Business leaders deal with uncertainties and disruptions all the time. They come with the job. Uncertainty does not lead inexorably to calamity. But:
  • The job changes and the stakes get higher in the face of disruptions to society at large—like the Ukraine war and the pandemic—which levy different and urgent challenges on business leaders.  
  • There’s pressure to meet the needs of all stakeholders—fast. In these situations, business leaders are sometimes called upon to make life-or-death decisions.  
  • And there’s pressure to present to the world the organization’s stance on the crisis, so leaders must make quick judgments that will affect the health and longevity of the organization.  
How did leaders deal with the crises and disruptions of recent years? We talked with BCG experts to understand the kinds of actions—and interactions—that can carry an organization and its people through crisis.
Make the Bold Choice to Signal Your Values Hero Rectangle

Mathieu Lamiaux, a BCG managing director and senior partner, shared his thoughts about the challenges business leaders faced early in the Ukraine war and as the war continued.

BCG: When war broke out in Ukraine, business leaders had to respond. Was their job in this regard largely the same as in other crises, like the COVID pandemic?

Mathieu Lamiaux: My background is in global health. When I think about crisis, I think about H1N1, Ebola, and obviously COVID. But a war is different. It’s not just fate. There’s someone acting against you and your interests. And, all of a sudden, there’s a perception that it could happen to any of us. My parents were from a generation that thought, yes, it could happen to us. I never thought I would be so close to a thing like this. Most of my clients were in that situation. It was the first time that they had seen their employees directly affected by war.

In a situation like that, what can leaders do?

They can think about their employees. What I saw when the war broke out was that leaders wanted to protect their employees.

One client, a pharma company, happened to have had a resort in Hungary for many years. The company decided to welcome as many of its Ukrainian employees as possible to that resort. They did the same thing in Poland by renting hotels. It’s not just the employees—it’s also their close relations: significant others, children, parents, and so on. So where they might have had, say, 400 employees in Ukraine, they ended up offering shelter to about 2,000 people.

And then, very quickly, the question was, What do we do with our employees in Russia?

Should we find a way to help them leave the country? Should we keep operating in Russia? The company’s leaders decided to keep operating so as to continue producing essential medicines for the people in Russia and to ensure that employees there could provide for their families. These were tough decisions.

They were indeed. There was a lot of pressure, very early on, for companies to stop doing business in Russia.  

For any company, making a decision like that, one way or the other, takes a lot of courage. I was quite impressed by how fast some companies were to react, but I won’t fault the ones that were slower because—again, thinking about that pharma client—there can be good, and humanitarian, reasons to continue operating.

I heard people say at the outbreak of the war that a leader’s response would be remembered for decades. Initially, I thought that was an overly emotional statement. But then I thought, that sentiment is right.
Mathieu Lamiaux, Managing Director & Senior Partner, Paris

I found it quite interesting that many leaders’ initial response was more emotional than rational. Of course, leaders had to respond. They could have spent time evaluating the pros and cons and the level of risk, but I don’t think you can find a completely rational answer to such a difficult situation.

Partly, it’s because they couldn’t know how long the war would last—and they still can’t. And partly it’s a matter of values. It’s very hard to say what’s right and what’s wrong. At some point, leaders have to decide what they believe is right for employees, clients, suppliers, and the value of the company.

I heard people say at the outbreak of the war that a leader’s response would be remembered for decades. Initially, I thought that was an overly emotional statement. But then I thought, that sentiment is right. At a time of ESG concerns, at a time of trying to find purpose in what we do, I am convinced that some companies made the correct, bold choice to signal their values.

After the acute relocation phase, migrating employees and refugees needed longer-term support. What role—if any—can business leaders play in meeting such needs?

Initially, people were looking for safety, shelter, emergency health care. As time went on, of course, needs changed. Even though many people have indicated that they want to return home, it’s still not clear if and when they can. And a significant number want to stay out of Ukraine or Russia. Long-term housing, health care, employment, childcare, and so much more need to be considered. It’s complex. A lot of this is well beyond the control of business leaders. They can help on the employment front, to a degree, and perhaps with training and daycare. But they can’t provide long-term housing, education, or health care solutions, for instance. Local and national governments, the EU, and other agencies must coordinate and fund these issues.

If CEOs attempt bigger-picture solutions, they could be overwhelmed. Even if they put all of their CSR budget into it, can they really make a difference?

Leadership by Design: Navigate the complexities of today’s leadership and management environment.

I think CEOs could be part of a fraction of the solution. Consider the idea of a summer camp to keep Ukrainian refugee kids engaged and educated. Companies might be willing and able to contribute funding to such an endeavor—but they don’t have the expertise or experience to operate a venture like that. We have to look to political leaders for guidance.

Do you think some sort of public-private partnership could play a role?

Absolutely. You would need local authorities to very clearly define the needs, the simple ones being housing, education, health care, and employment. You need infrastructure: teachers who can speak Ukrainian, doctors, nurses. You need the national authorities to decide what to do. The local authorities will operationalize all that, but you’ll also need private companies to do things like build schools.

In the end, you’ll definitely end up with some sort of public-private partnership, either a formal partnership or a transaction between public and private entities.