Bob Chapman admits that the economic future looks darker than at any time during his 46 years running Barry-Wehmiller, including the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 when he asked employees each to take a month off without pay so that the $3-billion diversified manufacturer could avoid laying people off.
But Chapman says that during COVID-19 the imperative for him as the leader of a business, and for all CEOs, remains taking care of his company’s employees above all else. And right now, that requires an intense focus on the short-term demands of getting the company past the immediate crisis created by the medical threat of the coronavirus and how governments have locked down the economy because of it.
“It’s a fundamental responsibility of leaders to give those people in our span of care a grounded sense of hope for the future,” Chapman told Chief Executive. “We always have a responsibility to see where people are right now in the context of where we’re going. If you don’t know where we’re going, how do you know what you’re doing about it today?
“But the crisis creates a different environment. ‘We have to get through this and clear the mountains with our plane, or we’ll all die.’ Our short-term focus has to blur our long-term focus in terms of the ramifications.”
Chapman has become a leading avatar of corporate culture as a way to long-term business success and wrote a book in 2015, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family. For Barry-Wehmiller, the establishment of a thriving internal culture under the rubric “Truly Human Leadership” became one of the keys to the company’s strong performance and extraordinary growth over the years, as it acquired, digested and acculturated more than 100 other companies.
One of Chapman’s foundational principles for Truly Human Leadership is for a CEO to build and execute a business model that will be strong enough to withstand crises like the Great Recession while keeping a company’s culture intact, including its employee base. So some of the levers available to a CEO to maintain a company’s workforce amid the coronavirus were determined long before this crisis, and the sustainability of a business model amid a downturn is one of them.
Chapman also acknowledged that the shutdown of demand for many companies has been so profound that no existing playbook can help CEOs. “If you’re the president of a hotel chain, what have you learned?” he said. “You have no idea of what the curve or the new normal will look like in terms of people’s confidence in traveling.”
Neither do board members have particular insights into many of the unprecedented difficulties being created by how governments have responded to COVID-19.
“None of us have been through this and nobody has the answer,” he said.
Yet, Chapman insisted, CEOs must battle to find ways “to get through the crisis and preserve your culture and your value proposition.” And as they do, they and CEOs must be conscious that most illness is chronic, and that by far the biggest cause is stress – and work causes Americans more stress than anything else.
“One of the things that people don’t ever know how to calculate is when you decide you’re going to let 100 people go. You can calculate exactly what you’re going to save in compensation and benefits, but you can’t calculate the impact on 100 people who stay,” Chapman said. “The importance of the feeling of safety to them is incalculable.”