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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Lessons to Learn From: CEOs Explain How They're Responding to COVID-19

These CEOs are leading with vulnerability and authenticity, being straightforward about what they know and what they don't, and putting people and communities before profit.
By Mary Mazzoni
Adam Silver NBA CEOs respond to coronavirus

In times of crisis, people look to leaders for reassurance. And while some CEOs have stayed silent, continuing to collect seven-figure salaries and mind their bottom lines even as their employees face layoffs or feel unsafe coming to work, we've seen truly inspirational leadership from purpose-driven executives across the U.S. These CEOs are leading with vulnerability and authenticity, being straightforward about what they know and what they don't, and putting people and communities before profit.

If you need some help restoring your faith in humanity, read on for a dozen standouts that crossed our desks over the past month. 

Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner 

Commissioner Adam Silver (pictured above) moved to suspend the 2020 NBA season within minutes of the first player testing positive for the new coronavirus, at a cost of more than a billion dollars. Since then, at least 15 others in the league have tested positive, indicating Silver's early action prevented the virus from spreading even further among players, staff and fans. He spoke with humility about the decision in a March interview with CBS Sports

"The decision then, in retrospect, most would argue events made it for me, but it seemed in that moment the right thing to do was to suspend the operation of the season," Silver said. 

When asked whether he believed the season could continue this year, he replied: "We're gonna try by every means we can to play basketball again, but the safety and health of our players and fans is first, so I don't want to speculate more than that. That will be the condition of how much we can play — when public health officials give us the okay."

Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks

Days after Silver announced the suspension of the NBA season, business mogul and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he would continue to pay all stadium employees indefinitely. Cuban, who has been a leading voice for a science-based, people-first business response to the pandemic, offered a refreshing perspective on his decision in an April interview with WBUR, Boston's NPR News Station. 

"The CEO is of no more importance than somebody cleaning the floors," Cuban said. "I think that this is a time as a reset where we really have to reevaluate how we treat workers, how people are paid, how can we get them into a role where they receive an equity as part of their compensation, so that they're not having to live paycheck to paycheck, they have something that appreciates. All these things I think are important as we go through this reset in business.

"How you treat your employees today will have more impact on your brand in future years than any amount of advertising, any amount of anything you literally could do," he continued. "Because, again, we're all suffering from this. Every single person is looking to see how their company is treating them, how their employers are treating family members and friends."

Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP

Senior citizens are at far higher risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. As the most powerful U.S. advocacy group for seniors, AARP responded right away — providing locally-based coronavirus resources for older Americans, helping them guard against fraudsters targeting their stimulus payments, and advocating for reform in nursing homes, many of which have been reportedly lax in their communication to worried loved ones during the crisis.

CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, who Black Enterprise named as one of its most powerful women in corporate America, elaborated on that last point in an open letter.

"The lack of transparency from the nation's nursing homes is nothing short of outrageous," Jenkins wrote. "We all know that COVID-19 is especially dangerous for older people, particularly those with underlying conditions. Those living in close quarters are even more susceptible. But there's no reason nursing home residents should be made more vulnerable because they and their loved ones weren't kept informed or provided an easy way to stay in touch."

Chuck Robbins, CEO of Cisco

As we profiled on 3p this week, Cisco moved quickly to deploy its people and resources across three critical areas of need: education, healthcare and humanitarian aid. As of last month, the more than $200 million it committed was the second largest donation worldwide in response to COVID-19. While speaking with Bloomberg about how the coronavirus is affecting Cisco's business, CEO Chuck Robbins kept bringing the conversation back to the impact on others, particularly the most vulnerable. 

"The big thing we are really worried about — beyond our customers, beyond our employees — are our communities," Robbins said. "We see what is happening with our homeless communities, with what is happening when we are one financial crisis away from being on the streets. This is what we have to focus on right now." 

Kevin Johnson, CEO of Starbucks 

In late January, Starbucks shuttered 80 percent of its stores in China to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus. The lessons it learned armed the company for a swift and decisive response in the U.S.

In mid-March, as state and local governments began implementing stay-at-home orders, Starbucks announced it would continue to pay employees for 30 days — whether they worked or not. Employees whose stores remained open for drive-thru and delivery and who felt comfortable coming to work received a $3 per hour raise. CEO Kevin Johnson detailed the mindset behind the decision in an appearance on CNBC’s "Squawk on the Street" on March 24: 

"I believe it's the responsibility of every business leader to care for the employees during this time of uncertainty, shared sacrifice and common cause," he told CNBC's Jim Cramer. "Not every decision is a financial one. This is a time to prioritize people over profit."

Beth Ford, CEO of Land O’ Lakes

As demand for grocery staples surges across the U.S., employees at food processing facilities such as those operated by Land O' Lakes are considered essential workers. Beth Ford, who took the helm of the farmer-owned cooperative in 2018, says she continues to focus on the health and wellbeing of employees — including through increased wages, added benefits like extended sick and childcare leave, and enhanced safety measures that ensure social distancing. 

