Former DirecTV & PepsiCo CEO Mike White on Leading in Times of Crisis


The current Bank of America board member joined the N6A team remotely for the April 2020 edition of our Outcomes & Omelettes thought leadership series.

After kicking off in January  and rolling into February, life threw the Outcomes & Omelettes thought leadership series a curveball. The COVID-19 pandemic put the kibosh on a session in March, but N6A banded together (with a little help from video conferencing technology) to come back strong in April. We typically love to host our guests on the #EmbracethePace stage in our NYC HQ. But in the era of social distancing, we decided to move April’s event online to a virtual interview (along with our beloved make-your-own-omelette-station delivered to attendees via a Seamless credit!) This month, N6A CEO Matt Rizzetta featured Mike White, former CEO of DirecTV and CFO of PepsiCo, and a veteran business leader with expertise in international relations, finance and strategic planning. 

The conversation focused on the theme of leading during a crisis, with White drawing on his Pepsi experience leading the restructuring of its international business in the 1990s, navigating the impact of SARS on its Asia business in 2003, and his perspective on how the CEOs of companies like Bank of America, Kimberly-Clark, and Whirlpool are managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

White’s inspiring insights on how to focus amid the chaos, leadership behaviors that matter and the critical role of communication, as well as immediate priorities and long-term opportunities, galvanized the team over the nearly hour-long discussion. Here are a few of the key takeaways from our first virtual O&O session. 

Practice Realistic Optimism

In his previous executive level roles, White has steered businesses through stormy seas. But White was quick to note that COVID-19 is unlike any crisis any executive has dealt with before. That said, he emphasized the strategies to combat these extraordinary times are just as effective as they are in any crisis.

The main response, from the top down, should be what he called “realistic optimism.” 

Though a lack of control is the new normal, he explained that we are “only at mile-five of a marathon.” This means that planning for the worst and hoping for the best in the long-run is an effective means of tackling new challenges each day head-on. Business leaders should be truthful and honest, and explore a variety of scenarios that could affect the business while never losing sight of the realities for your workforce.   

Commit to a “Head, Hearts, Hands” Mentality

White explained that employees “don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” This statement followed the portion of the discussion with Rizzetta about how communication is key at a time like this, and that “leadership at 10,000 feet is useless.” 

Now is the time for business leaders to stay calm, communicate, and support their teams with what he called a “head, heart, and hands” mentality. 

Having a good head means quickly setting an agenda, and pulling the company together to walk through next steps with a sense of confidence; leading with your heart meant executives must lead with empathy and energize their workforce as a united front; and using your hands means addressing these uncertain times with a practical and trustworthy message  to be as transparent as possible.

Stay Focused, But Stay Together

Despite the confusion around us, leaders must act decisively and employees must persevere by focusing on the job at hand. But White noted that managing your wellbeing once you switch off for the day is just as important as when you’re switched on.

Having navigated some stressful professional situations himself, like negotiating one of the biggest mergers in history with AT&T and helping to launch Sunday Ticket with the NFL, White emphasized the importance of staying centered.  

We’re in a period of uncertainty for the foreseeable future, so workers must maintain a balance between pressures and stresses in their own way — whether it’s exercise, yoga, meditation, or more. At the same time, teams need to project a sense of unity. It’s essential to create structure and confidence in a high-stress and rapidly changing environment, especially if the workforce is working from home without the direct connections that normally power teamwork everyday.

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Each Outcomes & Omelettes session is an educational and interactive discussion on each guest’s background and career journey to engage and inspire the team. Check back soon for our next guest! You don’t know who will show up from the worlds of business, media, philanthropy, and beyond.

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