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Reflections from Conversations with CEOs

By Daryl Brewster, CEO, CECP

As we all struggle through these unprecedented times, the need for strong purpose-focused leadership, and the world’s leading businesses’ critical role, has become increasingly clear.

According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, “78% of respondents expect business to act to protect employees and the local community”, and that’s never been more true than now. And business is also expected to step up and lead with safe solutions. 

Over the last few weeks, I have had the honor of speaking with dozens of CEOs. Some are marshaling the resources to survive, others are working to keep the lights on or shoring up the supply chain, some are providing the technology to enable virtual communication, and a few are focusing their teams on developing the therapies and vaccines to prevent or treat the Covid-19 virus.

But all realize the importance of engaging their employees, as never before.  CECP’s Chair of its Board of Directors and best-selling author Doug Conant urges CEOs, “This is a time for leaders to go ‘over the top’” on five key areas:

  • Clarity of expectations: while the day-to-day process is changing, make it clear to employees and management that if you do not know, ask.
  • Empathy: wherever we are, we are all in this together, but everyone’s experiences are different.
  • Transparency: as always, share what you are doing to steer the company and encourage employees to ask questions.
  • Gratitude: be authentic and generous in your appreciation. Offer thanks to employees for their efforts, flexibility, and innovation during this crisis.
  • Communication: uncertain times require a steady and reliable stream of communications. Regular updates will calm frayed nerves and demonstrate confidence in the future of the company.

CECP is virtually convening CEOs on a weekly basis to provide a peer-only setting for executives to share successes, learnings, and challenges as they respond to the Covid-19 crisis. Four key themes have emerged:

Employee safety is the top concern: is the workforce physically and psychologically healthy? Leaders are communicating to their employees regularly, providing updates not only on effect of the Covid-19 crisis on their company, but also sharing resources on mental health, fitness, benefits, learning resources for children, and more.

Looking ahead, with a good percentage of all employees working remotely, CEOs report that the very nature of how and where people do their work will change. Companies report that productivity for certain jobs has increased 25% with people working from home. Many expect more of their knowledge work to be done from home, reducing commute times, providing flexibility, and increasing access to the workplace.

The impact of Covid-19 on their communities is also high on the CEO agenda as the fallout from the spread of the virus – specifically the global economic crisis – has already and will continue to exacerbate inequality issues. With schools closed and employees working from home, access to broadband internet has been revealed as a critical success factor for resiliency. The digital divide is more palpable than ever, as is how important tech skills are to the workforce. Unemployment has reached record highs, illuminating which sector’s jobs are most at risk during a crisis. CEOs recognize that corporate purpose has a central role to play in the reinvention of our economy, ensuring that all of society has an opportunity to thrive.  We are pleased to see so many stepping up with new and innovative approaches.

Finally, companies anticipate an acceleration in the focus of sustainable business and topics that have global implications such as climate change, stakeholder capitalism, and other top of mind environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues. At its surface, Covid-19 appears to be a public health issue, but its effects have torn through nearly all areas of business and society. Part of recovery will require planning for the reinvention of certain business operations and strategies with an eye towards long-term sustainable value creation for significant stakeholders.

Once the response phase comes to a close, executives will have to reevaluate their operations to determine what changes made during the pandemic out of necessity are worth keeping, which old processes they will get rid of, and new ways of doing business to address the needs of their stakeholders.

CECP is proud of the way leading companies are rising to the challenge to take care of their significant stakeholders in the midst of this crisis while planning for recovery and reinvention. If you are interested in joining an upcoming call with CECP and your fellow CEOs, please contact