It's late in the afternoon on March 24, 2020. By this time, Covid-19 has disrupted, oh, just about everything. Many people are dying. Raj Kumar and his team are unfazed. They'd been planning for Covid-19 since January--and for pandemics since forever.
"Most people want to say, 'This crisis, it's a black swan event,' " says Kumar, who is the founding president and editor in chief of Devex, the Bloomberg-ish hub for information on events in developing nations. "In the world of Devex, we did not view it that way. Crisis is the new normal. Disruption is the new normal."
For 20 years, Kumar and his team of 120 globally positioned employees have been providing on-the-ground reports and risk assessments on famines, floods, pandemics, and every other imaginable calamity. Devex's audience includes well over a million development managers, aid workers, and global business leaders, who rely on Kumar's team to run headlong into disaster zones, gather up information, and report it quickly and clearly.
On the Devex homepage, one click on the Team tab reveals a young, ethnically diverse group, including Kumar, whose demeanor defies any sense of discomfort. A collection of color snaps shows self-described "Devexers" beaming, some captured mid-laugh, under the screaming headline, "120+ Star Performers Helping You Change the World, and Having a Great Time Doing It."
"I try to model authentic optimism," Kumar says. "But I don't sugar-coat. In dire situations, you need to find one or two things people can look forward to--a solution, an innovation or technology, something exciting."
When the pandemic hit the fan, Devex team members were prepared. With information about the coronavirus shared in-house since early January--sources tipped the company just after New Year's that something heavy might be coming--all employees were required to work remotely and meet via Slack, which, in any case, was already the norm for most Devexers.
Kumar also called a global all-hands meeting to test team readiness, and managers recorded each employee's tasks, from the bottom to the top, to create redundancy for all operations.
"Redundancy seems inefficient on a sunny day, but in a crisis you're happy you have people who can keep the business running," Kumar says.
Even before the virus hit, a member of each internal team had routinely shared access to all platforms with at least two other co-workers.
"Humanitarian response means going from one crisis to another," says Kumar, who practices stress-testing as a part of standard operations. "You need to be overprepared."
The best time to prepare, of course, is before a critical event, when your team is operating as usual. "The wrong thing to say is, 'The possibility of that happening is so low, we don't need to think about it,' " he explains. "Looking at worst-case scenarios makes businesses build in flexibility and options."
A crisis simultaneously amplifies the importance of organization and communication and makes them harder to achieve, especially when your team is distributed. "You have to answer the question, 'How would you keep people in communication and functioning?' " Kumar says.
Leaders must also adapt to maintain the team culture in a crisis, as the desire for comfort morphs into an emphasis on safety. If people get ill, do they feel able to get the care they need and prioritize health over work? Faced with a blockage of something team members need, like internet access, are they in a place, mentally and physically, where they can find a workaround?
The old management practice of walking the factory floor--meaning frequent check-ins with team members--takes on greater importance under duress. "We work all around the world, in so many time zones, that 'walking around' happens digitally," Kumar says. "It needs to feel routine."
And, if a crisis persists and grows, likewise, so should a leader's empathy for the team. "It comes back to 'authentic and direct,' " Kumar says. "Show that you get the scale of the challenge, and you care, but don't overpromise."
In the midst of social upheaval, consistency becomes conspicuous. It demonstrates reliability. "Global health leaders knew this was coming," Kumar says of the coronavirus, "and there are many more things like it coming, not fewer."