“Where you learn a lot is if you listen to your employees,” Ford told Twin Cities Business, which reports on business news in the company's home state of Minnesota. “What are their concerns? Then you try to mitigate those concerns. That, I think, is the most important thing for us.”

David Cordani, CEO of Cigna

Cigna was the first insurer to commit to covering all costs related to coronavirus testing and treatment — including hospitalizations, future medications and future vaccines — both in and out of network. It was later joined by Humana. CEO David Cordani elaborated further in a March 30 appearance on "Squawk on the Street." 

"In a time of crisis, which is what we confront right now, we're telling ourselves to step forward and help our customers, help our patients, and provide them peace of mind," Cordani said. "We're stepping in to help customers, and in this case as we step back and see individuals fighting the health challenge, we wanted to take the financial burden off their docket." 

Lisa Su, CEO of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD)

In March, AMD transitioned all 10,000 of its employees to remote work, managing to execute sophisticated engineering tasks from a distance. Employees who cannot work due to health or family challenges continue to receive full pay. The company also stepped up to donate $15 million worth of high-performance computing systems to research institutions working on treatments and vaccines. Lisa Su, one of very few women of color to lead an S&P 500 company, confirmed her commitment to action in a recent interview with CRN Magazine

"AMD remains focused on providing strong and unwavering support to our employees, customers and the communities around the world we call home," Su said. "We look forward to continued partnership and shared resilience as we persevere and become a stronger global community." 

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft

This pandemic hits especially close to home for Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. His 23-year-old son, Zain, has cerebral palsy, which weakens his immune system and puts him at increased risk for serious complications if he were to contract the new coronavirus. As he helps one of the world's largest technology companies navigate disruptions caused by the pandemic, Nadella's son is always on his mind, he told the Seattle Times. And he got real in a lengthy email sent to employees in March, as reported by the Times

“We are in uncharted territory,” Nadella wrote. “Much is unknown, and I know how unsettling and uncertain this feels. Like many of you, there have been times over the past weeks where it has felt overwhelming and all-encompassing for me. I worry about the health and safety of my family, my co-workers and friends. My wife and I worry for her aging parents, who are far away from us in India."

“One truth that brings me comfort is, just as this virus has no borders, its cure will have no borders,” he continued. “We are all in this together as a global community. For me, the best way I’ve found to get past this anxiety is to focus on what I can do each day to make a small difference. Each of us, wherever we are, has the opportunity to do the same — take an action driven by hope, a small step that makes things a bit better. And if everyone does something that makes the world a bit better, our collective work will in fact make the world a lot better, for the people we love, for our communities, for society.”

Claudio Del Vecchio, CEO of Brooks Brothers

On March 30, Brooks Brothers announced it would transition its three U.S. factories from producing shirts and ties to surgical masks and medical gowns for frontline healthcare workers. CEO Claudio Del Vecchio explained the move on "Squawk on the Street" a day later. 

"Our priority is the health and safety of our people and our customers," Del Vecchio said. "We are celebrating our 202nd birthday, and through many of those years we had to go through a lot of challenges. We had a couple of world wars and the [Great] Depression, and we came out of all of those things pretty well, thanks to the support of our customers. That's why we wanted to go out and support our customers and the communities who have supported us for so many years."

Omar Ishrak, CEO of Medtronic

Among other things, medical device company Medtronic produces ventilators — which are needed for patients who are seriously ill with COVID-19. Medtronic is working with other companies to increase its production of ventilators by 40 percent, and it open-sourced the design schematics for one of its ventilator models so it can be produced by any company in order to meet demand. CEO Omar Ishrak offered a message of solidarity and reassurance in an open letter to customers and patients

"The world is facing an unprecedented human challenge with COVID-19, and this virus requires an unprecedented response," he wrote. "We will never compromise our integrity and, like we have done for seven decades, we will put the patient’s needs at the forefront of our decision-making. We will not raise prices or pit one customer against another in a bidding process for these critical products.... We know this virus can and will be defeated, and we will do our utmost to make that a reality."

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple

Apple closed its 42 stores in China in January in response to the coronavirus. In mid-March, it did the same in the U.S., shuttering stores from coast to coast in an attempt to slow the spread. The company continues to pay retail employees as if stores were open. And, after initially leaving contract workers like janitors and shuttle bus drivers out of its compensation plans, the company pivoted and said they, too, would continue to receive full pay during the shutdowns. CEO Tim Cook explained further in a company statement. 

"This global effort — to protect the most vulnerable, to study this virus, and to care for the sick — requires all of our care, and all of our participation," he wrote. "We do not yet know with certainty when the greatest risk will be behind us. And yet I have been inspired by the humanity and determination I have seen from all corners of our global community. As President Lincoln said in a time of great adversity: 'The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.'”

Image credit: Mayo Clinic/Flickr

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni