Why Every CEO Is Now A New CEO

None of us has ever led an organization through a crisis like Covid-19 and we don't have all the answers—so let's not pretend that we do.

In times of crisis, many leaders feel it’s their responsibility to have all the answers. What if there is a flaw in that logic?

What if it’s better to empower and guide your team to ask the right questions? Is it better to find the strength to embrace and solve our way through the unknown rather than waiting for direction as unanswered questions fester into new problems?

Twilio’s CEO was recently asked why the company pays to have a billboard in Silicon Valley that reads “Ask Your Developer.” He pointed out what a waste it is to tell expensive software developers what to do. You can get more from them if you ask them about problems you’re having and put their solution mindset to work.

In the context of building high performance talent, I like to think of this as “learning forward,” and it’s a necessary leadership skill for what’s coming with COVID-19 and beyond.

Every CEO is Now a New CEO

In a sense, every CEO right now is a new CEO. Practically none of us have led our organizations through a situation like Covid-19, and its economic consequences. There are no veteran CEOs who have all the answers to this. So we don’t have to pretend like we do, and we don’t need to fake authority.

We do need to show a genuine growth mentality that authentically models how to embrace the newness of this all.

When I first became a CEO, I had experience in management consulting and private equity. But I was also a young woman, younger than most of the team I was supposed to be directing. I was younger than most of our customers. I had not seen the things my employees or customers had seen in the industry.

But I learned very quickly that I had a winning strength. I could ask all the questions I wanted. Something great happened when I did that. Employees started asking questions, too. They spotted hidden opportunities that no one had called out. They exposed problems that we could have solved a lot sooner if we had more closely worked together.

In hindsight, I was accidentally modeling learning behavior that lowered the barrier for others to become more open and honest about their work—and ultimately take on greater ownership. We worked to become an alternative to the “command and control” culture that we think can hold companies back.

As the pandemic has set in, I’ve felt that I’m back in that role where I started. I’m leading my team in asking questions, and we’re doing it all over again.

Have a Plan, But…

This is not to say leaders shouldn’t have a plan. Research firm Forrester found initially that only 43 percent of employees they surveyed thought their organizations had a plan for Covid-19 as the pandemic first hit.

We all have plans at some level, and we all have training. In our industry we have had pandemic and workplace illness training as a starting point. We have had CDC guidelines to follow as they evolve. We have policies. There is a starting point to remind employees of, and rally them around.

In this crisis, most of us are continuing to work on internal plans, external plans and business continuity plans. There are unknowns, and the speed with which new best practices to address those unknowns come on line is variable. But all leaders should clearly communicate a plan, and stick with it.

Asking questions is about modeling the calm process of encountering unknowns, and using the right tools to address them. This is where a leader can’t become a bottleneck for top down decision-making. Teams need to see how to calmly make the best choices in the face of tough and urgent challenges, and use open lines of communication to come into alignment with best practices as they develop.

The Communications and Decision Loop

On this point, what’s especially important for learning forward in crisis is to maintain a communications and decision loop. There are many models to borrow from. But the key is to make a safe place to ask questions within a framework that allows the best questions to come to the top. Allow best practices to emerge and test them. Distribute them. But if the process stops there, you won’t go far.

Lines of communication have to be open so awkward and embarrassing questions can continue to come up through the ranks. Reboot.io’s CEO Jerry Colonna and business psychologist Camille Preston have pointed out if that loop is not closed, stress, disinformation and conspiracy can start to take hold.

There are broader implications for organizations beyond this crisis.

Viruses and digital

A few months ago, we were patting ourselves on the back for adopting a learning forward approach ahead of what we thought was big disruption at the time.

Our company’s culture was evolving just as digital technology is shaking the foundations of the real estate industry, where we focus. No one can afford not to be a learner in that environment. The same is true for most sectors today, of course. The pace of change in business, technology and culture—consider how the #MeToo movement has changed the American office—is too fast for companies to stick to rigid hierarchies. Black Lives Matter is now central, and we’re wrestling with very deep issues today. If anything, Covid-19 is pushing digital transformation along even faster. Learning forward is the way of the future.

Research backs this up. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, more than 80 percent of chief executives believe they must pursue operation efficiencies to boost growth. Efficiencies often translate into automation, artificial intelligence or other innovations. Machines, however, are never going to replace everyone, and have the most difficulty with the unknown.

The humans who staff future organizations are likely going to be more important than ever for steering through unchartered waters when they arrive. At the same time, around 80 percent of employees want to acquire new skills, which, incidentally, tend to make them happier.

Managers seeking to create a learning forward workplace culture need to be extremely self-aware. They must acknowledge their own biases and compile data on their decision making. Otherwise they might never know if they or anyone else is learning anything. They also need to be aware of context. Sometimes employees want to give input. Sometimes they want clear marching orders. One must sometimes strike a balance between top-down and bottom-up managing.  It can be tricky, but “reverse mentoring,” when a junior team member provides insights to a senior, is a tool that can help.

Lastly, learning forward addresses a development that business experts have identified as a key driver in productivity in recent years: the difference between recognition and appreciation. The former occurs in the form of an award or bonus. The latter occurs on a more personal level. Recognition only goes so far. It has its limits. Appreciation, however, occurs when managers value employees for who they are.

And we’re going to need a lot of that right now.