The changing role of the CEO

Leadership and COVID-19: The changing role of the CEO 


Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the world as we know it has changed beyond recognition. Although many aspects of life are beginning to return to normal, the economy continues to struggle, and for the majority of organisations, the future is still very uncertain. Because of this, businesses and their executives are having to adapt, make changes, and develop strategies that are responsive, dynamic and relevant to this unfamiliar economic landscape.  



Over the past few months, more and more business leaders have begun to identify flaws in their pre-pandemic operations. COVID-19 has left a permanent mark on the economy; not just in terms of the disruption of many industries, but also in the context of a global recession – the worst and deepest since records began. But although the Coronavirus outbreak has posed many challenges, it has also brought about a number of new opportunities – many of which fall within the CEO’s remit.  


Although for many, the path to recovery from the impact of COVID-19 is still unclear, CEOs nevertheless have a duty to reconfigure their plan of action, and take on new – and potentially unfamiliar – responsibilities.  In recent weeks, many have pinpointed a need for perseverance, greater internal reflection, and increased flexibility, across all areas of a business. By adopting a more staggered, scenario-based approach to planning and strategy development, organisations will stand a much greater chance of surviving, and indeed, prospering in the months and years to come.  


Recovery, reinvention and responsibility: a dynamic approach to senior leadership 


Since the start of lockdown, management consultants and CEOs have begun to develop a dialogue as means of discussing and working through issues, and deciding how best to move forward in the current climate. Recent research has revealed that to be effective, leadership approaches must strive to be more resilient, and more dynamic than ever before; able to identify issues, assess situations, respond and proceed accordingly. As such, executives and CEOs must prioritise sensing and responding to concerns in the short term, while still keeping overarching business goals in mind.  


Recently, CEOs from some of the world’s largest organisations have identified a significant struggle with management frameworks as they are currently understood. Many found their existing structures to be too rigid, too retrospective, and simply not equipped to deal with the ever-changing needs of a post-pandemic climate.  


In response to this, the bigger and more well-established companies have prioritised technology, using digital advancements and new software to maximise growth and increase potential revenue. Because physical contact and interaction are still limited, digitisation and remote working have become the norm, even for the smallest of organisations. But with this freedom comes a number of new and interesting challenges. Trust, privacy and confidentiality have never been more important, nor have they ever been more at risk.  


As such, executives and employees across the board have needed to reassess processes, work together and embrace the great unknown. In this context, there has been a noticeable shift in the relationship between CEOs, their board members, and the wider workforce. Rather than simply being a figurehead, or a ‘top level’ decision-maker, CEOs are increasingly having to take more of a hands-on approach, liaising with people across all areas of the business, prioritising communication and fostering mutual respect. 


Questions, collaboration and committment 


On a practical level, the shape that this takes varies from organisation to organisation and industry to industry, but there will always be a few key common denominators. Most importantly, CEOs must pose questions to both themselves, and the wider workforce. They must consider the ways in which their organisation can shape certain scenarios – e.g. the need for restructuring – and outcomes in their favour. They must collaborate with HRDs and talent professionals to leverage the uncertainty and unpredictability of the current job market, maximising the potential of their existing workforce, as well as creating new roles, pathways and areas for development. They must work collaboratively with members of their ExCo to evaluate strategic options, and make the most of opportunities for growth and expansion as and when they arise. Where appropriate, staff should be able to move around the business, and encouraged to make the most of transferable skills, in the interests of their own career progression, and the advancement of the business as a whole. 


Wilbury Stratton predictions  


As 2020 draws to a close, the need to perform is becoming more pressing than ever. Irrespective of COVID-19, targets must still be met, and for almost all business leaders, the pressure really is on. Although historically, CEOs have always been charged with top-level decision making, the weight of this responsibility is greater now than ever before. As such, over the course of the next 12 months, CEOs will be looking to make considered adjustments, prioritise communication, fairness and transparency, and perhaps most significantly, reframe the idea of success. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been several large organisations (e.g. Tesco, Ocado and Amazon) for whom crisis management has been a driver of growth, but for most, the situation is vastly different. Of course, the end goal for any organisation is profitability, but until the economy is fully back on its feet, the focus – for CEOs, board members and employees alike – will be less about driving growth, and more about adapting and responding to the needs of our ever-changing social and economic landscape.  

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