Insights from the Ground: Managing Through the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Leopoldo Attolico, Citi Country Officer, Italy & Leslie Rubio, Citi Country Officer, Portugal July 16, 2020 02:00 PM
In this series, we share insights from our Citi Country Officers (CCOs) around the globe as they reflect on their experiences during COVID-19. CCOs are responsible for leading the entire Citi franchise in their country. They provide alignment and leadership to bring our global strategy to life in each of their jurisdictions.
1. Can you share with us some of your early observations from the COVID-19 pandemic?
Leopoldo: For us at Citi in Italy we prepared for the COVID pandemic in a number of different ways. First, we leveraged lessons learned from our colleagues in the countries that were hit before us, including China and Korea, even if their context was quite different from the European one. Second, we had an open line of communication with our local government and looked to them for guidance on best practices. Third, we always erred on the side of caution and took action as early as possible to protect our people and clients. There were moments in which events moved very fast and we had to make important decisions quickly. Of course, I would have loved to have had more time to analyze the situation, but time was always of the essence.
Leslie: Challenge always brings with it opportunity. This crisis has been an opportunity to test Citi's strength, resilience and connectivity, both internally and externally, with our clients and communities. It has been an opportunity to deliver Citi at its best, honoring our mission of enabling growth and economic progress, even under extreme operating conditions. At the same time, we have learnt there is more we can do to be more effective in the post-COVID world.
2. What were the early days of the crisis like for you, for the businesses you run and for the teams you manage?
Leopoldo: In the early days of the crisis we were focused on preparedness and execution. We took a balanced approach to putting the safety of our people first while also ensuring continuity of business for the firm. Technology played an important role in supporting our ability to do both things at once. In less than two weeks we successfully transitioned to having over ninety percent of our employees working from home, which was a massive achievement. Kudos to our tech team and site- dependent colleagues who continued to come into the office throughout the pandemic.
Leslie: The COVID crisis unfolded quickly in Portugal. In my initial meetings with my management team, there were just a handful of cases declared in the country. To some it seemed a little far-fetched to start preparing for a scenario where we would have a majority of our colleagues working from home. But we had an idea of where this was going because we had insights from our colleagues in Asia, so we did just that and prepared for the worse. One week later, that scenario became a reality. Portugal went from having almost no cases in the country to the declaration of a "State of Alert" by the government on March 13th, and a "State of Emergency" on March 18th. If we had waited just a few days longer to make those decisions, the atmosphere would have been entirely different. I had opened lines of communication with the business heads in my country, who understood that Citi Portugal had a clear vision and plan on how we would navigate the situation and transition to a mostly work from home environment to ensure the health and safety of our colleagues while also maintaining continuity of business.
3. What have been some of the greatest challenges and opportunities you've faced as a leader and as a business during this pandemic?
Leopoldo: This has been a very challenging time for everyone, and it has certainly been the most challenging experience of my professional career. This is an unprecedented crisis that has lasted for a prolonged period. We had to map out our priorities and ensure we addressed everything in a timely manner while also making decisions on the spot as new issues arose. This balancing act of scenario planning while making quick decisions as the situation unfolded has been one of the most difficult aspects of managing through the pandemic.
I have a close working relationship with my crisis management team, which has been a critical component of coordinating and executing our continuity of business plans. This team includes heads of Human Resources, Legal, Compliance, Operations & Technology, Finance, and Public Affairs. During the height of the pandemic and for around two months, we had daily calls to ensure a coordinated response. More recently as the situation has started to normalize we transitioned to one call every week. I can say that this team played a critical role in helping Citi Italy navigate the crisis.
Leslie: Challenging and intense are the words that best describe the experience of helping Citi Portugal navigate the pandemic. In a short period of time we went through different phases that required different plans, but throughout it all we had to make sure we were keeping our employees and our clients safe. Thankfully, we received consistently strong support and guidance from our regional and global colleagues. That enabled us to safely keep working so we could deliver for our clients while also keeping our colleagues safe.
