‘You can’t feel sorry for yourself’—How companies from Honeywell to Marriott are adapting to life with coronavirus

The pandemic has shaken up dozens industries over the past eight months or so, from travel and hospitality to energy, airlines, and retail.

Those areas hit home for CEOs at conglomerate Honeywell, hotel chain Marriott International, and retail credit card titan Synchrony—all of which have felt the undulations of a rocky business environment this year.

But Honeywell’s chairman and CEO Darius Adamczyk is facing 2020’s challenges with a certain attitude: “The first thing you can’t do is you can’t feel sorry for yourself. That sort of makes the organization rigid and you have to pivot very, very quickly,” Adamczyk said at Fortune‘s virtual Global Forum on Monday.

He compares it to the movies: “We knew what was coming, we kind of knew what the next frame in the movie was going to be and we knew we were in for a very tough environment, but very quickly we focused on: Fine, some of our markets are facing a very challenging time for the several months, maybe years ahead. What can we do differently, how can we innovate and change?” Adamczyk said.

Adapting and innovating to meet the moment has meant different things for different organizations. Honeywell has been helping customers develop ventilators and is ramping up some smaller-scale M&A to keep investing for post-pandemic times. Marriott International’s president and CEO Arne Sorenson, who was certainly dealt a tough hand (he says “our business functionally disappeared globally in March”), has had to lay off workers this year, but also opened Marriott’s first hotel in Indonesia—a move Sorenson believes will pay off when the virus is in the rearview mirror.

Synchrony’s CEO Margaret Keane has focused on trying to support small businesses—a cohort that makes up 1 million of their customers. Keane says Synchrony has held sessions on how to open stores and offices safely: “Any help we can give them to make them be successful is not only good for Synchrony, it’s also good for our country keeping small business alive,” she said. Meanwhile, Synchrony also launched a credit card for Venmo with PayPal—a big program launched all virtually (“That’s really about being agile and having that deep partnership together,” she notes).

For CEOs facing their own troubles this year, that agility has been the message: “As much as we hated the situation we were dealt, it really taught the company something in terms of innovation and what we can do when we’re (in) crisis,” Honeywell’s Adamcyzk says. “It’s too easy to just focus on the now and how do we get through now and next year—you also have to think about what will the business be like five years and 10 years from now.”

Pandemic lessons

While execs note we’re certainly not out of the woods yet, they have learned a lesson or two along the way.

For Synchrony’s Keane, “the biggest lesson I’ve learned is you don’t need PowerPoint—you can make a decision and then get out of the way and let the best people do their job.” Marriott’s Sorenson agrees: “Delegate. Rely on your team. Particularly early, we faced decisions that had to be made quickly,” he says. “We had to move faster, … make a decision, make a decision even with imperfect information, adjust it later if you have to, but speed and delegation is really important. I think that’s something we’ll hang on to as we go forward.”

For Honeywell’s Adamcyzk, the revelation is simple: Turn on your Zoom camera (“That actually creates a stronger bond with people,” he says). “Connecting with people and over communicating is critically important in this time because people feel isolated.”

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