What CEOs Are Talking About Right Now

By: Joanna E. Starek

If you wonder what chief executive officers are thinking right now, here is a small window into those conversations. Recently, RHR International facilitated conversations with groups of CEOs from different industries. The purpose was to allow CEOs to share ideas and to calibrate their thoughts about reopening after the COVID-19 shutdown. As the CEOs started sharing, it quickly became obvious not every industry sector is in the same place. Some companies are fighting for survival, others are weathering the storm, and a third group is thriving due to new, unexpected opportunities. Regardless of circumstance, the tone of the conversations was authentic, thoughtful, and reflective. Here are some of the topics that emerged.

The Power of People: Regardless of industry circumstance, CEOs reported the number-one highlight and lowlight of this crisis has been their employees. They have been impressed by how teams are coming together, the adaptability of the workforce, the commitment to doing the right thing, and the care with which employees are treating one another. The lowlights have been the gut-wrenching decisions around furloughs and layoffs coupled with difficult trade-offs on how to keep people safe while keeping them employed. In the same conversation, we found leaders humbled by the weight of the tough decisions they had to make regarding employees while simultaneously being energized by the resilience of the people they work with.

Acceleration of the Virtual Workforce: A second theme that emerged was the fascination with how easy it was to move some parts of work to a virtual environment. The plane trips and in-person meetings that seemed so critical can be done well via video. Many employees report being more productive working at home than in the office. Others, however, find it nearly impossible, particularly the working parents and/or those in crowded living spaces. The shift also highlights that front-line workers do not have the luxury of working behind a computer screen. For CEOs, this raises questions about the workforce of the future. Will the “corporate center” ever return to the way it was? What type of new, hybrid environment should they build? Also, what are the new workers’ rights, and what policies need to be put in place to quickly meet the needs of different groups in the workforce?

Reimagining the Future: As CEOs lift out of crisis mode, they are starting to think about the future. What will be the same versus what will be different? At the most basic level, they are grappling with how fast to accelerate new strategies when keeping the business functioning is already straining attention and resources. One leader reflected: “All plans are out the window. If we have to reset our business, do we reimagine everything (e.g., our value proposition, our structure, the profit and loss statement, and the pace of innovation)?” As the CEO uttered those words, you could sense his excitement as well as the apprehension. The decisions made now have immense weight and will influence what is to come in 2021 and beyond.

Managing the Political Divide: An interesting theme that emerged is how to manage the current political climate related to reopening the country and the economy. Rather than solely trust government recommendations, companies are hiring their own medical consultants and/or wading through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to determine the best path forward. The CEOs in consumer-facing industries have the added weight of trying to figure out how to keep employees and customers safe without making their company a political target. Think of the recent fiasco at Family Dollar, where violence ensued after an employee asked a customer to wear a mask. Decisions about safety become more complicated when you factor in that some will get angry if you don’t require protective masks, while others will be offended if you do. The solutions required become magnified in global environments, where policies and procedures vary from country to country.

Existential Questions: On the personal front, several CEOs noted how the job has become even lonelier as they lead their organizations and seek to engage their team and the broader employee base from a room in their house. Some have had personal tragedy, losing loved ones to COVID-19. Others are sinking more deeply into “purpose” or “fitness” or “family” and are trying to make the most of time saved by not traveling or commuting. Like many of us, they are rethinking the quality of their lives. What personal habits do they want to retain? What, if anything, has shifted in regard to personal values and personal commitments?

These conversations illuminate that the job of the CEO in today’s world is immensely complex. At the weightiest moments, leaders grapple with knowing the decisions they make impact many lives. At their lightest moments, they realize their people and teams want to rally behind positive choices and they may not be as alone as they often feel.

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