What 2020 Taught Executives About Leadership, Doing Business

After a challenging year, middle market executives share how they managed through disruption and change in 2020.

This article was published on Forbes.com in February 2021.

In early 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic emerged in a generally fertile economic landscape. Within weeks, markets had plunged, lockdowns had commenced and much of the world had entered unknown territory.

Leaders who led their companies through the pandemic found that innovation and ingenuity were more important than ever before. 

We spoke with leading executives, asking them to highlight experiences from the pandemic that other business leaders may find useful.  Here’s what they said. 


Leave Your Comfort Zone

Liz Neumark, CEO, Great Performances

When Covid-19 hit, many New Yorkers were facing food shortages. To help solve the problem, Great Performances, a hospitality and events company in New York City, offered its food production and delivery services without thinking twice. And it did so even though it lacked experience in this particular area.  

“I said, ‘We can do it. We can produce meals, box them and deliver them to the doorsteps. We’ll take Manhattan.’ We’d never done anything like that before, [but] many [employees] chose to come to work. Why? Because they wanted to be part of this. People wanted to be part of the response. It was an amazing moment of personal sacrifice for so many men and women who decided to show up. That continues to leave a huge impression.”


Be Mindful, Every Day

Stephen Ives, president & CEO of YMCA Greater Houston

As the Covid-19 crisis developed—threatening not only the financial health of the organization, but the well-being of the YMCA’s many communities—being present for his employees became a top priority for Ives.

“Meditation and mindfulness [is] a daily practice for me—sometimes multiple times a day—to make sure that I’m present with what’s happening, that I’m keeping it in perspective, and that I have the mental acuity and self-awareness necessary to understand what’s happening.... [Our] commitment to equity through it all kept my feet on the ground and caused me to go back on several occasions and rethink our decision-making.”


Do Unto Others

David Duncan, CEO, First Hospitality

Hospitality was arguably among the hardest hit sectors during the pandemic. First Hospitality’s David Duncan credits his organization’s survival largely to how his people continued to fulfill their roles with empathy.   

“The scope of the downturn has shaken the hospitality business to its core. This is a landscape-scale crisis. We were thankful for [having] a very agile, thoughtful team that’s focused on collaboration and having each other's backs during good times and bad. We’re looking out for each other and we follow the Golden Rule. That’s the singular thing that prepared us to pivot during this time period.”


Move Quickly And Fix Things

Vanessa Dew, co-founder, chief sales officer, Health-Ade Kombucha

When Covid-19 hit the restaurant sector, food manufacturers like Health-Ade Kombucha raced to launch or expand their e-commerce portals. There was no time to waste, says Vanessa Dew. 

“A lot of colleagues and friends who are founders felt like they needed [more] information before they could move. The people who responded best didn't get bogged down in the details... at Health-Ade, we’re gritty [and] we’re optimistic. That’s part of our core values, and it allowed us to pivot and pivot quickly.”


Stick To Your Mission

Nick Green, co-founder, CEO, Thrive Market

At organic food e-tailer Thrive Market, the challenge wasn’t losing business. It was meeting increased demand. The company’s long-held mission guided leadership decisions.

“There is power in having a mission. When there’s so much happening, so many things going on, so much noise and uncertainty, it can get your head spinning. For us as an organization, and certainly for me and my leadership team, everything came down to making healthy living easy and affordable to our members. That clarity made a lot of those decisions—I don't want to say they were easy decisions, but it enabled us to be more decisive. We actually cut products out of the catalog to focus on essential products. At one point, we had to reduce store hours to make sure senior citizens and healthcare workers got the products they needed. Our mission became a filter for all of our decisions.” 


Meet Your Customers Where They Live

Lori Coulter, co-founder, CEO, Summersalt

Spotting supply chain problems early, and understanding their implications, helped apparel company Summersalt shift its product line to meet new consumer demands.

“We knew we would see a supply shock. But we were never without supply because, while certain regions were shut down, other parts of our supply chain were still open. We shifted away from categories that we thought would be lower-demand, like resort wear and coverups. We took those fabrics and shifted into lounge wear, pajamas, and anything else that’s cozy and comfy that we knew would be important to the consumer while she was at home. That proved to be a really important move. We were able to meet the consumer where she was at that time.”


Choose Long-Term Relationships Over Short-Term Revenue

Elena Gomez, CFO, Zendesk

For SaaS companies, reducing churn during the crisis became a top priority. 

“When you go through a crisis or get thrown a curveball, it’s very easy to think short-term, to think about optimizing revenue for right now. But, in fact, we did the opposite. We talked to our customers to understand what they really needed, knowing this might mean less revenue. We were okay with that compromise. We felt that, if we have high integrity during this time and work with our customers, there will be a time when they come back. And that’s proven out… The lesson is, there will be times of crisis and you need to think about that customer relationship over the long term.”



Learn more about Capital One’s response to COVID-19 and resources available to customers. For information about COVID-19, head over to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

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