Coronavirus: What SARS, Ebola, mad cow taught me about business and a crisis -- Ex-McDonald's CEO

Complete transparency and honesty is the only path forward

The United States is better equipped to deal with an outbreak or pandemic than the vast majority of countries on the planet. This has been proven in the past and is true now as fear and uncertainty about a possible coronavirus pandemic continue to grow.

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Here in the U.S., our openness allows for fast communication, quick decision making and production of solutions because of our robust capitalist culture. We are problem solvers!


I believe in all cases subject matter experts should always lead the way through a crisis or profound societal issues.

Medical, scientific, societal and strategic leaders should collaborate and construct the way forward to give citizens confidence.

In a public health crisis, closed societies exacerbate the disease and fear. Lines of communications are often muddled and confused. Ignorance drives rumor and rampant negative behaviors. Fear paralyzes.

Politicians who weaponize such a crisis create undue fear for political gain.  

Having led a large organization through the time of HIV, SARS, Zika, Ebola, mad cow and widespread food issues, several opportunities and difficulties are apparent to me as a former CEO.

Corporate leaders need to listen to experts, not political hacks who blow up fear so that they can mount the white horse and ride through town extolling their concern -- My advice for these folks is fix problems, don’t profile!

First, a total commitment to employee and customer safety is the only acceptable strategic objective.

Leaders must focus on business from the origins of the supply chain through every pathway to the customers.


I know from my own experience that an abundance of caution and focus on safety gives employees and customers confidence and security.

Complete transparency and honesty is the only path forward. Fast corrective action, decisive leadership and calm, deliberate and immediate consultation with subject matter experts will lead to best overall outcome if the coronavirus becomes a major public health threat.

Followers need great leaders to be honest and transparent.

Need an example? Just review how quickly McDonald's recovers from community catastrophic events like hurricanes in Florida panhandle.

When I was leading the organization, the franchisees relied on the McDonald’s system and leadership of franchisees on the ground to rebuild.


The first priority was employee safety and welfare! Then came preserving jobs, income, health and a strong focus on recovery.

We focused on physical plant reconstruction, community service (we recognized that customers are the keystone of the future) because we know that if there were no customers there was no business. We also made sure that emergency workers were fed and given comfort and that other needs were also met.

Of course, a hurricane or other natural disaster is not the same as a pandemic but the strategic direction is the same.

Corporate leaders need to listen to experts, not political hacks who blow up fear so that they can mount the white horse and ride through town extolling their concern -- My advice for these folks is fix problems don’t profile!

Tactical opportunities must be amended and they should be fluid throughout the crisis. The strategic focus must not be lost. The cost must not be the driver!  In short, fix first, fund later. Do what’s necessary now!

Practice for improvement in performance to speed recovery. Risk assessment and mitigation is paramount for future planning. Role-playing “what ifs” is important.

I practiced crisis management in my CEO role. I know that surprises need not be an obstacle if preparation is focused on mission goals, desired outcomes, resource allocation and crisis contact lists with 24/7 availability. Leaders should make sure that there is a specific definition of roles and responsibility for everyone in the organization.

Bottom line: To successfully lead in a crisis – whether a public health emergency or a natural disaster -- CEOs must exhibit calm, decisive, educated, vetted and measured strategies. The goal is to ensure that all stakeholders in the organization come through the crisis better off than when the crisis began.

Ed Rensi is the retired president and CEO of McDonald’s USA.