02 Nov 2021 / Article

African CEOs share leadership lessons from Covid-19 crisis


The ongoing global coronavirus outbreak has placed extraordinary demands on business leaders. Some of Africa’s top CEOs assess how they dealt with the challenges.


With the pandemic sparking fear among employees, clients and other stakeholders, the pandemic brought to fore certain leadership qualities. From agility, versatility and responsiveness to the ability to drive organisational change, as well as ensuring early adoption of technological innovations, business leaders had to reinvent themselves as well as their companies. The Africa CEO Forum offers you the opportunity to share the thoughts and experiences of four African CEOs on how they have managed this unique period


Empathy and communication – Allan Kilavuka, CEO, Kenya Airways


The aviation industry was among the hardest hit by the pandemic as global travel ground to a halt in the wake of lockdown restrictions.


Kenya Airways, for instance, had to pack up its aircraft as its employees stayed idle, the airline’s CEO and MD, Allan Kilavuka recalls.


“For the first time in many years, we found ourselves in a truly unprecedented situation,” he said on a panel session at the Africa CEO Forum 2021 Digital Edition. “It was very difficult.”


So how did Kilavuka navigate this situation? “Personally, I quickly learned to stay close to my people by communicating constantly and consistently with them as well as expressing empathy because of the mental, physical and financial trauma,” he said.


Kilavuka also said management would do more to anticipate unlikely events of such scale. “We have emergency response plans and do a lot of planning, but we don’t really anticipate this level of disruption.”


Transparency and testing tech for remote work – Karim Bernoussi, CEO, Intelcia


Karim Bernoussi, CEO & Co-Founder of Morocco-based outsourcing company Intelcia, however, disagrees that any management team could have anticipated the disruption caused by the pandemic.


“Nobody can be prepared for such a shock. Even if you plan ahead, you’re rarely faced with a situation where, for instance, all the 50 countries you have a presence in, would be affected.”


Bernoussi considers his team “lucky” because lockdown restrictions were imposed country after country and not all at once, giving them room to adjust.


Intelcia made moves around remote working and client communication that kept the business afloat during the pandemic, he said during the discussion anchored by Lisa Ivers, Partner & Managing Director at The Boston Consulting Group.


These included moving to a fully remote work system and finding the requisite technology solutions and testing them quickly. The company also committed to maintaining the pay of its more than 20,000 employees despite the pandemic’s impact and providing protective equipment to keep them safe.


For its clients, Intelcia set up communication channels to keep them updated about its operations and measures being taken. The company also held periodic crisis meetings internally to measure the state of progress.


“We ensured clear positions and transparency in all the countries we’re present. With this trust that we put in the different stakeholders, we were able to face this crisis and interestingly, our results were better than before as revenues stayed constant while expenses reduced,” Bernoussi said.


Insurance pay outs – Eddie Ford Brown, CEO, Prudential (Francophone Africa)


For insurance companies, the fallout from the Covid-19 outbreak caused a surge in health, travel, and business interruption claims. While most insurers didn’t grant these claims, for Eddie Ford Brown, Chairman & CEO, Prudential Beneficial Life Insurance, that didn’t seem right.


“At the time, Italy and Europe were hit very hard by Covid and we thought that wave was coming to Africa. That’s when we decided to do the right thing and were the only company paying out in our region,” Brown said.


“It was a very scary and difficult thing to do but I learnt it was important to not leave your clients hanging when things get difficult and that worked out well for us.”


According to Brown, it was equally important to invest in employees because they’re vital to getting companies through crises. Communication is also key, he said. “People need to know and understand what’s going on. In difficult times, that’s the only thing that gives you comfort.”


Employee food & transport support – Toyin Sanni, CEO, Emerging Africa Group


In addition to the impact of Covid-19 on businesses, Toyin Sanni, Founder & Group CEO of Nigerian financial services firm, Emerging Africa Group, grappled with personal health issues after getting infected with the virus.


“Being down with Covid myself, I struggled between my desire to be transparent and the need to also protect the confidence of the team,” she recalled. “The period really put to test our resilience in terms of business continuity and pace of technology adoption, flexibility and communication ability.”


Even as she struggled, it was “important to show empathy” to the team and very early on in the crisis. Emerging Africa supported its employees with food supplies and took responsibility for transportation of personnel without private cars.


The company also had to adopt technology very fast for remote work-from client acquisition to services and all the way to reporting.


“We invested significantly in making that switch and also in putting in place our controls and firewalls because there were heightened security risks,” she said. “That paid off because our business experienced a boom and has grown consistently with our staff strength doubled since the lockdown.”

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