CNBC’s Sharon Epperson facilitates an engaging conversation between YPO members Melissa Melshenker Ackerman, President of Produce Alliance, LLC; Jill Belconis, CEO of Jill Belconis Enterprises; and Rana el Kaliouby CEO and Co-Founder, Affectiva. Get a sneak peek at the types of conversations YPO members regularly engage in with their peers to navigate business and personal challenges.
Companies of all sizes are reacting to rapid and unwelcomed change caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. While this time of uncertainty can be fearful, it also can lead to new opportunities. Change forces a leader to look at things differently, not because they want to but because they have to. 

Three CEOs recently talked with Sharon Epperson, CNBC senior personal finance correspondent, about how they are leading their respective organizations to not only survive but thrive. While running vastly different companies, each CEO agreed on the following best practices to be an effective leader, especially during difficult times:

  • Lead with empathy and authenticity.
  • Turn to your network for guidance.
  • Work with what you have and keep moving forward.

 Lead with empathy and authenticity. For Rana el Kaliouby, Ph.D., Co-founder and CEO, Affectiva, a venture-backed MIT startup focused on human perception artificial intelligence (AI), the pandemic has strengthened her resolve to lead with empathy. Author of the newly released book, Girl Decoded, el Kaliouby says that you have to acknowledge that people are going through challenging times, so you have to lead with authenticity and vulnerability.

“I believe there is [now] more opportunity and space for a different type of leadership. The way I like to think about it is to lead with empathy, because we absolutely need that. Then pair it with clear decision-making and assertiveness in how you lead. I find that to be really important, especially during the last 90 days,” says el Kaliouby.

“We [as women] are born to lead. As long as we let our authentic selves come out, I think we really shine.” — Jill Belconis, CEO Jill Belconis Enterprises

As the head of her organization, el Kaliouby stresses mental health and self-care. She blocks time on her calendar for exercise, which sets an example for the rest of her organization to work hard but also prioritize their physical and mental well-being.  “I talk about my family and my kids all the time on how it’s challenging. But then I find that people reciprocate. It’s almost gives permission for people to share openly,” adds el Kaliouby.

The company does virtual Donuts, which is an app used on a Slack channel, so that employees can team up with people who they ordinarily would not meet or work with, replicating the idea of running into someone in the hallway or office kitchen. “We try to do things to encourage some kind of human connection, which is what I think most of us are craving,” says el Kaliouby.

Jill Belconis, former President and CEO of Shelter Mortgage and currently CEO of Jill Belconis Enterprises, a business coaching firm, stresses the importance of authentic leadership. Belconis, a member of YPO since 1997 and the first woman elected as chairman of the YPO board of directors, says that as leaders, women have some advantages.

“We have some intuition. I think that we are just built a little bit differently. We are born to lead. As long as we let our authentic selves come out, I think we really shine,” says Belconis.  (To learn more about Belconis’ perspective, see her Ted Talk, “Succeed Like a Man, Lead Like a Woman.”) 

Turn to your network for guidance. When restaurants closed and air travel ceased in March, the food service industry simply stopped functioning. For Melissa Melshenker Ackerman, president, Produce Alliance, a national management and procurement company that manages the produce supply chain from fork to field, her business suddenly and completely disappeared.

The company had to find a way to pivot. Melshenker Ackerman, a YPO member in Chicago, turned to the People Action Network, one of the many impact networks available to YPO members based on their interests. Someone in the network suggested that Melshenker Ackerman create a GoFundMe page to see if they could get funding to deliver produce boxes to front-line workers.

“Through networking and brainstorming that happened through YPO, we were able to push through this initiative quickly. We started working with our 70-plus distributors and growers to make produce boxes. We raised USD400,000, and working in 18 states, we have been able to build and to keep an entire supply chain going,” says Melshenker Ackerman.

While the produce boxes, which are available through the company’s foundation, provide much-needed supplies to front-line workers and vulnerable communities, the project showed Melshenker Ackerman potential avenues of revenue in the future. The company is now looking at new business models, such as direct-to-consumer and farmers-to-food banks.

Melshenker Ackerman says there was a lot of hopelessness when every restaurant closed across the country. She decided to stop her normal day-to-day activities and start leading by showing that they needed to do more and be in their communities. “It was important for our company as a whole to keep the positivity up and to keep us moving forward when there was just so much darkness,” she adds.

Work with what you have and keep moving forward. Now that some companies have moved beyond defense mode in shutting down completely or setting up employees to work from home, Belconis has been helping her chief executive clients transition into reset mode. She guides them to move into that mindset as soon as possible, telling them to work with what they have.

Belconis adds that as a leader, you can’t hide. She says that you have to be front and center and you have to be honest. “You need to tell it like it is, but yet, be positive that this is where we’re going. People are looking to you to move from defense to offense,” she says.

“It was important for our company as a whole to keep the positivity up and to keep us moving forward when there was just so much darkness.” — Melissa Melshenker Ackerman, President Produce Alliance.

As president and CEO of Shelter Mortgage, Belconis navigated the financial crisis during the Great Recession. Every day she and her team had to work with programs that were disappearing and learn new policy changes, while answering to investors. “What I learned from that is you take what you have and just keep working with that. Don’t focus on what you don’t have. And sometimes you can make things even better, which we did. Yes, we had to turn some corners and keep dodging things, but keep your eyes forward and keep communicating,” she says.

El Kaliouby agrees that it is critical for chief executives to keep moving forward and focus on execution. She says that while some of her business has slowed down, their ability to execute has not. And again, she stresses communication from company leaders. “My message is, OK guys, this might be some hard times, but we’re going to continue to execute and meet our milestones. We’re going to forge ahead,” says el Kaliouby.

Melshenker Ackerman adds that this crisis has been an opportunity for other people in her company to emerge as leaders, which has been an unexpected bright spot.  She says, “I try to focus on finding those bright spots because that helps with figuring out how to move forward.”