Times and seasons all too well depict the capriciousness of life. Sunny days pave ways for stormy nights, calm and diamond sparkly sea goes menacing with choppy expressions of death even to the best of sailors. The footfalls of the supremely audacious figure whose very presence dominates corporate air into submission have been reined in by pensive glares and creased brows. Much more than punctured ego over their now slippery grip on organizational matters, the big shots within the business enclave still have their firm grip on one thing which is surviving the blazing pandemic; Leadership, albeit sparingly.
A virus-free existence is a cul-de-sac so deeply entrenched and unachievable that its allure is defeated. Evolution plays a nice feature in the three-part play of “Pandemic, Organizations and Leadership” where captains must curtsy to innovations, and reformed ways of doing things, an accepted status quo. In any case, the marvelous diversity of life rests on viruses which, as much as they are a source of death, are also a source of richness and of change. The trajectory for most companies in the pandemic has been a repetition of hopeful lamentations of surviving in the pandemic. What we learned from these leaders was regardless of culture, industry, or position, traits of innovation, elasticity and grits are what we cling to in times of need.
Businesses have fallen prey to the predatory inclinations of the pandemic and has forced CEOs from the top of the food chain to grapple with the barest minimum in anticipation and optimism for a better post-COVID recovery. Right in the thick of surviving, CEOs have felt the need to adopt a brand new perspective to maintain sanity in their organizations, reroute structures, plans and project in resonance with the changing times. Demands, supplies, necessities and operations in businesses have gone full circle and evolved to provide bespoke services to people who hitherto were not part of their niche market. Boardrooms have lost the timbre of breakfast meetings by transitioning into “hard talks”, brainstorming session, cerebral decision process which elicits cathartic relief for a seamless operation.
McKinsey posits that, now more than ever before with the current pandemic, “CEOs are recognizing that the barriers to boldness and speed are less about technical limits and more about such things as mindsets toward what is possible, what people are willing to do, the degree to which implicit or explicit polices that slow things down can be challenged, and bureaucratic chains of command”.
Garment of Humanity
In a moment of crisis, everyone looks to their leader and this has become more glaring to CEOs in this pandemic moment. Expectations, hope and cluster of questions are usually directed to these leaders who by default are expected to be the “Houdini” of the moment and conjure some swift solutions to make all the problems disappear. One striking yet sterling phenomenon the pandemic has unearthed irrespective of the decimation of lives and livelihood is the communal spirit of solution-finding expedition by all and sundry in all disciplines. “Perhaps the most notable feature of how CEOs are showing up differently is that they are showing more of their humanity”. As such, there has been a tear down of bureaucratic trappings and an adoption of an all-inclusive portfolio of decision makers to yank organizations out of the quagmire of depletion.
CEO of AmeriHealth Caritas, Paul Tufano, explains, “This has been a sustained period of uncertainty and fear, but also a great opportunity to forge a stronger, more cohesive and motivated workforce. If CEOs can step into a ministerial role, extending hands virtually, truly listening, relating to and connecting with people where they are; there is enormous potential to inspire people and strengthen bonds and loyalties within the company”. Corroborating his assertion, Alain Bejjani, CEO of MAF, “The people you are leading have big expectations of you. They want you to be perfect and often forget that you are human. But the more human you are with them, the more trust and empathy they lend to you. They understand you better. That gives you the ability to do so much more, as people give you the benefit of the doubt.”
Revamping of Leadership
Global disruption of activities has trickled down subliminally to a shakeup and a reflection of the title of leadership and their true place in organizations, especially in this pandemic altercation. Leaders have been subjected to a rude awakening of their somewhat shifting positions into a more coordinated regimen.
David Schwimmer, CEO of London Stock Exchange Group, says, “People are looking to me for a different kind of leadership. In a normal environment, it’s about business leadership and setting up strategy, as well as culture and people decisions. In this environment, it’s about helping people maintain morale. It’s about people being prepared for whatever may come in the face of uncertainty.”
