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Covid's Unexpected Side Effect: It Made Them Better Leaders


A brush with the brutal virus brought fear, gratitude, and clarity to these business owners.

Piercing headaches that last months. Frantic efforts to write succession plans and check life insurance policies. FaceTime goodbyes with loved ones who didn't make it. 

Business owners are still grappling with the fear, confusion, and human destruction wreaked by the Covid pandemic. For many of those who struggled firsthand with the virus, they say the experience has left lasting effects. So-called long-haul survivors say they still haven't fully regained their health, even as they must continue to keep their businesses running. Others say what remains are the psychological effects--the realization of how quickly something completely out of their control can turn their world upside down. 

Inc. recently spoke with four entrepreneurs about their experiences and how Covid has changed them as leaders. For some, the illness forced a much-needed pause for rest and reflection and produced a newfound sense of gratitude and empathy for those around them. For others, Covid inspired a new desire to make bold business moves. While each person has a unique story, one theme underlines them all: They're not the same as they were going into this crisis. 

Embracing Empathy

As a leader, Cate Luzio knows she had a reputation for asking a lot of her people. "I'm super demanding, very fast-paced. People used to say, 'We can't keep up with you,' " says the founder of Luminary, a community and 15,000-square-foot co-working space for women in New York City. That's one reason why coming down with Covid in March 2020 was so difficult. She didn't want to disconnect--but her symptoms forced her to step away.

She dealt with fatigue, loss of taste and smell, and a deep cough that it made it hard to catch her breath. Nearly a year later, searing headaches at the base of her skull still regularly interrupt her workdays. She manages the pain with ibuprofen and ice packs, but it never goes away entirely.  

Cate Luzio. inline imageTo survive, her business had to transform itself. Luminary had to shut its doors between March 22 and June 22, losing 80 percent of its revenue during those months as New Yorkers shifted to working from home. The company moved its eventsprogramming online and offered digital-only memberships. The 20-person team all took pay cuts so Luminary could avoid layoffs. 

Luzio says the experience has given her a much deeper sense of empathy. The team pulled together to keep the business intact. Now, she has embraced giving her employees the flexibility they need. For example, her chief impact officer came to her to say she didn't want to quit but couldn't juggle the work with the demands of kids at home. They came up with a part-time solution. "You need non-moms advocating for working moms. I'm using my voice in that regard as loudly as I can," Luzio says.

Dialing It Down a Notch

In mid-March of last year, Ryan Kovach figured there was no time like the present to start his own company. Losing his corporate marketing job in a layoff gave him the much-needed motivation to control his destiny. "[Starting a business] was terrifying, but [the idea] just blew up--the timing was right," he says. By October, he says his Fort Worth, Texas-based company RKCMO, which handles outsourced marketing services for staffing and recruiting firms, hit its first $1 million in total revenue. To fuel the growth, he hired three employees. While he considered himself an empathetic leader, he says at times he probably wasn't so understanding about employee absences and work interruptionsAnd then in November, Kovach contracted Covid. 


Twice he went to the hospital because his oxygen levels had dropped so low that his lips turned blue. X-rays revealed ground-glass opacities in his lungs, a honeycomb-like pattern that blocked oxygen from entering his system. On his darkest day, he recorded a video with his cell phone in which he said good-bye to his four children. 

After about a month, he started to recover. "Number one, it really shed light on how fragile we really are," he says. "As a business owner, I tend to be pretty on fire, and this caused me to relax a bit and see that things aren't that serious." Being so sick also helped him realize that the company needed better tools in place to take the pressure off if someone does need to step away. Kovach invested in conversational A.I. chat-bots, the social media scheduling tool Social Pilot, and project-management software Hive to make sure tasks don't fall through the cracks. 

He also instituted unlimited paid time off. "You don't even need a reason," he says. "Just let me know you're not going to be there." 

Finding a New Purpose

In late February 2020, digital marketing agency Sweb Development lost its office building in San Antonio, Texas, to a fire. "I thought, 'Oh, my god. What's going to happen? Where are we going to go?" says founder and CEO Magaly Chocano. Two weeks later, Covid shut down every office building. Like many other companies, the Sweb team had to figure out on the fly how to work well together remotely and continue to give its clients personalized service. The change was hard for Chocano, who thrives on being able to walk over to her team to brainstorm.

 Chocano was also on the verge of flying overseas to visit her mother, who was struggling with Covid in a hospital in London, when she and her husband also tested positive for the virus. Chocano had few symptoms, while her husband suffered from relentless headaches, fatigue, and reduced lung capacity. On top of it all, Chocano had to say good-bye to her mother via FaceTime before she passed away in February. "I hadn't seen her in a year, and I couldn't go visit," she says. "Even now it feels like it's not real."

Chocano was one of the lucky ones in that her business didn't suffer during the pandemic. Even so, seeing how quickly the circumstances of others changed profoundly shook her. "People have lost their livelihoods overnight due to something they can't control, and what do you do?"

For her, the answer was to jump into action. She formed the nonprofit In This Together, which facilitated gift-card buying to support both local businesses and organizations serving people in need. In eight weeks, In This Together raised $140,000. She also launched Safewell, a for-profit venture that developed re-opening plans in English and Spanish for businesses across 13 different industries summarizing local, state, and federal regulations. Soon, Safewell will begin selling Covid safety certifications for businesses. "I went into activator mode. That's where my head went--new ways to help people," Chocano says. 

Going Bigger and Bolder

Jim Small's bout with Covid last September was nothing if not clarifying. His Phoenix private-equity firm, Sante Realty Investments, long focused on investing in apartments, offices, and retail buildings, targeting accredited investors putting about $100,000 into deals. But, he admits, he had always been slow to take bigger risks. 

After testing positive for Covid, he spent two and a half weeks mostly bedridden with cold sweats, fever, and low oxygen levels. On the verge of going to the hospital, he double-checked his life insurance plan and identified someone on his team to take over check-signing privileges should the worst happen. 

"One thing I thought about when my blood-oxygen levels were lower was: Is this how I want my company to be? Is this what I want to be doing?" he says.

The short answer: No. Small decided the time was right to be bold. He wanted to move into ground leases, in which his company would own the land under skyscrapers and other buildings. Doing so would mean targeting family offices, pension funds, and endowments looking to invest a minimum of $2 million. 

Small says he had always wanted to go bigger but let the company coast. As part of his plan to shift his company "from good to great," in late 2020 he rolled out daily, weekly, and monthly metrics for every team member.

"I thought we had done a disservice to our team. Daily or weekly, you didn't know if you won the day," he says. Now, he says, everyone has their own personal scoreboard. While some employees find comfort in the clarity the new metrics provide, others have decided to move on.

Small views the churn ultimately as a positive, because he says before he wasn't having enough hard but necessary performance conversations. "We let them down. We can get more out of people, and they can get more out of themselves" with the right leadership, he says.  



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