MNCs around the world have now had time to adapt to a new way of life. Although, with uncertain prospects for the future, CEOs must avoid growing complacent.
Most business leaders are used to dealing with uncertainty but little could have prepared them for the upheaval caused by COVID-19. All of a sudden, CEOs were forced to adapt, setting up their teams to work remotely and, where possible, moving their services and operations online.
But now, six months on and with this exceptional situation set to last, how can business leaders continue to operate and meet the often-contradictory demands of employees and the organization? Also, what lessons have they learnt from the early stages of the pandemic that can help?
When the pandemic started, CEOs’ first priority was to protect their people, their company and their customers.Besides this, ensuringbusiness continuity was their main focus, whilst very quickly managing their cost base.
Appreciating the scale of the challenge was vital. Althoughrealizing that COVID-19 isn’t going away, CEOs are moving out of crisis mode and considering how best to do business in a new ‘normal’.
Most often, the demands being placed on CEOs are diametrically opposed, which is pulling them in different directions.
The economic environment is quite tough at present, requiring equally tough decisions. It has been forecasted by OECD that the global economy will shrink by 6-7.6% this year, representing the deepest recession since the Second World War. Several jobs are being axed every day in every sector, with the OECD predicting that “even in the more optimistic scenario for the evolution of the pandemic” the unemployment rate in OECD countries shall exceed to a new high ever since the Great Depression.
Despite the fact that CEOs may want to hold on to as many people as possible, they have a cost base to manage and they have to deliver to investors. Hence, their dilemma is how to provide employees with the support they need while optimizing business performance. Also, how to focus on current priorities – grappling with coronavirus-driven shocks to the business – while assessing new opportunities created by the dislocation.
There is another challenge to look at which is achieving the right balance between virtual and human interactions. However, CEOs also recognize that connections across their business are starting to fray and that some people’s work-from-home arrangements are less than ideal. So, the leaders need to find out the ways to maintain cohesion when people are physically apart.Also, how can they be understanding of individual circumstances while remaining focused on business performance, is another aspect to look at.
CEOs need to be utmost flexible with a multi-faceted skill set while managing such dilemmas. Driving performance is simply not enough.
At times CEOs have to deliver complex, yet opposing messages. There are many instances wherein CEOs need to maintain staff morale and keep people informed and then, the next day, having to issue a note about the pandemic’s ruinouseffects on the business and the urgent need to improve performance. It is a delicate balancing act which the CEOs should learn.
Decisiveness and Innovation
Business leaders were forced to make quick decisions with incomplete information during the initial stages of the pandemic. Likewise, CEOs will need to continue to lead without the visibility they are used to. During this inherently unknowable situation, no amount of analysis can tell them what proportion of their retail outlets will be open by next March or how efficient transport links in their supply chain will be. Meanwhile, innovation is vital.
According to André Helfenstein, CEO of Swiss Universal Bank at Credit Suisse, the pandemic brings opportunities that swift decision-making, and the courage to change, can unlock. André further adds that this pandemic situation forces us to more radically question certain businesses, set-ups, processes and investments that previously seemed a given or were changing, but too slowly. Stricter cost management and more efficient ways of operating ultimately free up resources that can be invested in new opportunities and offer potential for improving existing business set-ups and the way we work.
Ability to unify teams
Working from home has allowed organizations to continue to operate, and with companies from Amazon to Zillow extending their remote working policies, many will be doing it for a lot longer.
Although reflecting on their early pandemic experience, many CEOs feel that they need to do more to bring their virtual teams together. Going ahead, CEOs should conduct more one-to-one check-ins, establish better methods of linkage – across senior people, functions and projects – to replicate the collaboration facilitated by office life, and enforce black-out times to avoid employee burnout.
It is difficult to plan ahead amidst so much uncertainty, with some organizations putting detailed five-year plans on the back burner. While there are other companiesas well that are continuing with their usual plans, even if they aren’t sure how much faith to have in them.
For many CEOs, long-term alignment is a relatively low priority right now and it is hardly surprising, but some level of forward planning is useful. It is recommended to find small amounts of time to focus on it and acknowledge that the uncertainty can be unsettling.
It is expected that for CEOs, the COVID-19 crisis turns out to be the ultimate leadership challenge. Those leaders that make it through will be seeing meaningful jump to their businesses, personal development and in societal terms. It is a galvanizing experience knowing that you are robust enough to survive, and possibly even thrive, in a crisis situation of this magnitude. This shall provide CEOs with the confidence and multi-faceted skillset to weather most future black swan events.