Leadership Through Challenging Times: Best Practices for COVID-19

Published on March 31, 2020


The economic effects of the coronavirus are broad and far-reaching. Even so, the situation presents significant opportunities for innovation leaders. There is no better time to learn from each other to ensure the well-being of our communities, employees, and their families. 

In our first virtual fireside session "Leadership Through Challenging Times" we were privileged to host a conversation between Matthias Arleth, Deputy Chairman of Webasto Group, and Saeed Amidi, Founder and CEO of Plug and Play.  Webasto is ranked among the top 100 automotive suppliers worldwide, and won praise for its response to the coronavirus, quickly closing its sites in Germany, isolating employees, and ultimately bringing the outbreak under control. 

Matthias has held Executive and Board-level positions at Webasto since 2011 and has been part of the Webasto's leadership team providing direction and guidance through the crisis. 

COVID-19: First Positive Cases in Webasto

"That day was really tough for us. We were thinking, what does this mean, what do we do, how do we protect our people?"

Webasto’s journey began when one of their employees became symptomatic after returning from a business trip to China. Right after the company found out about this, the first infection was confirmed. Twelve hours later, another three or four. 

The First Steps Taken 

Within 24 hours, Webasto organized their response. Convening functional leaders, they used two methods: Design Thinking combined with Scrum. In the beginning, they decided to conduct daily, one-hour-long standups to bring people together and organize the work effectively. On the first day, about one hundred tasks were opened. The point was to bring the whole team in a mode where they are able to close those hundred tasks, establishing rules on how to work in such a mode. 

Main Takeaways of Those Sessions

Webasto had been working on different pinboards and established multiple working groups within the organization to manage the following activities:

  1. Establishing communication channels with Government Authorities
  2. Testing and identifying "Category One” employees
  3. Managing internal and external communication (television, press and external media)
  4. Business continuity and financial planning
  5. Capturing best practices and lessons learned.

The Most Important Is To Be Prepared And Know How To Deal With The Crisis

The first goal was to find "Category One” people—those that had spent more than 15 minutes of face-to-face contact with an infected person. These people were isolated and asked to stay away from family members or from people who they are living with. 

It took them about one and a half days to find everyone classified as "Category One". And then it took another two days to test them. It was essential for the company to make this process as quickly as possible. Later they could identify “Category One” people within a couple of hours.  

Within 48 hours, after discovering a significant number of positive cases, they decided to shut down operations in Germany. Webasto's headquarters hosts over two thousand people, who then had to start working from home. 

What Should Leaders Do When Crisis Disrupts Companies

1. Establish excellent communication with the authorities from all the company's locations. 

"It took us a big effort to synchronize what the authorities are doing and what we are doing."

2. Set up an internal communication process. People need information and clear information. If they hear that one of their colleagues is infected, it's vital to give them the right information and let them know that you're taking care of them. 

3. Resort to your insurance company and get advantage of medical services such as telemedicine. This way, employees can contact doctors online and avoid face-to-face conversations.

4. Make sure your people's jobs are secured. For leaders, it's essential to make the right decisions. Their primary focus should be to protect their people and to decide fast.

5. Plan how to bring people back to a safe environment. 

6. Create a dedicated team for continuity planning.

Many governments worldwide are starting to build umbrellas to help. For example, in Germany, they launched a State Aid to avoid massive layoffs. "We have a lot of locations where we have zero income and zero sales because we have a lot of production sites that are not in production at the moment. And it's tough to foresee how long this will last," said Arleth.

What Should Leaders Do to Keep Motivation Up?

  • Be open and transmit people transparent information. Get in touch with employees regularly to make sure they get the message firsthand.  "We got a lot of very positive feedback from our people. I think this is at the moment, the best thing we can do to make sure that our voice is arriving to the people and ensuring that it's rightly understood."

  • Use digital tools to communicate. For example, video messages that can be easily recorded and sent around the world.

  • From the top management, take the time to make sure that the message is working well at the frontline.

  • Get aligned with the current state of the industry. In industries such as automotive, there are a lot of dependencies between its players - suppliers, partners, corporations, and so on. In this situation, it becomes challenging to manage sources.

"In Germany, we proposed the controlled breaker for weeks altogether for the whole automotive industry to move everything four weeks forward," said Arleth. "The whole industry can go to sleep mode, and in four weeks, we restart because we have to sync how to protect it."

Look For the Silver Linings

Matthias is convinced that there are value creation opportunities in the midst of the crisis. For example, the crisis has forced companies to embrace new, more efficient ways of working and collaborating.  “We are all learning very fast to use new tools, even people who thought they would never touch a smartphone are learning to work with it. We are learning to work in a virtual environment, and as a consequence, saving on travel costs.”

Key Qualities for Those Leading A Company

  • For those in leadership positions, Matthias Arleth highlighted the following key priorities: 

  • Communicate the importance of taking things seriously. Communicate with people regularly, and let them know that this situation is a serious one. Do not take things lightly. 

  • Forward-thinking attitude. The leader should present a clear picture of how to go forward and the plan to operate effectively in the new normal. 

  • Listen to your employees. Leaders should communicate fast, but they also need to take into account that there is not enough time to have discussions with everybody. 

  • Stay optimistic. It's easy to give in to panic in this situation, that's why the leader should transmit the positive spirit to employees.

  • Be mission-minded—keep motivated by focussing on your responsibility to lead people through this crisis. 

  • Take care of yourself. Exercise and connect with friends and family.


We have launched a global COVID-19 accelerator dedicated to scaling the world’s most promising startups who can help address the coronavirus pandemic. Join the platform today.