COVID-19 is the black swan event that has rendered myriad algorithms on human behaviour irrelevant. As we head into recession, the pressure is building on CEOs and senior executives to understand how customer and employee expectations have changed. At the same time, investors and shareholders want answers on future business performance.
So, while the past three months may have been tough for chief executives and Boards, things are about to get much tougher. At the opening of Criticaleye’s first virtual CEO Retreat, held in partnership with Accenture Strategy and E.ON UK, attendees were asked to provide one word to describe what it’s like to be a chief executive during this time. Some said that it was ‘exciting’, ‘challenging’, ‘mind-blowing’ and a ‘roller-coaster’. Others admitted it was ‘stressful’, ‘intense’ and that they feel ‘isolated’ and ‘exposed’.
The reality is that this is only the beginning. Till Dudler, Managing Director of Accenture Strategy for UK&I, commented: “Many CEOs have said they will not be going back to the old ways; they’ve seen the incredible things companies can achieve when speed is paramount and they want to keep that agility and innovation. So, prepare for the marathon as the initial sprint response comes to an end.”
In a number of sessions, the point was made that long-held assumptions about both employees and customers need to be reconfigured. Till added: “A lot of the insights you’ve been using are not useful in a COVID world because of drastic changes in consumer behaviour. You need to quickly gather which behavioural changes are here to stay and which will go away…
“As business leaders it is imperative that our organisations have the capabilities and the flexibility to pivot when Plan A doesn’t work out.”
Amanda Nelson, CEO of Vodafone Hungary, said: “I have seen a much bigger shift towards more agile ways of working, where you just have to empower people and teams, while giving them clear direction. You have to monitor the KPIs but let things run.
“As a leader that is a totally different way of working – it’s about servant leadership – and I am very excited about scaling that up.”
In the early stages of the pandemic, it’s understandable that not every senior executive fully appreciated the gravity of the situation, but that’s where independent directors needed to step in and provide guidance. Karen Fawcett, who is based in Singapore and is a Non-executive Director of LGT Foundation Board, INSEAD and Better Trade Off, said: “Initially, some CEOs sat on the fence about whether this really was a crisis or not – and I think that is human nature.
“It was interesting watching the role of the Boards who had more experience and had seen this across industries and over time. They pushed and urged [the executives] to act quickly.”
Long and Winding Road
The great lockdown is expected to cause global growth to fall to -3 percent in 2020, which amounts to a downgrade of 6.3 percentage points from January 2020, according to the International Monetary Fund. The impact on people’s welfare, standard of living and livelihoods is going to be extreme.
Matthew Blagg, CEO of Criticaleye, commented: “We are moving into the hard piece of the leadership challenge now. It’s relatively straightforward to align during a crisis, as ultimately it’s a call to arms. It is more difficult to get the balance right between alignment and challenge in the next phase.
“As a CEO, you have multiple stakeholder groups with multiple objectives. Your role, and that of the leadership team and Board, is to balance those. For example, insight into how customer behaviour has changed is naturally lagging, and so as that becomes clearer there will be the challenge of aligning your team and executing on a way forward.”
There was general agreement that stakeholder management is going to get more complex. “Investors were incredibly supportive through the first phase, as they saw their own business models being disrupted,” Matthew continued. “There was a lot of alignment and very little challenge, but now we are moving to the opposite. As we go into the autumn the challenge will be significant. Debt will get more expensive, the stakeholder element will become more of an issue and there will be increased pressure on CEOs.”
Karen emphasised the need for Boards to step up and support executives. “Leadership teams tend to pull together in a crisis. The test will be making the harder decisions as the fog clears and we see what businesses have to do moving forward,” she said.
“For the next stage, when a lot has got to be done, it’s important to review the agenda and remove tasks. Are there any big initiatives or projects that you no longer have time for? All companies need to do that.”
Acting with Integrity
The question of reputation and integrity was discussed at length during the course of the day. “How business leaders respond is the central part of the story playing out in front of us, because COVID elevates the social impact of every business and throws a spotlight on the nature of our companies, our character and our brands,” said Till.
“COVID has given us a common purpose and elevated the idea of business purpose. The key lesson from the crisis, which has not been lost on employers and consumers, is that we can change things really fast when we want to.”
Amanda commented: “Purpose has been so important in our response. Globally, we have been on a two to three-year journey at Vodafone to really understand and talk about our purpose.
“Locally, it’s been about digitising Hungary for a better future and creating a digital society. We were having quite good traction, but there is always some cynicism. So, at the beginning of the crisis, we absolutely took on the challenge to make sure that the elderly got extra services, all digital education was enabled, there was work done on the ambulance app that we had launched a few months earlier and many other things to support critical services, customers and the government.
“We communicated this externally, but especially internally, saying: ‘This is our purpose. This is what we are here to do.’ The overwhelming feedback I got from people was incredible. Employees were saying, ‘I am so proud to be part of this.’ That pride helped people give 200 percent when we had to deliver miracles in those first few weeks.”
The next 18 to 24 months will continue to be a roller-coaster as the impact of COVID-19 on people’s health, state of mind and financial security cannot be underestimated. The ability of businesses to come out the other side will depend on the strength of their balance sheets but, more importantly, on the quality of the top team and the culture that permeates the entire organisation.
“You need to be bold, to believe and to lead,” said Matthew. “You can create more of an opportunity in this market than in a flat one. Good leadership teams will have nothing to fear, but underperforming ones will be increasingly exposed.
“CEOs need to lead the organisation, not run it. You must have a strong team behind you as the chief exec will be juggling an increasingly complex stakeholder piece.”
Marc Barber, Managing Editor, Criticaleye
Next week’s Community Update will take another look at the challenges for business leaders that were highlighted during the CEO Retreat 2020.