CEO of Guardian, indicates that “Like many New York financial-services firms, our culture and corporate communications tend to be a bit more formal. Pre-COVID-19, when I was preparing for a company-wide video or speech, that formality, in the form of rehearsals and professional staging, was standard practice. That culture had to change overnight because everyone’s at home. Now, I’m more casually dressed, and it’s more intimate and personal. I’ve made some of my videos outside with the dog, something that we’d never have thought to do before. The feedback has been terrific. Our employee engagement scores, confirmed by regular pulse surveys, have been consistently on the rise since going remote.”
Technology and Time redefining schedule and productivity
The COVID-19 experience has made it clearer than ever before that CEOs must be extremely intentional about how they use their time. McKinsey views it as, “many have adapted by booking ‘flight time’ into their schedule so as to avoid spending all day, every day, on videoconference meetings”.
Outside personal time and energy management, managerial adjustments that CEOs have made to decision making and execution hold great promise for the future. Arvind Krishna, the new CEO of IBM, expounds on his company’s two-speed model of decision making. “Your CMT [crisis-management team] will handle all of the stuff around health, safety, employee confidence, and client confidence. That lets the others focus on running the business. I think it’s a reasonable model for three to nine months. The bigger question is, ‘How do we learn from this and evolve better for the future? What structural changes do we make?”
One significant aspect of structural change that most CEOs are grappling with is how much of a physical footprint their companies need, now that the ability to work virtually and productively has, by and large, been proved. If companies do move to a more virtual model (50 percent or more virtual, up from 20 percent, for example), what does that mean for team building, compliance, distribution channels, and so on?
Recalibration of futuristic endeavors
Like an unforgettable rhyme, with all its horror, COVID-19 has left CEOs and staff now looking inward and capitalizing on their innate and somewhat latent potential to erupt ingenuities and initiate organizational strategies. Michael Fisher, CEO, Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center Hospital, puts it better by saying, “I keep pushing myself and our team to think about how we use this inflection point to reimagine our potential together, as opposed to allowing our organization to just go back to the comfort of ‘Let’s do what we’re doing.”
Quintessentially, most CEOs have found rare opportunity in the not so normal occurrence by immersing themselves via connection and also motivation within the company. The “Berlin wall” of invincibility surrounding the desk of CEOs have been torn down to let in some sunshine of warmth, human-feeling and sensibilities to the staff. Steve Collis, CEO of AmerisourceBergen, says, “one of the smartest things that we did the very first week was to set up a daily executive-management meeting at 5:00 p.m. That’s important from a decision-making point of view, but it’s even more important for touching base and showing empathy. We’re now in each other’s homes—you’re seeing my study, and we’ve met each other’s families… I asked all my direct reports, ‘Is there someone who wants me to reach out to someone who’s doing a great job or someone who’s struggling? It’s been a great gift to be able to do that for the people in AmerisourceBergen.”
At his recent top-300 executive meeting, Verizon Communications CEO Hans Vestberg shared a visual showing how he’s spent his time over the past three months during the crisis and how his energy has changed: “Ultimately, my job is to give energy, empowerment, and vision to the organization. If I’m down, I’m not really using the only asset I have as a leader. And I have bad days like anybody else. I tell my leaders, ‘You need to self-assess so you know what you’re good at, and double down on that in your own leadership.”
According to Mckinsey, Michael Fisher of CCMHC has begun to operationalize these insights by being explicit about what is on his “to do” and “to be” lists. As Fisher explains: “I never purposefully gave thought to whether there’s a way to be really intentional about how I want to show up every day. So, I’ve added a ‘to be’ list to my repertoire. Today, for example, I want to be generous and genuine. I hope I’m that way every day. But today, I want to make sure it stays top of mind.”
CEOs are gradually moving from the perceived condescending, dictatorial, petty and cold wall to one of fellow feeling, responsive to crisis situation, communicating more and expanding their networks. In part because only another CEO confronting the pandemic can fully identify with today’s leadership challenges. Similarly, these leaders are also benefiting from each other in this hard times and AmerisourceBergen CEO Steve Collis says, “from an external perspective, I’ve been a beneficiary of amazing calls with other CEOs who have been willing to share their knowledge. This has been such a growing experience”.
Really, it’s no surprise that CEOs are seeing the benefits of connecting in new ways during this crisis. The urgency of the moment has given emphasis and firmness to the nature of the discourse.