COVID-19 is shaking up business and consumer behavior on a massive scale. While the full economic consequences are still unclear, we know the effects that the virus, and the drastic measures to contain it, are already precipitating change across multiple industries.

The CMO Club reached out to member CMOs across diverse industries for their take on these changes, and for any leadership advice in dealing with a major crisis like the one we face right now.

We asked them these three questions. Here are their responses.

 How are you handling this unprecedented situation?

Phil Clement, Global CMO, Johnson Controls

To say the complexities of the crisis are tremendous is an understatement. Johnson Controls is in 120 countries, has 105,000 employees, and $24B in revenue. First and foremost, we have been emphasizing a message of caretaking, care of yourself, your family, and your community. This is one of those times that it is really clear that no one should compromise on that front, and it is important that a company make that clear. The second is to share the realization that as individuals and as a company, we are truly needed. We are building hospitals, refrigerating medicines, keeping buildings smart and secure. Take care of the company and your colleagues. It is an important place, doing important work …. and we need to share that fact with each other and support each other.

Doug Zarkin, VP, CMO, Pearle Vision

I’m really concentrating on trying to stay focused now. I’m Identifying those things we can control, such as internal communications with our franchisees, our doctors, our corporate associates, and delivering as flawlessly as we can. We are leading with empathy and understanding as the situation is truly unique, sharing our plans, and our approach, and ensuring that our neighbors in the community know that we are here for them in case of essential care needs.

Kim FeilKim Feil, CMO, CSO, Aspire Healthy Energy Drinks

This experience is surreal.  Truly a test of prioritizing Maslow’s Needs – safety, home/food, belonging and putting a back seat to self-actualization!


Carol Kruse, Board Director, Valvoline, Investor/Advisor, Oregon Venture Fund, and former CMO, ESPN, Coca-Cola, and Cambia Health

I’m focusing on hope, belief, compassion, kindness, and patience. I am not watching the news but only reading It, and I am trying to cut that down to 2x a day. I am not fixated on the stock market because nothing is impacting it for more than a day. I have been having meetings with the companies where I am a Board member, and we are focused on communication, to whom, with what message, via which channels, what timing, etc. With a high focus on employees first, of course. I am sending short messages to people whom I have worked with in the past, especially the managers, to check-in and see how they’re doing.

Paul D’Arcy, CMO, Indeed

The most important thing for me is to encourage my entire team, which is spread across 15 countries, to take care of themselves and their families, and to keep themselves safe and healthy. People are full of stress and anxiety right now. They are worried about their kids, their families, their health, their savings, and everything seems to be getting worse every day. I want to make sure that my team doesn’t feel guilty about putting themselves and their family first. I want to make sure that I am so ridiculously clear about this that every first, second, third line manager feels completely confident to give their teams the same advice.

At Indeed, our mission as a jobs site is to help people get jobs, and the current crisis is quickly becoming an employment crisis. All of our teams are focusing on the things we can do to help people find work as quickly as possible. We’re also working with major employers that need to hire fast to make sure that they have the staffing they need to help the world get the health care, food, and other essentials we all need.

Trish MuellerTrish Mueller, Co-founder, Mueller Retail Consulting, Board Member, Dave and Buster’s, former CMO, The Home Depot

My mantra is to stay informed, stay positive, stay busy, stay fit & STAY HOME!  When it gets dark, go looking for some humor. The level of creativity on social media is astounding right now. Keeping a sense of humor helps balance the situation.

Muriel Lotto, CMO, Western Union

With my family in Italy, France, and the UK in lock-down, I put myself in isolation 10 days ago. I am showing my support by doing the same. We are now working remotely and adapting to new working practices with daily Covid-19 stand-up huddles. I feel incredibly grateful to do a job that I can easily do from home and to work for a large company that’s very resilient.

How has your role changed since the pandemic, and how, when both the personal and professional are in crisis at the same time, do you keep yourself level in your life and your decisions?

Phil Clement
— Reaching out to clients and doing what we can to help and support them is critical. From a tactical perspective, nothing is normal. We meet at 6:00 am to go over new product ideas that can help in the crisis. By 7:00 am, we are in a status meeting covering off on the health of employees, tracking travel, reacting to government enforced shut-downs or government requests for services, even the number of masks in a specific location. No detail is too small to be important. We have moved our trade-show and events team to support the capture of stories about what our people are doing on the front lines because it’s remarkable. That team is writing case studies and sending the stories back into the company – as each story is inspiring and gives people a little spring in their step.

Paul D’Arcy — I think the big change is to make sure that every meeting, interaction, and the task starts by focusing first on the people in the (virtual) room. We can’t help the people we serve until we take care of ourselves and our teams. I think I’m spending as much time focusing on how people are doing and feeling as on what we are doing and achieving.

Muriel Lotto — My role is really focused on three things right now;

  • Adapting and evolving our marketing plans in light of the current situation, switching out media and creatives in a very short time frame, and keeping it fluid.
  • Reviewing capacity across the team, as many people are now working from home and have young children no longer in school, so productivity has gone down.
  • Reaching out to our customers and surfacing inspiring and humbling stories of how they are managing through these times and how sending money to their loved ones is impacting them. These are the stories that keep me and the leadership team focused and motivated.

