.

I should say here that, since we are based in Denmark, a small country ranked 115th by population – we are accustomed to managing the subtleties and complexities of global markets. While our software addresses universal challenges and needs, to succeed we must always keep in mind that what works for our customers or employees in one country does not always match with what works in another. 

But COVID-19 is different. While it clearly presents an equally disruptive threat to people and societies everywhere, the actions being taken to contain it aren’t nearly as consistent. 

Here in Denmark, where we typically take what might be seen as a careful, more measured approach, our health authorities had been monitoring developments closely and following advisories from the WHO. That is until confirmed infections multiplied (113 as of this writing), including a former world cup football player, leading to an elevated risk assessment and a range of cautions and responses including quarantines, cancellations of large gatherings and advisories against casual contact. While unconfirmed, there are also rumors circulating of contingency plans for an even more direct response, should the situation escalate. 

But as I said earlier, “everyone can’t be right.”

Or shall I say, what is right for Denmark now is not necessarily right for those elsewhere. For example, looking East to China, where our business and presence has grown rapidly, authorities are moving assertively now after initial criticisms. Restrictions, quarantines and lockdowns abound, all enabled by extensive tracking of data provided by tech leaders including Alibaba Group. 

Once again, “everyone can’t be right.”

To the West, while many people and communities across the United States are highly concerned, and where confirmed COVID-19 cases are popping up in increasing numbers nationwide, the official government response is more tempered. Quarantines are self – though not legally – enforced. Selected gatherings and events (most recently Austin’s SXSW) have been cancelled. And while an $8.3B emergency spending plan has been approved in the worlds largest economy and significant more initiatives will be announced later today, many are concerned that decisive action should have come more quickly, including many of our employees working across multiple states.

So which direction shall our company take? What kind of guidance shall I, as CEO, provide across the company that bridges everyone’s individual concerns for their safety and health in the days ahead? Shall we work in the office or go advise people to go remote? Travel to customer sites? What about global company and industry meetings and events? 

Do we take the somewhat balanced approach as we are being advised here in Denmark? Or perhaps the much more draconian approach that has taken hold across China and much of Asia? Or maybe the more moderate approach as we’ve seen thus far in the U.S.?

It is a decision that has weighed heavily on my mind over the past few weeks and I know others in similar positions must feel the same way. How – as the leader of a modern dynamic global organization, operating in a global business environment where borders are less visible to so many people than they have ever been before, faced with a crisis of truly global proportions – does one take action against a backdrop of what I can only describe as provincial, or parochial thinking?

It occurs to me that in what has become an increasingly interdependent global society – a world where cultures and economies are becoming increasingly intertwined, and where our fortunes can rise and fall quickly due to unexpected, extraordinary global challenges and events – we can’t risk allowing our regional biases to jeopardize our safety as a whole. 

Bill Gates has long warned that the world is ill-equipped to manage a pandemic. And WHO has yet to conclusively say that the novel coronavirus has reached the level of a pandemic, but I have to support Gates when he say: “I hope it’s not that bad, but we should assume it will be until we know otherwise,” as Gates wrote in an op-ed for the New England Journal of Medicine February 28.

I’m not sure if the dilemma I have had to face regarding COVID-19 is the first of its kind. But I am pretty certain it won’t be the last. The next one may not involve healthcare. Whatever it is, I hope that technology can be applied to solve things in a more unified way. By providing better insight into data – and increased transparency for people around the world into global events – I believe we can all begin to think things through and address huge challenge like COVID-19 together. 

As I said at the start, “Everyone cannot be correct.” 

Once we all realize that, there isn’t a global challenge we can’t collectively take on. 

I should note here that in the days it took to put this opinion to paper, we continue our cautious approach, based on insights from the WHO, cancelling all non-essential business travel for at least the rest of this month, setting up local teams to monitor the situation locally, drill testing our contingency and evacuation plans, while continue to delight our customers virtually with less face-2-face meetings. We’ll figure out what is right for us from there. I hope for the same for you, as well.

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