Two months ago as the coronavirus raged across China, Belinda Wong, Chairman and CEO of Starbucks China was faced with a painful decision to close the doors to 4,300 Starbucks stores.  This is exactly the decision that many U.S.-based companies are presently facing, as you well know.  “There was no playbook for this,” she said. “It was nothing we’d dealt with … and we had limited facts. There was a lot of uncertainty and the situation was evolving every minute. We had to quickly decide how we were going to lead.” 

Notice the words she used here as you consider your own decisions as a leader.  They are an important clue to the most important lesson we can learn from great leaders and how they lead in times of crisis. 

Just so you have a reference point for understanding how amazing Belinda Wong truly is as a leader, you might want to know that she was recently named to Fortune’s international list of the Most Powerful Women in Business.  She is also the leader of the fastest growing market for Starbucks, opening new stores at the unprecedented rate of one every fifteen hours. In fact, under her leadership, Starbucks China is on track to open 6,000 new stores in 230 different cities within the next 18-20 months.  No wonder she has been recognized among the top 50 people most shaping the future of USA/China relations, and among the most influential women in China by Forbes!

While these things are all commendable, and represent enviable fruits of her leadership, they are not the things that make her a great leader, however. Of all the things that Belinda Wong does well, there is one thing that sets her apart, one thing that most leaders simply miss because they are so caught up in the thick of thin things.  This one thing makes her more than just a regional hero.  It inspires deep loyalty, even love, from the 58,000 people that she has day-to-day responsibility for.

Belinda rigorously holds the balance between people and performance – and she never forgets which of those two things comes first in the equation, even when the business is on the line.  The order matters to her.  After all, it’s people who grow the business, and her Interdependent Leadership approach/results attest to the power of putting people first in order to consistently get high performance.  She gets this truth better than most leaders ever will!

Belinda describes her leadership in simple terms: “I’m here to take care of my people — the 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 Starbucks partners — and to do what I can to help. … And it’s not just them, it’s their families.”  She is clear about what leadership truly means – and she is not afraid to put her money where her mouth is.

Because of this, it was a no-brainer for her to close the doors of all Starbucks stores so as to keep employees and customers safe.  It was equally obvious that they needed to continue to pay employees even while the business was shut down.  And, as if these things were not enough to convey caring, she also extended insurance benefits to employees’ families, including their parents. She did this even though these choices would affect the business’ bottom line to the tune of an estimated $275 million.  Not easy decisions! If you’re having a heart attack as a leader just thinking about making such staggering choices, you might be interested to know that it is exactly decisions like these that have made Starbucks’ employees among the most engaged in the industry.  This means that Starbucks China will likely outperform its competitors by 202% when this all shakes out.  It also means that what appears to be a short-term loss may set Starbucks China up to be the clear market leader for years to come.

If you’d like to see your business outperform its competitors and recover quickly from this crisis, you need the same kind of clarity that Belinda Wong demonstrated.  It starts by asking yourself the tough question, the one that most leaders are too busy chasing performance to ask.  Simply stated, it is this: “What is truly important here?”

If you don’t answer “people,” maybe you’ve forgotten why you’re in business.

This article has been written by DeAnna Murphy – the founder and CEO of People Acuity and principal author of Shift Up! Strengths Strategies for Optimal Living and Choose to See You – in collaboration with co-thought leaders, Lisa Gregory and Steve Jeffs. It includes information about Interdependent Leadership, which redefines the task-relationship dynamic and helps leaders balance people and performance effectively.  DeAnna is a Top 100 Global Coaching Leader who has provided keynotes and leadership development experiences in 32 countries.  For a free coaching conversation around your leadership, or to learn more about Interdependent Leadership, sign up for 30 minutes with DeAnna here.