By: Nico Conradie, CEO Munich Re of Africa
How Munich Re of Africa navigated South Africa’s national lockdown.
The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent national lockdown is probably the first time that leadership teams at many local and multinational businesses were required to implement their disaster recovery plans. Few would have envisioned that their plans would be responding to a government-imposed lockdown rather than fire, flood, or other property peril. And fewer still would have predicted the speed with which disaster struck, nor its pervasiveness or duration.
Citizens in countries around the globe moved from awareness of the COVID-19 disease, to comprehensive government interventions, to full lockdown in a matter of weeks. In South Africa firms went from ‘business as usual’ to what was subsequently called Level 5 of the national coronavirus alert overnight. At the time of writing Munich Re of Africa (MRoA) has been conducting its business under unprecedented conditions for a staggering 70 days.
The first communique informing us of the coronavirus outbreak crossed my desk around 22 January. At the time we hardly gave it a second thought, we got the impression that this was not a particularly virulent strain and that it was unlikely to significantly impact the Chinese economy. The executive teams at multinational insurers and reinsurers receive this type of alert on a regular basis as they scan the risk environment for potential threats. It would, therefore, be unusual for them to take actions beyond noting the incident. But things escalated faster than anyone could have imagined.
Munich Re Group has offices in China and Singapore. When our overseas offices started implementing travel restrictions and began working from home, albeit partially, we realised that the outbreak had the potential to impact the group on a wider basis. This realisation set in motion a range of risk management protocols at MRoA, including a mid-February meeting of our Emergency Management Team (EMT). This team consists of executive management and risk colleagues. We were extremely fortunate that our risk colleagues had run an off-site emergency simulation late in 2019 – this gave us the confidence to manage the pandemic scenario as it unfolded.
A crisis such as this places the company’s executive team under the microscope as clients, employees, and other stakeholders turn to them for guidance. There is a great emphasis on credible leadership during times of crisis. He added that open and transparent communication between members of the executive team and between the executive and staff were critical. It is better to communicate too much than to keep things secret. The EMT started sharing information with our colleagues as early as possible, so that they were aware of coronavirus when they were confronted by stories about it in the media.
MRoA, headquartered in Johannesburg, made gradual changes to its business operations prior to the 15 March 2020 State of Disaster announcement and well in advance of the 26 March national lockdown. We started by not going to conferences and refraining from business travel well before the lockdown was in force; but when the State of Disaster was declared we moved into working from home mode within the space of a few days. It is a credit to the business that its clients and employees have transitioned so seamlessly to a new operating model, despite difficult conditions. If you had told me two months ago that the whole of MRoA could work from home relatively smoothly, I would have been more than a little sceptical.
By end-May it was clear that the Covid-19 pandemic was going to stand out in history as a world-changing event. Chief executives and their leadership teams had to reach deep into their skills toolkits to translate their vision statements into something tangible for employees who were facing a real world health crisis. Companies all too frequently use catch phrases like “we care for you”, “we put our employees first”, or “people are our most important asset”. The crisis made these catch phrases real.
Executives had to face up to the fact that working from home, while perhaps not the best business solution, was the only safe alternative for colleagues and employees. “The chief executive’s main concern should be to protect employees so that they can return to the office following the crisis – the caring approach must be made as clear and practical as possible,” says Conradie. Throughout the crisis MRoA encouraged its employees to stay home, stay safe, and stay healthy.
What advice is there for individuals who fill leadership positions during crisis? What helped me was the input of the diverse group of people who make up the MRoA management team. Do not be proud or overly self-reliant and remember to reach out to others for their advice and input.
Those who rely on individuals for all the answers will falter, those who work collaboratively with their management teams to find the best solutions will prosper through crisis.