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What 100 CEOs learnt about leading in perilous times

Wilhelm Crous - Friday, October 09, 2020


The Boston Consulting Group recently interviewed more than 100 CEOs on what they’ve learnt after leading their organisations  through the current crisis. These are the six themes that emerged…
  1. Purpose guides action: Purpose anchors an organisation’s day-to-day activities to a higher goal. It’s a company’s reason for being that underlies everything it does, makes, or sells. CEOs have drawn from the well of purpose to handle the crisis. “By reminding teams of our purpose and why we are working hard, we can do more to handle the crisis, strengthen our reason for existing, and help a greater number of people,” reflected one CEO.

  2. The future is now: Many CEOs have said that they’re working simultaneously on today’s issues and on setting up their respective companies for success in the new reality. As economic activity returns, these CEOs are increasingly thinking through moves for a post-virus world. One CEO shared that his leadership team is now spending one-fifth of its time focused on the longer term, a larger share than normal. “You can’t just put out fires. The crisis brings opportunities.”

  3. The signals that matter most: It is almost impossible to forecast or project demand six to nine months out. With that reality CEOs have been forced to find new signals to understand the business, markets and the overall economy during the pandemic. Therefore CEOs have looked to high-frequency data for signs of employee health, business activity and future trends.

  4. People first: CEOs have recently had to address employee safety, anxiety, uncertainty, job security, performance expectations, and burnout - almost daily. Clear and ongoing communication was therefore very important. A silver lining to the crisis has been the fact that in many cases new leaders emerged. Also, the crisis helped to uncover talent deep in the organisation that had been overlooked in normal times. “We now have a clear view of our star leaders, as well as those who have not been able to rise to the challenge.”

  5. Communication demands authenticity: The coronavirus upended whatever communication and employee feedback programmes companies had in place, leaving the CEO to be communicator in chief. Without the familiar forum of face-to-face meetings, CEOs have tried to connect through remote channels. “A health crisis deserves a human response. People are looking for a vulnerable, calm, and clear-thinking leader.” Leaders are also finding ways to generate feedback and a feel for employee sentiment. One CEO sets unstructured time during meetings for allowing employees to “heal and nurture.” This is no time for corporate speak. The critical capabilities are authenticity and honesty.

  6. Leading through the crisis: Most CEOs recognise they’re facing likely the largest test of their careers. Every word and action can inspire or be misunderstood. “This is an opportunity to train empathy, self-awareness, and breakout thinking to see the future.”

The pandemic and the impact on CEOs and other leaders will test them to the limit. It will be stressful and exhausting, but as one CEO remarked: “In five years, you’ll be rolling up your sleeves and sharing scars and telling others, “you wish you would have been there. This is a great time to lead. Today’s scars are tomorrow’s stripes.”

It will be interesting to see how South African Executives are functioning during this pandemic. With that in mind, we’ve invited some of the country’s top executives coaches: Dr Sunny Stout-Rostron (Director, People Quotient Pty Ltd (PQ); Prof Salome Van Coller (Assistant Professor, USB); and Dumisani Magadlela (Acting Head Learning & Development DBSA) to highlight what executives are sharing with them.

This will be presented at the upcoming HR: The New Agenda Online Conference on 3-4 November 2020. We’re excited to have secured an excellent programme, with a number of international speakers joining the line-up including: 

  • Robert Brown, Vice President of the Centre for the Future of Work, at Cognizant in California who will share on the 21 HR Jobs of the Future. 
  • Kevin Martin, Chief Research Officer at the highly-respected Institute for Corporate Productivity (I4CP) in Seattle, who will speak on how to reinvent talent management in the era of HR 4.0.
  • Prof John Quiggin, from the University of Queensland Australia will share recent research findings on productivity due to new work practices as a result of Covid-19.
You can learn more about this two-day, virtual conference – here.

Bibliography: 

Tollman, P., Reeves, M., Wallenstein, J., Cook, P., & Berriman, C. (2020, August 5). bcg.com. Retrieved from bcg.com: https://www.bcg.com/publications/2020/reflections-on-leadership-during-crisis


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