CEOs have spent the last 14 months guiding their people through an intense period of economic, technological, societal, emotional and political upheaval. Our healthcare, welfare and education systems have been tested to the breaking point.
Metaphorically, this was a storm that battered all of us. It seems to be passing. Life is returning to normal. After sheltering through the worst of it, many people are beginning to re-engage.
Meanwhile, CEOs are fixated on driving their organizations forward, as they have been throughout the crisis. They’d like everyone and everything to quickly fall back into place.
But CEOs need to understand that they must meet employees where they are. Not everyone is in the mindset to absorb not only the changes they’ve experienced in the last year, but the ones that lie ahead.
“Now more than ever, CEOs must embrace communications – a lot of talking and even more listening.”
Employees Are Wary
CEOs must appreciate that regardless of their outward appearance, everyone is shaken. Their sense of risk is heightened. They feel vulnerable. People they know have suffered, even died; others have lost their jobs and homes. They perceive the world as more dangerous and unpredictable. They know their leader has greater visibility into the situation and more control (relatively speaking) over how the future will take shape, so, naturally, they want to know what their CEO is thinking.
Even if a CEO is simply planning for a return to the pre-pandemic “normal,” and is instituting no lasting changes, employees want and need to hear this, along with the CEO’s views about future success. They want to know whether The Storm altered the path forward. Are there new obstacles ahead? Have customers’ needs changed? Has the path to success – either individually or organizationally – changed?
Now more than ever, CEOs must embrace communications – a lot of talking and even more listening.
Why Communicating Now is Urgent
Many people are reassessing the major components of their lives, especially the tradeoffs they make related to work. Emotions are at play as much as logic. Some people need far more interaction to regain their sense of normalcy and optimism. Words alone will not lead to their full commitment. They want to see action.
To address these concerns, a wise CEO will spend weeks if not months simply making the rounds to restore confidence and provide a sense of direction to everyone in their organization. They’ll meet with all stakeholder groups to learn how they were impacted by The Storm and what they need to regain their momentum.
In addition to talking with their employees, CEOs need to share their views with key business partners, the communities in which they have operations, investors, elected officials and prospective employees – even if the message is simply to confirm that little has changed. After The Storm, that confirmation is necessary.
While engaging their many constituencies, CEOs need to be mindful that perceptions of what is acceptable have changed over the past year. For example, while a CEO may think calling on people to return to the workplace is perfectly reasonable, now that health and safety measures are in place and vaccines are available, they will discover some workers vehemently disagree.
Likewise, what might have been considered an adequate commitment to diversity and inclusion before the Black Lives Matter movement, and the wave of hate crimes against Asian and Pacific Islanders, is likely to be seen as inadequate today by many individuals and organizations. The goalposts have moved. Employees expect their organizations to do the right thing in more than a perfunctory or checking-the-box manner.
Don’t Say Things You Have to Walk Back Later
CEOs should also be mindful that reassuring statements made about their business have a certain expected shelf life. This is a challenge for leaders who are called upon to make commitments to address topical concerns when they cannot be certain of what the “next normal” will look like and when it will be reached. For example, promising swift resolution of internal diversity issues or guaranteeing an indefinite work from home policy may sound great but may also put a CEO in an impossible situation depending on what tomorrow looks like.
What can CEOs do to ensure the comments they make are seen as credible over the coming and likely tumultuous years?
CEOs should conduct a review of their business plans against market and competitive realities, taking into account recent political, economic, social and technological changes. To make sure their old ways of working still apply, they should reconsider their company’s mission, vision and values, which give shape to corporate cultures and workplace behaviors. Above all, what’s needed is a critical assessment of their company’s pre-pandemic strategy to make sure it still applies in a post-pandemic world.
Leaders everywhere should conduct these assessments, and then get out and talk to people.