The coronavirus’ rapid spread throughout the world has created pandemic conditions we’ve seen before and not all that long ago. In 2003, SARS struck Hong Kong. I was there.
According to the World Health Organization, SARS affected 26 countries and resulted in more than 8,000 deaths. As of the writing of this article, the Washington Post reported a Level 3 travel advisory for South Korea, continued economic disruption across Asia, and death tolls in the thousands—all attributed to coronavirus. The New York Times reports that the coronavirus “has sickened more than 82,400 people [in 47 countries] … and at least 2,804 people have died.”
When facing a global health crisis like coronavirus, the most important thing for a leader to remember is that this is a humanitarian tragedy for those affected. Everyone should do their best to help save lives and stop the spread of the virus. The second thing to bear in mind is that this, too, shall pass. Consider how you want your staff, customers, suppliers, and partners in affected areas to think about you and your company after the crisis ends.
In this article, I share with you my own experience of managing a business during the 2003 SARS crisis in Hong Kong so that other leaders may learn from it.
I lived and worked in Hong Kong from 1997 to 2012, running the Asia-Pacific division of a small, multinational software company. I opened the office by myself in 1997, built up the business, and hired staff. Eventually, we had three offices around the region. The endeavor was very profitable, sending money back to corporate headquarters in New York. Life was good and business was good. It didn’t last.
In March 2003, SARS hit Hong Kong. It was a scary time to live in Hong Kong. Everyone wore masks and business came to standstill. During that time, I took part in biweekly conference calls with the other regional heads and senior management. Each regional head received time to update senior management on the status of the region. During one of those calls, I reported that some multinational companies were evacuating their ex-patriot employees to their home countries. One of my employer’s senior executives in New York said, “No, you should stay there.”
His response shocked me. A long silence followed. No one said anything to contradict him. At that moment, I realized four things: 1) my employer had no emergency preparedness plan; 2) my employer was only interested in the money I made for them; 3) they were not concerned with my safety or my staff’s safety; and, 4) I was on my own to manage the crisis.
Throughout the SARS crisis, my employer provided neither guidance nor support to help me manage anything. Fortunately, my girlfriend worked for a large, multinational bank, and she told me the steps the bank was taking to protect its employees and customers. Lacking any better guidance, I followed what they did.
I adjusted work hours so staff did not have to come to work during peak rush hour, which reduced their exposure to sick passersby. I made sure we had a full supply of surgical masks in the office for all staff and customers to use. I posted all Hong Kong government notices pertaining to the maintenance of good personal hygiene and how individuals could protect themselves from contagion. Seventeen years later, I still have the brochure the Hong Kong government distributed that contained information on personal, home, and environmental hygiene. I keep the document as a reminder of the challenge I faced and the accomplishments I made.
In hindsight, I’m glad I did not abandon my team in Asia. I’m proud of the way I handled the SARS crisis. My team knew I cared deeply about them, and our bond became stronger because of it. Eventually, SARS passed and business got back to normal. However, I never forgot that conference call and how senior management abandoned me to fend as best I could without any corporate assistance or support. Many of the senior management personnel who were on that conference call in 2003 still work for the company. I remember their names and not with any fondness.
Now we face a new global health crisis with coronavirus. I hope my experience can help you manage your businesses in such a way as to leave staff, customers, suppliers, and partners with the knowledge that they matter and that you care. How do you want your business—and yourself—remembered after the coronavirus crisis passes?
I encourage other business leaders to share their stories about how they manage their businesses during a crisis such as the current coronavirus pandemic. By sharing our stories, we can learn best practices from each other to implement now and to prepare us for the next crisis, so we emerge better, smarter, and stronger.