Leading beyond the pandemic (COVID-19) for CEOs

Saikat Saha
6 mins
July 28, 2020

In my recent article , the context regarding the pandemic (COVID-19) for business leaders was explained along with its implications on them, the expectations from them and how to identify true leaders in such context.

In this article, the inevitable is discussed- The post COVID-19 phase & my point of view on what will make CEOs successful in that phase.

I chose ‘CEOs’ specifically and not ‘leaders’ in general for the theme as in my opinion CEOs will play the most pivotal role in the organization especially during & post the pandemic. While one may argue that the CEO always plays the most pivotal role in the organization but in my view, post a crisis (& during also) like COVID-19, the significance of her role will get amplified.

The CEO may deal with a phase where the uncertainty will still linger yet one would lead a team that will come at work with a renewed sense of hope.

Also, how well the CEO plays her role, will make it simpler if not easier for the rest of the leaders to lead in ways that create balance towards immediate focus and long term relevance of the business.

The post  COVID-19 phase

The ‘post COVID-19’ phase would be when affordable vaccine will be accessible at scale and lock downs will get lifted completely. It would be the phase which people would describe as ‘back to normal’ even if the firm’s host country’s economy is not as strong as the pre-pandemic phase. Some cases of COVID 19 would still remain leaving people cautious if not worried.

We have read about the vaccine to be available from anytime in September, 2020 to even 1 year.

According to Fortune Magazine’s survey result of CEOs from Fortune 500 companies, it seems that 58.3% CEOs believe it will take up to Q1 2022 for economic activities to return to pre-pandemic levels.

The post COVID-19 phase would require the CEO to work towards mitigating some specific risks.

Risks that the CEO needs to mitigate:

1. Health & safety risk for employees and stakeholders.

2. Having newer opportunities but not the right or enough resources to capitalize on these opportunities.

3. Catering to the same set of clients but with changed needs & preferences without understanding them well.

4. Having limited cash than expected along with dwindling revenues and operating profits.

5. Being non compliant with ‘back to work’ protocols set by regulatory bodies and government.

6. Team members not having clarity about which direction the firm would take & not having the skills to contribute      towards the new direction.

The CEO’s Role post COVID-19

There are a set of roles that are expected to be performed by all CEOs but great CEOs constantly make ‘more’ out of their existing roles. Also, many roles emerge from the direct context of the CEO and that I am not including here.

3 common roles that the CEO plays and what would be different post the pandemic:

1. Help the team stay anchored to reality

The CEO ensures that team members are always able to recognize the reality and enables them to function in a manner that is rooted to the reality. There are two kinds of such realities that the CEO constantly grapples with.

The two realities:

· 1st Reality: This stays static in-spite of changing scenarios, the business environment, pressure from the board or the    shareholders etc. These are the vision, the values and the lasting principles which are most important for the business    and no one is expected to compromise on.

· 2nd reality: This is dynamic and defined by the external drivers like industry forces, competition, market demands,    economic factors, political climate, technology advances, pandemic etc.

Especially in regards to the 2nd reality, the CEO needs to pay immaculate attention to draw connections from what she observes in the firm and outside the firm with everything relevant that can be possibly connected. Its from these connections she needs to draw patterns and base her decisions on these patterns.

This is never an individual task but one in which she often needs to seek insights &foresight with the help of her trusted advisors from within and outside the firm.

What changes in the role post the pandemic?

The fact is that every CEO got reality check during the pandemic about their business & their own selves. Before the pandemic, only some of the better CEOs were deeply & willingly invested to have a reality check for their business. Not many of them even found the need to deeply reflect & know what they have and what they lack in bringing the kind of change they need to in themselves, their business and beyond.

Post pandemic, CEOs need to help their team anchor to their realities in two ways:

a. Create rituals in which team members can synthesize what they learn from their external & internal sensing and share with everyone.

b. Create regular & very frequent cadence where the CEO communicates the learning from her external& internal sensing and share with everyone.

Click here to view the article in 'The Ken'

On the basis of the external & internal sensing, the CEO must work with the key leaders in the team to make choices (as a firm) on ‘what to start doing?’, ‘what to stop doing?’ &  ‘what to continue doing?’

Getting committed towards these choices may often seem very hard and would require a shift in the leader’s leadership identity.

Creating a shift in one’s own leadership identity is hard and is best done with the help of executive coach or guide who can work with the CEO and his select number of key leaders towards establishing a renewed leadership identity that’s relevant & meaningful through development & performance coaching.

2. Maximize the value potential of the firm

CEOs have a constant conflict of making decisions that help the firm ‘look’ great versus helping it actually ‘become’ great. While there is nothing wrong in making the firm ‘look’ great, it should be done in a way where its in sync with immediate needs of the firm but in coherence with what the long term vision of the firm is.

Most CEOs being answerable to shareholders and the board are constantly compelled to look at the financial health of the firm from one quarter leading to the next. Great CEOs abstain from getting into this myopic trap and ask themselves questions that are focused on creating long term value for the firm without compromising on immediate needs of the firm. I find the below questions very relevant that any CEO must ask themselves with candor & boldness as cited in Alfred Rappaport’s HBR article:

· How do alternative strategies affect value?

· Which strategy is most likely to create the greatest value?

· How sensitive is the value of the most likely scenario to potential shifts in competitive dynamics and assumptions about   technology life cycles,the regulatory environment, and other relevant variables?

· Do any of the functions or lines of business have sufficient value-creation potential to warrant additional capital?

· Which functions or lines of business have limited potential and therefore should be candidates for restructuring or    divestiture?

