What the Very Best CEOs are Thinking Right Now
Updated: Apr 15
Be in no doubt that the thoughts and concerns of the very best CEOs are never far away from the people under their charge. Most have taken tough furlough decisions out of necessity – to keep the ship afloat – but the pain they bear is real. It’s real because the best CEOs carry the burden of high responsibility, an ownership of decisions that are consistent with ethical and moral values that don’t just show up conveniently in a crisis. These values are the very essence of who they are as leaders, as professionals, as people, as mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, daughters and sons, grandparents, friends. They care about people. People matter. Those who point to the hardship now faced by furloughed employees, and contrast how well paid and financially secure CEOs are, have absolutely no idea what these decisions mean and why they are made. As so many CEOs take voluntary cuts in pay, it’s at times like these that the best ones earn every penny they make.
The best CEOs aren’t in “survival” mode, although they will be scouring the landscape for every penny in savings they can make. They understand the balance sheet. They’ve all calculated the “glide path” that represents revenues versus costs. They know how much time they have and have built contingencies, projections and options for the multiple scenarios regarding the potential for economic recovery. They know short-term, reactive leadership cedes control to others. They think through these variables to ensure they take decisions from positions of strength. There are some very good reactive CEOs out there and, who knows, one or two of them might survive. Our best CEOs will survive…and flourish.
In building contingencies, considering options, mitigating risk, CEOs are protecting the very best interests of their companies. But the very best ones are already thinking about opportunities, about upsides, about growth. They are already re-imagining the new world that will emerge from this crisis, the different dynamics that will be at play, and they are gearing up their leadership teams and companies to be ready to take advantage. And this is where our very best CEOs will be conflicted, and where they will experience the greatest professional angst.
In truth, their thoughts have already visited a few dark places as they think through how their immediate team showed up during the rapid decline in markets, revenues and activity. The best CEOs will already have a point of view about their immediate team members and how well they did. Did they handle their burden effectively? Did they lead in fear or with assurance and control? Did they panic? Did senior leaders bring their people with them? Did they look to take responsibility and show accountability, or were they victims being tossed around the surging waves of a turbulent and unforgiving sea?
Our best CEOs cut their teeth during the 2008 financial crisis – you know, that “once in a century” event that no one will have to live through twice – and many of their leadership team members will likely have been in lower level positions, somewhat insulated from the worst effects of the depression. Our best CEOs will now be wanting…willing…their team members to come through…to weather the storm…to learn and grow through the experience. But this is where it hurts – they aren’t all going to make it. And even for the ones that do, the new world they will face could require different capabilities and talents, and they might not be best positioned to lead in this environment. Our best CEOs are already thinking about this. They are also thinking about it with respect to themselves.
And this presents one of the great paradoxes of leadership – as tough as the current situation is, as important as it is to protect every penny…to control every expense – the best CEOs invest heavily in their best people. For without this, they leave themselves exposed to the capabilities and focus of individuals. It would be the classic “sink or swim” approach – you’ll either make it or you won’t. The best CEOs won’t play this game. Just as they recognize that they didn’t get where they are just on their own efforts, they know they have to coach, guide and develop their people to success.
The future will be different from the present and bear little relationship with the past. Our best CEO’s are asking searching questions about the people closest to them. As much as they want them to succeed…will invest heavily in their development in the hope that they will…they are prepared for the potential they might not, and the decisions that will then flow.
So how will they decide?
What indicators will suggest to our best CEOs that senior leaders are up to the challenge, and will be more than a match for the future? It comes down to four things:
Will senior leaders be able to settle people down, keep their organizations and functions focused on what really matters and build stability during turbulent times?
Will senior leaders lead and operate with concern and compassion for people, their experiences and their aspirations? Fundamentally, will people matter to them?
Will senior leaders shoot straight, lay out the challenges…the difficulties…and communicate in a way that is honest, credible and builds trust?
Will senior leaders inspire others to act even in the bleakest of times? As tough as things are, will they infect others with their optimism for the future? Will they be able to excite people about what will be?
These are the issues uppermost in the minds of the very best CEOs. I know, because I work with a few of them.
April 14, 2020
BY BARRY CONCHIE:
RENOWNED LEADERSHIP CONSULTANT AND CO-AUTHOR OF THE #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER: STRENGTHS BASED LEADERSHIP: GREAT LEADERS, TEAMS, AND WHY PEOPLE FOLLOW.