Hardly anyone saw this pandemic coming. But the pandemic is here. And many people ask me about the role of business leaders in these circumstances. Once leaders recognise a crisis as such, they can begin to organise a response. But they cannot respond as they would in a routine emergency, following plans that had been drawn up in advance. Almost no plans for a pandemic were in place. With the exception of Wimbledon, which for the last 17 years has been paying £2 million a year to have “anti-pandemic” insurance. This 2020 it will not be played on the grass of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, but the insurance will pay them a sum in the region of £140 million. Success is never the result of just one person.

This crisis is driven by unfamiliarity and uncertainty, effective responses are being largely improvised. And they are encompassing a wide range of actions: not only temporary moves (e.g. instituting work-from-home policies) but also adjustments to ongoing business. New practices (such as adopting new tools to aid collaboration), which may be beneficial to maintain even after the crisis has passed.

What leaders seem to need during a crisis is not a predefined response plan, but behaviours and a mindset that will prevent them from overreacting to today’s developments and help them look to the future. Behaviours and mindsets that are accompanied by concrete actions speak loud and clear. Teams are watching, people want and need leadership that is courageous, inspirational and that conveys clarity with the truth and the destination.

What are the world’s CEOs worried about?

Just five years ago, that was the question posed by the consultancy firm KPMG in its Global CEO Outlook 2015 study. Based on this survey of more than 1,200 CEOs of the world’s largest companies, the results showed that 74% of those surveyed were concerned about the entry of new players that were transforming business models.

Curiously? The main concerns at the time were not sustainability, or the creation, attraction and retention of talent, or social responsibility, or values, but the fear of the new.

The arrival of players such as Airbnb, Uber and Netflix, to name but a few, focused the attention of senior executives around the world. Seven out of ten respondents were concerned about how long their products or services will be around in the next three years.

Was it news that in 2015 CEOs discovered that new technologies were redefining value chains?

What is happening is that the future they refused to accept has arrived. And uncertainty is growing significantly in more and more industries. It is not the new technologies per se that have brought about the changes. They are the result of new needs and concerns of a new reality on the part of customers, the people.

So much technological disruption will continue to unsettle most executives around the world. In fact, back in 2015, 72% of CEOs surveyed expressed concern about keeping up with new technologies.

Almost nine out of ten were concerned about customer loyalty.

The top four concerns raised by CEOs in this survey were:

1 New players disrupting their business model.

2 Keeping up to date with new technologies.

3 Competitors’ ability to take business outside their organisation.

4 The relevance of your company’s products/services in the next three years.

Building a new model.

Essential aspects of the “new world”, such as working on developing a new organisational culture, on imbuing the organisation with innovation, or on attracting and retaining talent, were not among the main concerns, as these are some of the essential pillars of organisations in this new era.

Talent.

Meanwhile, it was estimated, before the pandemic, that 75% of employees in companies globally are either not involved, not engaged, or do not feel part of it. Fortunately, there are some that do, as “outstanding leaders go to great lengths to raise the self-esteem of their staff. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can achieve”, as Sam Walton put it.

CEOs, moreover, should have embraced the responsibility of working to create a new, more caring and engaged society. To work to create a new, more humane corporate world. To give meaning to the existence of their brand and to give meaning to people’s lives.

The six steps of the CEO in the midst of the pandemic.

In the book “BrandOffOn: The Branding of the Future” it can be read that you cannot discover a new world using old maps. Questions were posed for that new world. “What is the importance of creativity, imagination and curiosity in the workplace? Should we encourage exploration and error? How do we generate great ideas that create value? Every company has the possibility to reinvent and reorient itself… to make sense of its existence – companies are people, brands are people, customers are people“.

Focus on empathy and teams: leaders in a crisis focus on empathy first, business second. If you believe, as I do, in the limitless potential of the human spirit, you will understand that only by making people safe will we get out of this crisis. Giving people money will help, but when people feel a sense of security, confidence and empowerment, growth will return.

Re-think and act with speed: A new world will demand new strategies, a new plan, new ways of doing and course-correcting in real time. OKRs will be a great help. “A good leader takes people where they want to go,” said Rosalynn Carter, adding, “a great leader takes them where they don’t necessarily want to go but should be.”

Listen: Be attentive to ideas, criticisms, solutions, opportunities, listen even to what you would rather not hear. They talk less, listen more. Why? Because real action is on the front line. Healthcare workers, sales teams, service teams, logistics, security, maintenance, cleaning: they know what is happening. If we don’t listen to them, we may not be able to make the right decisions. Right now, every individual with a story has an important message. CEOs who have understood the scale of this crisis have already created channels to ask their leaders in human resources, sales, operations, finance, CSR to “listen to everyone”.

Communicate: Continuously inwards and outwards and in a transparent and honest way. Saying what is really going on. This is a real crisis, and we all feel it. Strong leaders give us the truth “as is”, not “as we want it to be”. Jack Welch taught us this when he said: “great leaders deal with the world as it is, not as we want it to be”.

Learning by doing: No one had experience in this type of situation. Learn from experience to apply in the future. They know that messages without results do not matter. They also focus on results, accountability and competencies. They empower experts within the organisation. Because they know how to mobilise, empower and execute. In a world where trust is everything, we want experts to lead the way. Age, in these times, could be a real asset.

Transform: Having learned the lessons, there is no alternative but to transform. Not just digitally. Transformation can reach the business model, the way you will do it, the type of strategy that will be needed, inspire to remove the fear of change and instead of convincing, engage the team in this need.

21st century CEOs who inspire us

The pandemic has shaken the structures of business and it is time for courageous leaders with the courage to transform, without fear. The leadership that will finally bring the company into this new era. But now, as the coronavirus circles the globe, it is many CEOs who have emerged as true leaders delivering real innovation in real time to address the pandemic.

These leaders do not wait for permission to act, they act. There is no time to waste. They are harnessing their imagination along with their experience as entrepreneurs, innovators and inspired executives to generate bold and unconventional responses.

I am in contact with leaders every day who inspire and motivate me with their boundless hope and their committed and conscious action. For them, panic and doubt are mere distractions from society‘s exceptional need for their resourcefulness. They have decided from minute one to stand up to the challenge, to take the lead, to face reality head on, to map the present and future territory of their enterprise as they navigate the turbulent waters of the pandemic.

Right now, it is originality and boldness that will lead their companies and organisations into a new future. “Creativity is the light that shows us what is possible, the fuel that drives progress, the beauty that makes us human,” as heard off-air in Apple’s latest commercial.

Time for leaders.

We always say at https://totembranding.com that leadership is not talked about, it is practised. Because leadership is action.

In the past the common denominator was to have a reactive attitude, not a proactive one. Following, copying, adapting, but not leading. But time has shown us that those who are brave and take risks have changed or transformed what for many seemed impossible. Creating new models that are sustainable, profitable, efficient, relevant and people-centred.

Overcoming the fear of the unknown is the great frontier they will have to cross in order to understand that the true capital of the 21st century is constant improvement. The talent of companies is and will continue to be their most valuable asset; caring for it, motivating it, encouraging it, embracing it in these turbulent times means taking care of yourself.

This crisis provides an opportunity for CEOs and CHROs to show leadership. Many are already showing it, inspiring us and showing the way. It reminds us that, above all, business is about people. Without a sense of truth, trust and power, people cannot perform. With these things, people will get us out of this crisis. The CEO alone will not be able to do it; in the most successful stories, there is always a great team by his side.

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