I have now come to realize that our “working from home” situation is likely to go on for many months, and I am getting a better set up so that I can function more efficiently and effectively. My gym closed a couple of weeks back, but they have made 95 online workouts available, which helps. And I have set reminders to take breaks and stretch as I could easily be tethered to my home desk for hours on end.

Carol Kruse — On the work front, aside from moving everything to WFH, the work to be done is mostly the same, although providing extra advising help to the start-ups that we, Oregon Venture Fund, have in our investment portfolio.  Experience does help sometimes, which even the youngest entrepreneurs are figuring out.

To keep centered and not stressed, I am making sure I workout every day, including (now online) yoga, and fifteen minutes of meditation – thanks to my friend Trish. And since we are not on lock-down yet here in Oregon, and can get to the middle-of-nowhere beautiful nature within an hour, we have been doing lots of hiking on the coast or in the mountains.

I also have been helping my friends who are trying to teach their kids at home to find resources for various age-groups. Let me know if you’re interested in what I’ve found!

Trish Mueller —Personally, it’s a roller coaster ride with so much uncertainty. Professionally, I am staying informed on the financial fronts, trying not to marinate in the bad news and understand the impact of what is reported, to better support the management of the boards I am on.

Doug Zarkin — You cannot take emotion out of the equation at a time like this and candidly, it’s humanizing to admit that what is happening is not some antiseptic business slowdown, rather a crisis that is unprecedented. My role has never been absent of focusing on the people, not just the actions from those people, but today more than ever, it’s important to let those you work with know that you care. Focus on the people first behind the brand, and you can weather any crisis and become stronger for it.

Kim Feil — I feel deep sorrow for millions who are suffering job loss, health risk exposure, front line crisis control, and family issues. Humanity is shining, however, as I read inspirational messages on the closed storefronts all around Chicagoland, encouraging everyone that we will prevail.

What leadership advice can you give your fellow CMOs right now in dealing with a major crisis like this?

Paul D’Arcy
— Share the things you are worried about in your life with your team. If you aren’t able to speak up about the challenges you are having in these crazy times, it will be a lot harder for others to ask for the help they need from you.

Trish Mueller — It all will come down to this: when it’s finally over, how do you want to be remembered by your team and your family?  Focus on the afterward. Look to be the person everyone trusted, leaned on, and respected.  If your choices get tough (RIFs, etc.), or you’re losing perspective at work, lean on a fellow CMO.  We’re a community. A lot of us are in lock-down, and we will certainly make time for each other.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help, or just an ear to vent & let it all out.  This is a time that will define us all. When it’s over, we’ll be stronger if we stare it down together!

Carol Kruse — A reminder that being vulnerable builds trust, as does honesty, even when you don’t have all the answers and being transparent about what you don’t know. So my CMO Club friends, if anyone wants to talk, just reach out any time!  I’m readily available! Hugs and stay safe!

Phil Clement — We need to make sure we are not tone deaf, and we need to be direct and authentic. That is what the time requires, but it also helps us keep our powder dry from an expense perspective. We still don’t know what the full impact of the pandemic will be on the business.

Muriel Lotto — We’re running an internal ‘work from home’ competition across the entire company’s 10,000 employees. This helps to feel human and close to our colleagues. The other thing we’ve introduced is “social hour,” when a team will connect socially via Zoom and not talk about work, just with wine and nibbles! Connect with customers, whichever way you can, to understand how they are coping and what you can do to help.

Kim Feil — The best leaders and the best companies are those that are resilient. That requires flexibility and adaptiveness. In the major crises I’ve faced, we did these three things:

  • Decide how our company could best have a positive impact.
  • Respond quickly to align internally and act externally on it.
  • Don’t get bogged down by irrelevant existing business practices that impeded us.  Communication and cross-functional partnership are absolutely critical.

During the 2011 H1N1 Flu epidemic, when I was CMO at Walgreens, we discovered we had the largest certified immunizing workforce in the country and would be the first responders to a national CDC vaccination program if it was instigated.  Overnight, we changed the hours that regular flu shots were available. We trained more pharmacists to administer them and made it a requirement of their jobs, and within three days we had a TV ad on air with our CEO telling the public we were there to help them.  Each of these steps required us to make big shifts in how we did business and in our company culture. Our cross-functional teams stepped up.

Doug Zarkin — Strong leaders don’t always lead through projecting strength. It’s more important than ever to lead first by listening, then through empathy, and finally through a comfortability with designing your playbook when you perhaps don’t fully know the rules of the game.

Greg Welch, CMO Club Advisory Board Member, and Senior Partner, and Practice Leader at Spencer Stuart, suggests reading Getting Virtual Teams Right, written by Keith Ferrazzi, and published in The Harvard Business Review. The article has a wealth of knowledge on thriving in the remote workplace.