When COVID-19 hit, there was no playbook on how to respond, how to not just sustain and protect but to prepare businesses for growth post-pandemic. Convention Host, David ‘Macca’ McCarthy, sat down with Paul Scurrah, Former CEO & Managing Director, Virgin Australia, and Cameron McIntyre, CEO & Managing Director, carsales, two of Australia’s most hands-on CEOs who lead businesses that COVID-19 has challenged in ways they never considered would happen.

Mr McIntyre said when the Victorian Government cancelled the Melbourne Formula 1 Grand Prix on 13 March, carsales kicked into action, canvassing international peers and colleagues in countries further advanced in terms of COVID-19 infection rates for coping tips and strategies.

“Between the 13th and the 23rd we spent a lot of time as a business planning for what the future could potentially look like, because no one had a playbook for what was to come,” he said.

He focused on three main areas.

“The first one was making sure that whatever we did we tried to protect our customers and our industry from what we thought was coming as much as we possibly could. Obviously we’re a public company, so that added an extra layer of complexity.

“The second one was making sure that as a business we were looking after our people, and our people were – I wouldn’t say comfortable – but had a realistic picture for what was coming.

“And the third thing we focused on was our product development. So where was the change likely to impact our customer base and our industry, and what were the things that we needed to do to pivot, in order to facilitate an environment that was likely to be touchless, as it was, and how can we support the industry in that environment.”

Mr McCarthy said both men were respected by their staff as honest and straightforward, but nonetheless, communicating the changes that needed to happen must have been difficult.

“To sit down and think about all the decisions that needed to be made was really challenging, so what we decided to do was to build a basic framework in which to encapsulate all of our decision-making, which was around supporting the business, customers, and our people,” Mr McIntyre said.
“But the stakeholder management piece that goes with that as you’re making these decisions – and you’re making them quickly – the decisions we made to support our customers in the industry were made even before JobKeeper came out – and the concerns that we obviously had were being a public company, that was going to create some noise.

“Normally between March and August you’d probably talk to the market maybe once – from our point of view between March and August we communicated four times. The message there was we needed to up-weight the cadence of our communication to all of our stakeholders, market being most important; customers being extremely important too. We had to focus more on providing up to date, relevant information that’s timely to customers around what was actually going on in the market at the time.”

Mr McIntyre said the Zoom format helped with communication and staying in touch with overseas developments, while contact with AADA and the Federal Government was important in staying informed.

Mr Scurrah described COVID as “a series of black swan events in terms of impact and reach”, but said the good news for Virgin was that airlines were very well-rehearsed for crisis management, for very good reason.

“We’ve got a high level of trust in us from the public to carry them safely. ou have to scenario-plan and rehearse on a regular basis. So it was something that we were well-prepared to deal with, but just not expecting the frequency with which we had to enact those actions that we’d rehearsed,” he said.

“In terms of the leadership challenge, it did change our focus quite a bit. There’s the ‘What’ and the ‘How’ of leadership – a CEO would normally be responsible for defining what success looks like, and that didn’t change, it just shortened the window. So when we went into COVID and when we went into administration, we had to reinvent the meaning of it, to say that success is actually about survival.

“Once you’ve defined that it’s best to be co-created with your shareholders, your people, and your customers, to build that road map out as to how you get there. Again, it was a much shorter window through COVID, but we had to take baby steps, each day at a time, hour by hour, to make sure that we were stepping in the right direction to help us survive.”

Mr Scurrah backed Mr McIntyre’s point on communication, saying “if you think you’re communicating enough in these circumstances, you need to think about quadrupling it. You can never over-communicate. Be as honest as you can in those circumstances.”

Honesty, not setting false expectations or over-promising what the future might hold were the keys to bringing people on the journey with you.

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