Leading in a crisis – what are other CEOs doing?

Has there ever been a time when leaders have needed to act so quickly, making some of the biggest decisions of their careers, yet with so few reliable assumptions to work with?

Understanding what other leaders are up to is a valuable benchmark.  “What are other CEOs doing?” is a question that has been coming up regularly in our conversations with some of the UK’s top leaders over the past few weeks.

The decisions leaders are facing now are both wide ranging and have enormous consequences. Which factories or retail operations to close down? How to cut costs whilst keeping the supply chain alive? Which staff to furlough and which to keep working? How to be visible as the boss whilst modelling safe social distancing? What to assume about when the lock-down will be lifted? What scenario planning to put in place? The questions go on…

With no precedent to fall back on of how to manage a crisis of this scale and uncertainty, many CEOs are looking for examples of best practice from other leaders.

Best practice in a crisis

In the uncertainty and volatility of the COVID-19 crisis, the following are some of the actions we are seeing from the best leaders:

Give clarity– it sounds obvious that decisions must be made, but many leaders have been trained over their careers not to leap into action until all the facts have been considered. In this crisis, decisions have to be made with many of the pieces of the jigsaw missing. The best leaders have set very clear short-term objectives for their business (typically no more than three) and communicated them clearly and frequently.

Avoid group think – this is not a time (is there ever?) when the CEO wants all their team to simply nod heads and agree. The CEO doesn’t have all the answers and needs fresh and unconventional thinking – and then alignment, when the different angles have been considered. We are in unknown territory with new advice coming from government, the medical profession and external advisers on a daily basis and it is critical that the CEO encourages diverse opinions from the Exco and is flexible enough to change direction quickly if necessary. The best CEOs need – and will seek – insight from all those around them to make the best possible decisions.

Reassess responsibilities– CEOs are considering how the responsibilities of every team member may need to change in light of new priorities. They need to ensure duplication is avoided when the temptation will be for everyone to rush to put out the new fire. Some completely new roles have also been created. Who is envisioning the “new normal”?

Give more rope– CEOs are feeling an enormous sense of responsibility during the crisis and they could easily become the busiest person in the company trying to be involved in everything. This would be a mistake. The best CEOs are creating space to reflect, to step back and to see the bigger picture, ensuring the right strategy is in place for survival and development. They are doing this by pushing responsibility down the organisation and by allowing more junior managers to take charge. They are experiencing that nothing brings out the best in leaders, than a crisis.

See new opportunities– there will inevitably be opportunities emerging from this adversity and a new approach to strategy will be important. The best CEOs see that there may never be a better opportunity to build new businesses than at the end of this crisis. Shopping habits will change, there will be new attitudes to work, health & lifestyles, there will be easier access to seed capital. Some companies will  disappear, new ones will start up and there may be great opportunity to build market share with struggling competitors. 

Communicate, communicate, communicate – many CEOs are hosting daily video calls with their top team and encouraging their business leaders to do the same. Some colleagues will be feeling extremely vulnerable but will want to play their part to secure a strong business for the future. To do that they need to understand the importance of their roles and clarity of where they fit in. CEOs are typically giving weekly communications to their entire business and using every option to do so – e-mail, Twitter and hosting video Q&A’s via Zoom.

Use the Board – non-executives have become used to putting much of their time around the board table into corporate governance issues, but they have so much more to offer. They are worried like everyone else about the business in this crisis and want to use all their experience to help. The best CEOs have been embracing their board, inviting their input drawn from their cross-industry wisdom and giving them new responsibilities such as lobbying government about the importance of their sector and how to lead it out of the lock-down. One CEO we work with, is hosting monthly virtual board dinners in which the Board eats ‘together’ – sometimes sharing the same menu (!) – while discussing the future of the business.

Lead by example – many CEOs have already taken a salary cut of at least as high a percentage as their colleagues or workforce for the duration of the lock-down. They have also been seen in their stores or distribution depots, whilst setting best practice of social distancing. It is important that the CEO is highly visible during this time and is aware that colleagues will be watching their every move and body language. Exuding a state of “realistic positivity” about the outcome of the crisis is likely to engender the best response.

Bring the human into your leadership – this is a time when the best leaders are showing their humanity. Acknowledging how difficult this scenario of uncertainty is for everyone including virtual working whilst children are at home learning and worrying about family health. The best CEOs are admitting that this is hard for everyone and have been prepared to show their own vulnerability with examples of their own concerns, how their own routines have been disrupted and how they are coping. Most importantly the very best CEOs are showing enormous appreciation for the extraordinary efforts of their people.