Three Highlights from RHR’s CEO Forum on Leading in Today’s Climate

August 11, 2020
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We have been advising our chief executive officer clients individually as well as bringing them together in intimate, transparent forums to share experiences and updates on how they are leading through this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and social inequity, and ongoing business instability and unpredictability. Here are some themes that have emerged:

Planning is unpredictable, so plan for the worst and hope for the best, but be bold about how you want to come out of this crisis.

All our CEOs are engaged in ongoing business-scenario planning with an increased set of variables. From consumer confidence dipping to a highly variable regulatory environment to workforces that are being physically and mentally stretched thin, CEOs are wearing multiple hats. One commented, “I’m more a therapist and health executive than a CEO these days.”

With consumer confidence dropping, these executives are planning for the worst but also strategically investing in rapidly emerging trends (e.g., brand awareness, e-commerce, sustainability, and work from home as a permanent option). Several questioned how bold they could be so that they can emerge from these crises stronger than when they went in.

Ultimately, they are tightly managing costs and maintaining as much flexibility as they can given the unpredictability of the next six to 24 months.

Black Lives Matter and social inequity issues are taking precedence and shaping culture.

Rapidly engaging with employees through roundtable discussions has greatly impacted many CEOs as they take a deep dive into the topic of racism, the felt experience of Black employees, and the cultural implications for their organizations.

CEOs are shifting their time to spend more of it on culture—some as much as 40% given the intensity of the issues around racism and how much dialogue, understanding, and action are needed to find and solve root causes and to shift the dynamic in their organizations and community.

In addition to their own soul-searching, CEOs are acknowledging and owning their lack of progress and making public commitments around diversity metrics to their boards, investors, and employees. More than in the past, CEOs are raising their own accountability bar—for themselves and their organizations.

Although not sure they signed up for it, they are rapidly learning and adapting to the new realities.

It’s hard to ignore how CEOs are going through their own personal journeys as they reflect on their business challenges and opportunities. A theme emerged around how much they are having to shift their leadership to be more transparent, open, and purpose driven about their personal views of not just business but also society and politics at large. Every statement and every move feel scrutinized from these lenses; whereas for many of them, they learned their craft when only one stakeholder reigned supreme: the investor. Learning this new skillset is both exhausting and exhilarating for them; in the end, they are taking on these new challenges as opportunities to grow themselves and their organizations.

The takeaway: creating space for these transparent, honest discussions is key to displaying resilience in the face of change. CEOs today are stepping up to the plate and asking the right questions to tackle the unprecedented issues they are facing head-on.

Read more about RHR’s Diversity,Inclusion & Belonging service offering—real impact driven by insight, development, and leadership.

David Astorino is a senior partner and member of RHR International’s operating committee. For more than 20 years, he has been applying his expertise to complex client engagements, helping CEOs and boards of directors successfully drive the human side of transformational change within their organizations.