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The CleanChoice Energy headquarters in Washington, D.C.—now empty as employees work remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Important Role Employers Can Fill During a Crisis—and Beyond

By John Olivieri

I’m a millennial — an older millennial (thank you very much) — but a millennial nonetheless. And like many in my generation, especially those of us closer to Gen X than Gen Z, my formative years were heavily shaped by 9/11 and the Global War on Terror. I was just 17 years old, living 30 miles outside New York City, when the World Trade Center was attacked — an especially scary prospect as many local parents, including my mother, worked in NYC and even in the towers themselves.

Nearly two decades later, I still vividly recall the sound of fighter jets in the air above my house, the sight of tanks in the streets near my high school, the smell—the horrible smell—of the burning towers that permeated the streets of New York City for weeks after the World Trade Center fell, and the sense of panic that gripped my community as misinformation spread like wildfire. As we were ushered out of the school that fateful morning, all around you could hear teachers, students, and administrators alike exclaiming that we were under attack by Russia, China, North Korea — that Chicago had been bombed and that L.A. was being invaded as we spoke.

Of course, those things weren’t true, but what that experience taught me, perhaps more than anything else, is that in a time of national crisis, leadership—in the form of clear, truthful, complete and accurate information—matters as much or more than almost anything else. In other times, such information would primarily come from our national officials. It would be presumed credible and taken seriously, allowing people to keep calm and carry on.

Yet we are living in an age marked by distrust of our leaders, distrust of our institutions, and distrust of the media and news itself. More than at any time in recent history, what Americans need most is clear, honest, and deliberate leadership. But if we have lost faith in our core institutions, our news, and our public officials, where then are we supposed to turn? Increasingly, it seems, the answer is the private sector — our employers.

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Commitment to Community Leadership

I have written before about why I feel lucky to work at my company, CleanChoice Energy, a leading renewable energy company that empowers people and businesses to cut emissions and live cleaner, healthier lives. I have written about our commitment to making the biggest possible positive impact on our planet, our customers, and our staff.

I’ve written about paid time off I received to participate in the global climate strike last fall and I’ve written about the sense of pride and purpose that I get every day from my work — the satisfaction that comes with knowing that I’m doing my part to help leave behind a more sustainable planet with pollution-free, clean air and abundant renewable energy.

All of that remains true — but what I now find myself adding to that list is the pride and security I feel in knowing that my company not only takes the health of the planet seriously but that our commitment to community leadership extends further than I ever knew.

Weeks ago, long before much of the nation had awoken to this new reality, my company’s leadership — lead by our founder, president, and chief executive officer, Tom Matzzie, but in conjunction with our executive team—was already taking command of the situation. We received near-daily updates on the status of the crisis and what it meant for our neighborhoods, our staff, and our ability to keep helping people go green. We received clear plans about how the company would proceed, on what timeline, and guidance on how we could stay safe.

As the situation escalated, we were allowed to work from home before others were similarly situated, and we practiced and drilled for what an extended work-from-home schedule would look like — much akin to a technological fire drill. And as the situation continued to escalate, before it was clear that this pandemic would seriously threaten our economic stability, we were assured of our time off, sick time, family leave, and other essential policies and procedures that would be vital to our team.

Now, as the numbers of those affected with COVID-19 climb daily, our executive team continues to regularly revisit our plans and provide answers to all our questions in a timely, caring, and exhaustive fashion. At CleanChoice, if you need to take time off because you get sick — you are taken care of. If you need more time than usual due to the severity of the illness — you are taken care of. If you need to go out on short-term disability and are going to lose 40% of your income — you are taken care of. And so on and so on. I even got a brand-new recipe for how to cook a healthy meal while at home, advice on how to practice yoga online to keep the mind and body healthy, and a news site I could visit that was focused on truthful but positive, uplifting information.

To some, these may seem like small things, but they are the essence of leadership: compassionate, competent, and mission-oriented.

Even as I write this from my makeshift work-at-home office, I know that should the situation escalate further, I can count on honest, timely, and heartfelt support. That’s who we are as a company: We are leaders who truly care about the team, our customers, and our communities. We recognize that we have a responsibility to others that extends beyond ourselves, and we know that our actions serve as an example to others.

Leading by Example

I have lived through 9/11, the Global War on Terror, the Financial Crisis and more, but like all Americans, I have never lived through anything like this — no one has, and that’s obviously a source of great anxiety. Not since the 1918 flu pandemic has the world faced such challenges. We are truly in uncharted waters.

But America has faced challenges before and come out stronger on the other side. Yet our success or failure is now a collective concern; we will rise or fall together in the coming weeks and months. Yes, at times like these we should be looking to local, state, and federal officials for guidance, calm, and healing, but our response requires so much more than that.

We must look to all sectors of society for leadership, and that means our employers too, who must now also carry the heavy mantle of leadership.

As for me, I feel confident that no matter what may come I will be alright, not because of any particular policy coming from Washington, but because I know I can count on the truth and support from our team. Each day of this crisis we have lived our values and worked to promote a sustainable future not only for our planet but for all our customers and staff who count on us to keep them top of mind. That feeling is what true leadership inspires; that feeling is why true leadership matters; that feeling is why I’m proud of my company and will continue to look to my employer to keep me and my family safe and secure in this time of need.

It is my most sincere hope that others will follow suit and that my company’s leadership will serve as a beacon along the way. Until then, stay safe and stay calm. We will persevere.

As we say at CleanChoice: Onward!

John Olivieri is director of community relations at CleanChoice Energy. B the Change gathers and shares the voices from within the movement of people using business as a force for good and the community of Certified B Corporations. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the nonprofit B Lab.


What Corporate Leadership Looks Like in the Time of Coronavirus was originally published in B The Change on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Originally posted on B The Change - Medium by John Olivieri.


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