COVID-19: The Ultimate Pressure Test for CEOs

While the pandemic crisis gives us pause, it also gives us the opportunity to hone principles of leadership and put them into action.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, I have been getting twenty to thirty inquiries a day from my fellow CEOs looking for insights. Many ask how their organizations should be transitioning to a virtual operation and protecting their workers. Those in more dire straits seek counsel to make hard decisions about furloughs, layoffs, and sustainability of the enterprise itself. Leaders of the financially solvent as well as the fully leveraged are earning their executive salaries more than ever before.

The research division of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is already tracking the impact of COVID-19. We’ve learned that if the outbreak necessitates quarantine conditions for three months or longer, almost one-fifth of enterprises anticipate revenue losses greater than 50 percent; 5 percent of enterprises anticipate a full and irrevocable loss of the business. There are 165 million workers in the U.S. There’s no question these are trying times.

No one feels that more than the chief executive officer—with the exception of your chief human resource officer. HR’s mission is to build better workplaces for a better world; when the world is in crisis, as head of the largest organization devoted to the HR profession, believe me when I say I feel all the stressors.

While the pandemic crisis gives me pause, it also gives me the opportunity, as a CEO, to hone principles of leadership. Crises come and go, but our charge to demonstrate leadership skills is constant. In times such as these, I abide by three key principles:

1. Culture comes first. There is no better test of organizational culture than stressful moments when your workforce comes together—or crumbles. Take these moments to identify who really drives your guiding principles, and who represents “the hidden heel” (to borrow a term from Vince McMahon, chairman and CEO of WWE/World Wrestling Entertainment). You’ll never have a better opportunity to assess your leadership team for their cultural alignment.

2. Data is your greatest friend. My data team is there to arm me with the best information. I rely on them more than most, but I cannot abdicate my responsibility to lead. Over the years, I’ve worked with peers whose style is to do everything by instinct and those whose style is to over-analyze. The current crisis—so dependent on daily-changing data—provides an opportunity to assess your own instincts and ability to make analytical, data-driven decisions.

3. Be “extra.” We, the CEOs of the world, grind and cycle through business crises, making sure our bottom lines are sustainable. It’s what we do best. During periods of heightened stress, we dive into that, often forgetting the impact we have on people’s lives. When I find myself falling into bad habits in my work relationships, becoming curt, coarse, or crass, I try to stop and think about a guiding principle imparted by Ram Charan. This renowned executive coach and author advises being “extra” in all you do to serve your people. That means being “extra” in recognizing those who are working through extraordinary circumstances. Because the word and touch of a CEO means more, CEOs can make all the difference in making the world of these workers a better place.

I will be living by these leadership principles now. I implore you, my fellow leaders, to do the same. Together we can move our economy forward while creating meaningful organizational cultures for the millions of workers who trust us to make their lives better.


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