COVID-19 is a unique global event, which simultaneously affects all citizens, government leaders, businesses and communities. It provides a petri dish of immediate effects on the competencies prized by leaders — adaptability, resilience, decisiveness, innovation skills and more — that we can observe more closely.
The recent YPO Global Pulse Survey of chief executives clarifies a global awareness of humanity’s interconnectedness. Among those business leaders who responded, there are no regional differences regarding the most important traits. As expected in a time of global crisis with no clear end date, the most important trait is adaptability. It is rated by respondents twice as highly as the runner-up — resilience.
The legendary Naval aviator Captain Stockdale comes to mind. He spoke about the necessity of facing brutal facts in a crisis. Facing those brutal facts enables an individual to approach the crisis with realism as opposed to naïve optimism. Optimism, said Captain Stockdale and contrary to popular psychology, often weakens individuals. Business leaders expressed cautious optimism with 37% indicating they held a slightly or significantly more positive business outlook than they did in March. This is a valuable indication of the speed with which business leaders are able to grapple and deal with a truly unexpected, and quite frankly, unusual global crisis — which was triggered by a health threat. It is true for CEOs around me that a new norm has been accepted, which works with and around COVID-19 effects on business and life.
Our teams come first
Employees experience the sharp end of leadership in business. Intriguingly, CEOs rate employee engagement as the most significant internal issue facing them post-lockdown. At 34.3%, employee engagement is of greatest concern in Europe, while mental health is the highest concern in Australia/New Zealand. When adding their ratings of burnout (at 7.4%) and mental health (at 12.4%), it seems that next to engagement, the emotional fallout from COVID-19 lockdown is the most significant issue facing CEOs globally. The mental health impact of lockdown will certainly be studied comprehensively, as its effect will be very visible in the medium-term. The lockdown effects were chaotic as governments globally were trying to figure out how to balance lives with livelihoods. Governments in emerging markets very clearly prioritized lives, even though their access to funding for the economic fallout was unknown. Governments in the U.S. and U.K. have been resoundingly questioned on their seemingly haphazard policies, while other political leaders, such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Germany’s Angela Merkel, were warmly embraced for theirs.
Let’s not waste this crisis. Let’s do those things that, before now, we didn’t think we had the courage for. ”
— Andrea Rademeyer, CEO & Intellectual Researcher, Ask Afrika share
Employee engagement was an immediate challenge triggered by the unusual dynamic of national lockdowns. CEOs are comfortable with managing the threat of white-collar fraud. Never before has it been necessary to manage an invisible threat potentially and physically carried by employees. Uniquely, this virus did not differentiate along any known vector of class, race, gender or education — everyone was equally at risk and hence equally fearful.
My YPO peers and I experienced a heightened need from employees for CEO communication, guidance and framing. Weekly company meetings, now on Zoom, were always in full attendance. These meetings provided an important moment for employees to celebrate innovation in spite of the lockdown and sometimes because of lockdown. We actively hunted for the opportunities the lockdown presented.
Much has been written of the fluid integration of digital communications and even creative, strategic work being done electronically. We also conducted monthly employee well-being surveys, which provided us with a diagnostic on how our employees were faring with working from home. The results were intriguing, in that they changed on a monthly basis — indicating how employees increasingly accepted life with COVID-19. It gave useful markers to leaders on which employee categories needed the office environment to be successful and which were able to transition to a home office with ease.
Be agile, think strategically
Of the multiple forces that have the potential to impact CEO’s businesses in the next 12 months, COVID-19 resurgence/restrictions (at 63%) and the regional economic environment (at 61%) were the most significant overall threat facing them. CEOs cannot directly prevent either of these threats; they simply will have to pivot rapidly to mitigate their effects. The equally rated threats following the former are political environment and government regulations — both at 55%. It is noteworthy, that across 100 countries, politics and government are seen as potential threats to business. This indicates an awareness of the rapid economic fallout potential germinating in business and government relations. If a significant effect of COVID-19 lockdowns was the speed of authoritarian societal measures implemented, another was a growing awareness of the systemic, symbiotic relation between economies and government policy.
There seems to be a lack of alignment between CEOs’ greatest concerns noted as being employee engagement and burn-out/mental health and their business adjustments on the other. Business adjustments primarily pivoted around work flexibility (at 55%), digital/technology investments (at 51%) and leaner operations (at 46%). None of these three will build employee engagement or improve mental health. It could be posited that a work environment, which is being built around greater interpersonal distance and the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in work processes, will require significant new thinking around work culture and leadership visibility.
Leaders need to be far more surgical and strategic in the communication they have with their employees — since the office-bound casual interactions have simply stopped. It has furthermore been useful to spend focused time with employees, who normally would not have had personal attention — the Zoom environment is a cocktail of informality, since all parties work from home, and high productivity, since the office rituals of coffees and other informalities can very easily be cut.
Don’t waste this moment
It was Captain Stockdale who said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end … with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.”
It is in fact, the brutal facts, that rally the survivor instinct. Entrepreneurs are survivors. CEOs know how to pivot strategically — and there lies the silver lining of COVID-19. The pandemic has been a great equalizer and a great signal toward a shared humanity and a shared world — agile CEOs have accessed this awareness to the benefit of themselves, their teams and their business. As a result of this, I am bullish about future globalization. Supply chains will certainly be less linear, but global business will continue to thrive.
Let’s not waste this crisis. Let’s do those things that, before now, we didn’t think we had the courage for.
Read report overview YPO Global Survey Offers Glimpse at the CEO of the Future