Phil Clement, Global CMO, Johnson Controls

An organization’s ability to remain agile and resilient during a major crisis is in direct relation to how it will come out of it. That was the central theme of a Virtual Roundtable featuring Phil Clement, Global Chief Marketing Officer, Johnson Controls, and the current CMO Club’s Milwaukee Chapter President.  Clement shared his insights and the lessons he’s learned on leading with agility in tough times.

Johnson controls with Clements as it’s CMO had planned to launch some new products in the world of technology and to grab the mantle of a major brand this Spring. That changed two weeks into his new job, as the world started to deal with the ramifications of the COVID-19 virus. Mr. Clement luckily had a lot of experience with major crisis management. “I joined AON right after the tragedy of 9/11. AON lost nearly 200 people in the towers that day. Living through the recovery, I learned how important that tragedy would be in everything I did in the following years,” he said., believing that major catastrophic events cast a long shadow into a company’s identity. 

Clement has been a marketing leader throughout many moments of crisis before, including the financial meltdown of 2008. He reacted immediately, putting a plan in place using his experience and resourcefulness as a guide, and responding with agility, compassion, and insight to the challenge before him. 

Clement understood that there are some things you just have to do. If you know what you need to do, you can almost be neutral to the content of what has to happen. It becomes automatic if you do them correctly. If you don’t have that plan in place, pre-socialized, it’s going to be harder to be immediately responsive. Ask yourself these questions; 

  • Why is this market happening? 
  • What is the client really thinking about right now? 
  • What are his real needs?
  • What are our competitors doing? 

Clement believes that you need to have a mission focus rather than a program focus. The more you’re focused on your mission, the more agile you will be. He gave this example;

“I decided to implement a great cancellation strategy. Rather than laying off his trade show team, he sent them out to capture stories within the company of resilience, “grabbing stories of how they were helping people,” Clement said. His strategy took into account his belief that if you focus just on the to-do list and forget to feel the culture with stories, particularly in crisis, people will invent their own stories, and you will very quickly lose the narrative. 

There are times like these that you have to know when to stand-down. This is life and death. There are times to worry about how you promote your company, and there are times that even if you did, people wouldn’t listen, it won’t resonate, and it will probably have a negative impact in the long run. 

Some of the hard-fought lessons that can come out of a crisis are especially helpful right now.  The most important thing is calibrating for the time and the situation. This is why marketers tend to be in such a uniquely positive position to be helpful. We get tone. We understand it. We lead with empathy. This is not the time to be on your back foot. It’s a time to lunge forward. Organizations are right now determining how their next decade will look.  We need to ask ourselves what the opportunities are so we can start to organize around those for how we will come out of this situation.

One of the eye-opening conclusions was the notion that these events are not really a surprise. They are things that we know are out there, pandemics, and the chance of nuclear terrorism events, among other times of crisis. According to Clement, they’re not considered unlikely by insurance policy standards but have so far worked themselves out. That might change with COVID-19. “We’ve had warnings and risks that have so far all worked out, SARS and Ebola, to name two. Maybe having one that doesn’t work out will create change,” Clement said.

One of the positive re-enforcements was that storytelling is as important as ever. Stories arm people with something optimistic to say. Most folks want to be able to be optimistic. Without those positive stories, we only have the negative. It’s a social gift to give folks the ability to share compassionate stories that make it easier to deal with a crisis. It’s also important to know when to aim higher and when to see the writing on the wall. There are times where we need to really emphasize humanity, and there are times when you just have to get to the point. This isn’t a get to the point moment. CMOs approach things with empathy. They understand that there is a narrative to stories. Marketers become valuable in their ability to create those stories, quickly and responsibly. Your legacies, your company’s legacy in something of this magnitude, will be defined for another decade by what you’re doing right now. “Everything matters,” he said. 

When dealing with the other members of the c-suite during a crisis, creating an hourly or daily cadence is of the utmost importance. “Knowing you have to get information out about the situation as quickly as possible, once you create that cadence, it’s just human nature to react positively to that,” Clement said. “They go to that source and want to contribute back to that source. I’ve never seen folks not line up when the cadence is right and needed.” 

A lot of people are looking for dialogue and partnership right now. They might be your customers, your distribution channels, or even the customer’s customer. People are looking for immediate help in dealing with this situation. People are paying attention. You just have to be working on those things they’re paying attention to. Things like reporting structure get in the way of agility and slow it down. People who are focused on titles and roles realize that now is the time to see that structure as helpful or hurtful.

Clement left us with this thought; “You need to be planning out the next five years. Getting those people and structures on board that can be agile and resilient is urgent going forward. Everything matters right now.”