Strong leadership is key for managing through any difficult situation. Strong leaders have a vision, are able to plan ahead, make decisions on how a team should operate, and maintain the momentum of high engagement and commitment going with their teams. Those are key skills in a crisis situation because there's not a lot of time for thinking, reviewing and creating consensus. Leaders must believe in their vision, act to get there, and get buy-in from their teams to execute.
While challenging, this situation has brought the Citi Portugal team closer together. I believe communication has played a key role in this. To keep everyone informed at the start of the crisis I conducted a weekly town hall for employees to reinforce the most relevant messages. These sessions were always well attended and employees reported their appreciation for the opportunity to gather virtually and be informed of what is going on across the firm, both locally and globally.
4. What has been the most surprising thing you have learned from this experience?
Leopoldo: For me it has cemented the old notion that the only constant is change. Although not always easy, during times of uncertainty it is critical to stay adaptable, flexible and calm. It's also important to always keep your perspective on what is really important, in this instance the health and safety of our colleagues.
Leslie: This crisis was an opportunity for us to see what the future of work might look like at Citi. Staying connected with clients has been key to our success as we were forced us to stay connected in a new way- through video meetings. Like everyone else, I have several client meetings via video every day. Technology has been a valuable resource, enabling us to stay closely connected with our clients. That applies both to my role as CCO of Portugal and as the Financial Institutions Group Head in the Corporate Bank in Spain.
What I think truly surprised many of us is that we are having the same amount and depth of client interactions that we had before the pandemic, if not more. I'm using technology to make sure they know that we are here for them and adding value to their business. As a result, we have been able to successfully execute deals across several of our businesses while working remotely.
I'd like to highlight the great work that our industry sector heads and business lines are doing, providing content and macro industry updates. They have played a key role in keeping my team well informed and well- equipped to provide impactful insights to clients.
5. What is your hope for the new normal that will emerge?
Leopoldo: Once the situation began to stabilize in Italy, meaning a relatively small number of new cases, reliable hospital capacity and fewer new measures being adopted by the country and the company, we entered phase one of our return to office plan. Our plan – as in most places – relies on a thoughtfully phased approach. We invited a small percentage of colleagues to return to the office during the first wave. Now, in phase two, we are making it voluntary for more people to come back in the short term. We have enhanced our protective procedures to ensure the safety of everyone coming into the office, including intensified cleaning, social distancing guidelines, and thermal scans.
As we slowly make our way back to the office, my hope is that we continue to feel this collective sense of comradery and connectedness that has emerged due to the pandemic.
Leslie: The pandemic has provided us with the opportunity to speed up adoption of our digital platforms and solutions, and we are embracing that transition fully. With that comes the opportunity to reevaluate our internal operating model. We now know that work from home works - we can come together as a team virtually and still meet our client's needs. So now we need to ask what should come next and what can we improve upon. We know that we won't go back to our previous "normal" after this crisis. My hope is that we will evolve to a new and better operating model, which will most likely be a combination of working on site and from home.
In terms of client opportunities, we are all proud to see Citi at the forefront of a number of recently announced landmark transactions, and are prepared to support our clients financing and capital needs through difficult times. We are helping them to adapt to new circumstances, including changing supply chain finance requirements.
6. How has your country team been giving back during this time?
Leopoldo: As most people know, Italy was hit hard by the pandemic. Citi Italy and the Citi Foundation are in the fortunate position to financially support some of those organizations that have been providing support on the ground throughout the pandemic. From a hospital in Milan to the Italian Red Cross to an organization delivering food to those in need, we are doing all we can to help those institutions get the country back on its feet.
Leslie: The crisis has been an opportunity to make an impact, personally and institutionally, within our local community. We have made financial donations and contributions to the most vulnerable and to the most affected areas within Portugal. We've also been very transparent with our continuity of business, work from home and return to office plans so that other companies, both large and small, can learn from and potentially adopt our best practices in order to help keep the economy running and the people of Portugal safe.