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I'm the CEO of a major nonprofit, and I caught COVID-19 — and still had to lead my team through the pandemic. This is what the biggest test of my career taught me about leadership and tough choices.

Martin Whittaker, just capital
  • Martin Whittaker is the founding CEO of JUST Capital, a nonprofit that tracks, analyzes, and engages with large corporations and their investors on how ethical, honest, and fair they are.
  • He is leading his team through the pandemic and battled COVID-19 himself, and he shares how he communicated with his team and the steps he took immediately after.
  • Whittaker says that while the show must go on, there is a crucial need for empathy during this time: don't underestimate the deeply personal nature of an individual's circumstances.
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Steering ​JUST Capital​ through the coronavirus crisis has been the biggest test of my professional career. The pandemic has affected us operationally. But it's also upended our entire industry. It's made our mission to build a stakeholder-led economy all the more urgent, and required us to make major tactical shifts quickly and under incredibly stressful conditions.
It also hit me personally: My son and I both contracted the virus just as it felt like the world was crashing down.
I've learned a lot about leadership, the importance of trust and empathy, and what a small-but-mighty team can do if it puts its mind to it. Frankly, I'm in awe of how the organization has responded and what we've accomplished in such a short space of time.
The first glimpse of what might be coming came in January at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. During February, like most others, we tracked the virus' progress and grew increasingly concerned. In early March, as the full magnitude of the situation began to sink in, it became clear to the leadership team that we had some critical decisions to make.
Within the space of a few days, we closed the office and made plans to pivot our entire operation to focus on how large corporations were responding to the crisis. We created our COVID-19 Corporate Tracker​, a ​daily blog​ of company actions and ​leadership principles​ to help companies seeking guidance.
Importantly, we realized we were in a defining moment both for our mission and our organization, and that "our time had come." It was an energizing feeling, that ran in strange counterpoint to the meltdown and the incredible hardship we were seeing around us. It still feels that way.

Making leadership decisions while sick

On Friday, March 13, my 19-year-old son flew home from college in the United Kingdom. Shortly after, he began displaying flu-like symptoms. He was fine after two days, but I awoke the morning of the following Monday with a mild fever, a dulled sense of smell and taste, stinging eyes, and a feeling like I'd been beaten up in my sleep.
My symptoms worsened over the following week, but I wasn't bedridden and was able to keep going in short bursts. I connected with our board chair and our CFO to begin working on a crisis budget. Charting a safe passage for the organization through the storm, without layoffs, became the No. 1 priority. Within a few days, we had a clear handle on what options lay before us, including a hiring freeze and escalating salary reductions for the senior leadership team.
Then began the process of communicating this, first to the management team and then to the entire organization. That wasn't pleasant, but everyone understood and accepted what needed to be done. For a small nonprofit already stretched to the limit, it was humbling to witness such dedication and selflessness. I also immediately began reaching out to donors, one by one, to get guidance on their commitments for 2020. We created a relatively clear "base case" roadmap for the year, which built confidence in our ability to make it through financially. Of course, all of this remains a work in progress.
Also during that week, we convened a meeting of our CEO advisory council, which comprises ex-CEOs of large corporations, and ran a full board meeting. The advice we got from our directors and advisors was invaluable and gave us real situational visibility. It also gave me confidence I had everyone's full backing. We knew we were on the right track, and that our entire year would be defined by the next few weeks.
The pace of events during that time was relentless. The entire team was on 24/7. Our work on COVID-19 was attracting a huge amount of attention and we were getting a lot of press and inbound calls from companies, investors, and donors. We tried to anticipate what might be coming next, strategically and operationally. We expanded the Tracker, broadened our polling work, and engaged CEOs and other stakeholder groups directly. March, in fact, turned out to be our best month ever in terms of media visibility and digital profile. It was an incredible achievement.
Being at home helped because I could take brief naps during the day and get fresh air when I needed to. I was finally tested for COVID-19 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on Friday, March 20. By that time, some of my symptoms had disappeared, but I had a growing tightness in my chest and a deep cough. That cough worsened for a few days, and on occasions made it hard to take a full lungful of air. It was probably the scariest part of the whole ordeal.
I was told I'd get the test results within three or four days, but it would be 13 days before I got the positive confirmation, by which time I was fully recovered. My son and I recently took the antibody test and it confirmed we'd both had decent doses of the virus and could donate plasma to others. Even though no one can guarantee immunity, the medical professionals have all said we should be protected as long as we retain the antibodies. It gives you a sensation of invulnerability.

Advice for others

It's difficult to draw any universal lessons from my experience, in part because we are still in the thick of things, but mainly because every CEO and business leader is in a unique situation. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of the crisis is that we are all going through it together, yet separately. We're all experiencing our own ups and downs, and our own physical, mental, and emotional challenges. I know it has taken its toll on the team.
I believe the crisis accentuated both our strengths and our weaknesses. I learned, thanks to our chief strategy officer, to draw a distinction between the needs of the organization and the needs of the individual. The show must go on, but do not underestimate the deeply personal nature of every individual's circumstances. People need to step away. Empathy is crucial. Agility is also key, which places a premium on honesty and trust.
With team members making complex decisions quickly in real time, so is forgiveness and understanding, of others and of oneself. People will err, and it's important to quickly learn, iterate, and move on. I reach out to team members individually as often as possible to see how they are doing, and our operations and HR team have been spectacular, but even so it has been hard.
One thing we did that helped a lot was conduct an anonymous employee survey. This generated some great feedback and helped provide clear direction on how to improve matters. At the end of the day, it's the talent, commitment, trust and grit of the team that makes the difference. Every successful group I've ever been part of has this, and Team JUST has it in spades.
As I take stock of things, it is clear to me that we will not be returning to business as usual — not as an organization, and not as a country. Like the virus itself, the return to work will be a deeply personal journey for each and every one of us. People will experience varying levels of anxiety, desperation, safety, and choice. Coronavirus has brutally exposed the fault lines of our economy and brought capitalism to a crossroads. Will the stakeholder model prevail? I hope so, because I fear a real backlash if we revert to short-term shareholder primacy.
Most of all, it's brought out the best in people and organizations when it truly mattered. That's what I'll remember the most when all is said and done.
Martin Whittaker is the founding CEO of JUST Capital and is responsible for the overall leadership of the organization. He is also cofounder and a board member of the CREO Syndicate, a family office investment network; a board member of the Carbon Disclosure Project US; a member of the Forbes Finance Council and Forbes Contributor; and an advisor to Mission Driven Capital Partners, a private equity firm.
NOW READ: LinkedIn's incoming CEO Ryan Roslansky starts in June. He says these are the 3 principles the company is relying on to get through the coronavirus pandemic.
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