· And what mix of investments in functions or lines of business is likely to produce the most overall value?

A CEO needs to ensure that she is not only able to arrive at answers in a clear & confident manner but also ensures that every capable & key leader in the organization understands the below:

· Why these questions are significant?

· Understands the answers to those questions with clarity

· How aligning with the firm’s decisions(on the basis of the answers to the questions above) help with the balance of long    term value as well as immediate important needs of the firm?

· What it means to inspire the teams to stay focused on execution excellence to act upon the decisions in a disciplined     manner?

What changes in the role post the pandemic?

The CEO is going to have more pressing reasons post the pandemic phase to focus on a longer runway for the firm to survive especially if the firm has financially suffered during COVID-19 phase.Hence, it becomes critical that the CEO is first able to accurately assess the financial health of the firm in terms of revenue, operating profits and most importantly ‘cash’.

If the firm has enough cash for a runway that survives them beyond 9 months, they must obsessively focus on only increasing long term value for shareholders instead of catering to short term wishes of the shareholders. In case the firm does not have enough cash to survive for 9 months, it must only focus on making choices that help them in increasing their cash flows at the earliest.

Either ways, there would be paramount uncertainty in making the choices but it would get easier if the CEO is able to make its stakeholders understand the ‘why’ behind the choices.

While the CEO makes the team understand these choices, its important that they are always able to tie back the choices with the below two questions and communicate it effectively with the team.

The two questions:

· What the implications of these choices mean for the team if they are executed well?

· What the team needs to do better or differently in order to execute the choices?

Once the answers are arrived, execution of the decisions require the CEO and her select set of capable leaders to commit towards key performance objectives in a disciplined,informed & reflective manner. These performance objectives have to be a function of both the leadership capabilities that’s relevant for the CEO & the leaders  and also the prevailing business context.

Click here to view the article in Fortune

3. Inspire action through story telling

In business, compelling stories are only told from lived experiences and the CEO should have a lot of stories in her story bank as she is supposed to be the most engaged executive in the firm.

It is stories which when told well truly invoke emotions which leads to actions.A CEO may have dearth of resources, but if she is a keen story collector, she can never fall short of stories that have relevance, meaning & significance to inspire great actions from people.

Great CEOs don’t merely inform through hard facts alone, they inspire the team to not merely conclude on logical ends but look beyond pragmatic possibilities to create lasting impact through storytelling.

Think of the most legendary CEOs and they definitely had legendary stories to tell. Not all of them were very articulate yet they told stories which were believable, had characters who were real,struggles that seemed difficult and wins that infused hope & belief in human spirit.

What changes in the role post the pandemic?

Business story telling classically requires to look back and talk about past experiences weaved together as stories. However, in a post COVID-19 phase, the CEO could be too fatigued from the work during COVID-19 phase. This will make reflecting very hard and one would need help in the process of reflecting on past experiences, drawing connections and crafting compelling stories that can get people excited & committed towards the future ahead.

Post COVID-19 phase, the story telling must be about interconnecting the below:

1. Learning from past experiences

2. Observations from current realities & their implications

3. Hope & uncertainties in the future conjectures

In this phase, the stories are to be narrated by the CEO in a way in which the team can find  inspiration towards believing that its indeed them who can give the story the conclusion it deserves. The role of the CEO as a story teller is to infuse the imagination in every team member that they are empowered to play a key role in shaping the future of the firm in their own (un)limited ways in this crucial juncture.

Click her to view the article in Fortune

Feeding that imagination with optimism,courage, belief, foresight, goodness on one hand and prudence, logic, rationale & tact on the other is the key to this storytelling.

Becoming an effective story teller is a skill that would require to be deliberately worked upon. Much like the skill of mastering crucial conversations that the CEO has to indulge with everyone on an ongoing & frequent basis.

3 principles that will underpin the success of the CEO post pandemic:

1. The CEO must be the most‘giving’ person in the firm. She must be the one ‘trying’ to ‘create’ most value, ‘deliver’ most value and ‘monetize’ most value at work

2. The CEO must be fully aware that most often (if not always), the harder choices could be the right choices.

3. The CEO must see every stakeholder from the ‘human’ lens before seeing them as stakeholders.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”- Rumi

References:
1. Harvard Business Review, Ten ways to create shareholder value https://hbr.org/2006/09/ten-ways-to-create-shareholder-value
2. Fortune, The greatest business decisions of all time https://fortune.com/2012/10/01/the-greatest-business-decisions-of-all-time/
3. Fortune, Coming out of a crisis, the boldest companies win https://fortune.com/2020/06/25/coronavirus-business-opportunities-spending-mergers-acquisitions-research-development-recruiting/
4. The Ken, No old roads lead to new destinations https://the-ken.com/blog/no-old-road-leads-to-new-destinations/
5. Times Now News, Coronavirus Vaccine: Mass production by AstraZeneca begins, 100 million doses to be produced by September, https://www.timesnownews.com/health/article/coronavirus-mass-production-by-astrazeneca-begins-100-million-doses-to-be-produced-by-september/602638
6. Live Mint, Covid-19 vaccine will take minimum 1 year to be available widely: https://www.livemint.com/news/world/covid-19-vaccine-will-take-minimum-1-year-to-be-available-widely-singapore-pm-lee-hsien-loong-11591536327562.html
7. Fortune, Fortune 500 CEO survey: How are America’s biggest companies dealing with the coronavirus pandemic? https://fortune.com/2020/05/14/fortune-500-ceo-survey-coronavirus-pandemic-predictions/