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Thoughts in the Time of Coronavirus

A screen capture of's COVID-19 tracking page from March 22 at 5 a.m. CT

How many times have we heard the phrase, “life can change in an instant”? Today, because of COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes it, our lives have suddenly changed. We are working from home, incessantly washing our hands, and worrying about (and avoiding) our family and friends. It happened in an instant. It seems like a lifetime ago.

Six weeks ago, we had just returned from the Sundance Film Festival and were planning our yearly April trip to The Netherlands to see the tulips at the venerable Keukenhof Gardens. Mid-February, I flew to Florida to participate in a panel for the National Health Council’s annual conference, not giving much thought to how an awful virus that was ravaging Wuhan and impeding travel to China was about to affect us all.

Our global connectivity to each other through social media provided me with lots of scientific and not-so-scientific information to sift through. Then two people in Rome tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 at the end of January. Seven weeks later, the country is in its third week of a massive quarantine. This week, a blog from Italy caught my eye, filming people recounting “this is where we were ten days ago”—a premonition of the dire crisis about to strike them.

Ten Days Ago

It gave me pause to ponder, “What was I doing ten days ago?” Although I was not dismissing the seriousness of the virus, I sensed that the media was creating too much fear in us. I protested that all I wanted was the facts, and the facts showed most people would survive. As a client said to me, “after all, it’s only the flu.”

Nine days ago, I led a teambuilding exercise for a client. My business partner of 27 years and I went to dinner at a crowded restaurant. Just a week ago, my book club of 28 years met and we talked more about the virus and the stock market drop than that we did about the book. Restaurants and gyms were still open (although we were recommending frequent hand-washing and social distancing) and our daily lives continued. As recently as last Monday, we still had a skeleton staff in the office, and I met with a long-time client who had flown in from the Midwest to conduct interviews. That feels like a lifetime ago. I miss and grieve for that sense of normalcy. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I will never take a sense of normalcy for granted again.

I miss and grieve for that sense of normalcy.

Today I think of a different time frame. We are measuring our lives in rolling increments of 14 days. We are told that this virus can manifest anywhere from two to 14 days after exposure, and even never manifest; that we can be carriers and transmitters without symptoms.

Being in the search business, which relies heavily on data, I pore over websites that provide the number of cases, recoveries, and deaths in real time. I am looking for that moment in time when the number of cases peak. It has not happened yet, and as more testing becomes available over the next several weeks, the number will no doubt increase. I read all newspapers that report on victims of this disease, paying particular attention to whether they have recovered and where they contracted the virus. If it is from someplace I haven’t been in the last two weeks (astonishingly, I haven’t been to an airport), then I am relieved for myself and others who are not flying now.

I have spent time talking to our firm’s clients. Some of them are frightened for their company’s future. Several are wondering how to complete a hiring process when the candidate has not visited their offices. Others are deliberating how to take care of their employees. Some are planning for a future when this crisis will start to ebb and see this as a hiring opportunity (like stockbrokers see market downturns as buying opportunities). One client with offices in Singapore believes the worst is behind Asia, and that we will follow their example. Another client believes it will take a year for us to return to normal. Bottom line: None of us really knows.

The Gift of Perspective

I remember all too well the recession of 2008, which peaked in September of that year. It was a double whammy, as Houston had Hurricane Ike make landfall seemingly simultaneously. A close friend, an executive with AIG, and I, along with our spouses, grabbed the last flight out of Houston. The next day, a Friday, from our vantage point in San Diego, on a split-screen TV, we watched AIG’s stock plummet to almost zero and the hurricane batter Houston. By Monday, he didn’t have a company to which to return and my firm’s Houston office had sustained considerable damage and was without power.

Loss of power in our Houston office was the least of our challenges. The Alexander Group had opened its New York office in September 2008 as the financial crisis was coming to a head. Our newly-hired New York City Managing Director was a longtime client, and for a moment we (and she) wondered if her joining us had been spectacularly and tragically mistimed.

Perspective is a wonderful gift, and one worth honing, especially in these times. Our NY Managing Director had a slow start, but as the economy recovered, she established herself as one of the world’s leading life sciences executive search consultants. My friend from AIG went on to achieve greater success as a venture capitalist and partner in a financial planning and investment firm. Houston recovered from Ike only to suffer and recover from Hurricane Harvey. The Alexander Group suffered three very slow months and then roared back to a robust business six months later.

My parents always told me that “there cannot be two winters in a row. Every crisis has a beginning, middle and an end.” It seems to me that right now we are somewhere between the beginning and the middle of this crisis.

A Path Forward

Everyone is going to have their own path going forward. But go forward we will. Here are some tips.

  1. For those who are working from home for the first time, there are some helpful online resources about how to work from home. Get up and get dressed, set up an office, cut down on distractions, have regular breaks and connect with your colleagues.
  2. Connect with the outside world. For us, our work has continued, and we have also used the time that we would have been on airplanes to reach out to the firm’s clients and friends. Even if we are not conducting an engagement for a client, we have been able to help by being a sounding board as they navigate these times. I spent part of this past week reflecting on the many long-term clients we have and to thank them for their belief in us for the past 35 years.
  3. Help others. One of the wonderful things about social media is that it provides a way to communicate needs. My favorite animal rescue shelter has a shortage of staff, and because of a Facebook post it was able to find foster homes for 61 animals in a 24-hour period. If you can do business with businesses remotely, do so. If you have a particular talent, offer it. I have friends who are golf pros, fitness instructors and business coaches who are offering live conferences to entertain or help those who need it. And all of the animal shelters in your area could use help in fostering dogs or cats.
  4. Find diversions. We are lucky to live in the golden age of streaming media and TV. There are online tours of art museums, national parks and concerts. I have loved the live-streamed concerts given by Keith Urban, Chris Martin of Coldplay, John Legend and One Republic (three band members are quarantined together in Ryan Tedder’s California studio). There are online church services and meditation apps.

    My diversion: Taking sunset pictures from my window at home.

    And who can listen to Andrew Lloyd Weber playing “All I Ask of You” from his home piano or the California high school choir each singing from their bedroom an a cappella arrangement of Israel Kamakawtwo’ole’s take on “Over the Rainbow” without shedding a tear? There are many people we think about but don’t call because we don’t have the time. Now we do.
  5. Ask for help. Most of us will have times when we need to reach out for support for ourselves, our families and our world. No one is exempt from what is happening, and we will all have moments we need support. Ask for it and give it.
  6. Plan and visualize for a better future. It will come.
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Jane Howze

Jane S. Howze, J.D.

Managing Director