COVID-19: the leadership test

By Philippe Riboton, Managing Director at HR Partners International Executive Search.

How does COVID-19 impact the leadership style of CEOs? What changes did they make to their management style and work practices in order keep their staff motivated and empowered? How does the feeling of insecurity and anxiety among employees challenge those who are supposed to guide them through this critical period? While a significant number of their direct reports and employees are either hybrid working or working from home, how do they actually lead and prepare their teams for the recovery? I have picked the brains of some exceptional CEOs including Jindrich Fremuth, Joachim Dehmel, Peter Hradisky, Omar Koleilat, Thierry Wellhoff and Robert Chvatal.

It is pretty lonely at the top they say. This has never been truer than it is now with the shutdown of the global economy – due to COVID-19 – and the subsequent disruptions affecting businesses in all areas of operations. As a result the coronavirus serves as a pretty unique leadership test – if not a torture test – for CEOs in the eyes of both employees one side – who are looking for strong short-term guidance – and shareholders on the other – who are expecting strategic anticipation about the post-pandemic future. In other words this is the moment when leaders should show what they are truly made of.

Show that you care

COVID-19 is not only an exceptional health crisis leading to an economic and social crisis (some already call it “a once-in-a-century event”): it is also a major crisis of confidence about the future. Peter Hradisky, a former Managing Director for the UK and Ireland with the workplace solutions company Lyreco, admits: “there is a lot of stress and fear about the future these days and that will require more interpersonal skills to reinstate the trust in management and leadership.”

Anxiety is indeed the most common feeling of people when describing the impact COVID-19 has had on their psychological and emotional condition. Joachim Dehmel, the CEO for Germany of the French medical devices company Thuasne, acknowledges: “leaders shouldn’t underestimate the level of anxiety and uncertainty and the mental stress caused by COVID”, he says. His first piece of advice is: “make sure you communicate more often to your teams and don’t leave room for interpretation. Clarity and unambiguousness gives confidence, footing and stability. Show as a leader that you care. Don’t give up on asking how your team members are doing. Be compassionate, offer your help and take individuals “by the hand” if needed.”

As a matter of fact lots of employees openly say that they have lost trust in their management since the first wave of the pandemic. They often felt quite disoriented between contradictory instructions (to stay home or come back to the office for example) and threatened by the future consequences of the crisis in the form of new cost and personnel reduction programs. People need to feel their leaders are – and will stay – by their side. Peter Hradisky illustrates: “the current unprecedented times have taught us to adapt fast, make bold decisions and take full accountability not only for your own actions but also for actions of your team, irrespective whether they are with positive or negative outcomes.”

So have CEOs already changed their leadership approach because of COVID? Robert Chvatal, CEO of the Czech lottery company Sazka, admits he has changed his people approach: “maybe I try to lead with more humility, encourage rather than instruct”, he told me. Humility is indeed one of the key words in the mouths of most CEOs these days: another one is transparency. In a recent McKinsey article authors Gemma d’Auria and Aaron de Smet quote Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership at the Harvard Business School, who sums it up extremely well in two sentences: “transparency is job one for leaders in a crisis”, she said. “Be clear what you know, what you don’t know and what you are doing to learn more.”

Peter Hradisky illustrates: “no single CEO or MD has all the answers. Humility and willingness to listen to dissenting voices is more important than ever”. And adds: “trying to defend a status quo stubbornly, paint unrealistic projections so you “tick internal boxes” is quite irresponsible for any business director in my humble opinion.” Humility goes hand in hand with one essential cognitive behavior which is doubting. Authors of the McKinsey article say “doubting helps leaders consider ongoing and potential actions critically and whether they need to be modified, adopted or discarded.”

Invent new ways to cooperate

As most leaders admit that hybrid working will most probably become the “new normal” (rather than generalized home office) they say they need to invent new ways to cooperate. “Let’s collaborate in a sophisticated way”, says Robert Chvatal, illustrating that “collaboration tools should not be limited to conference calls but to actively work together, share documents for example and work together on them in real time.”

Jindrich Fremuth, the CEO and Chairman of the Board of O2 mobile operator in the Czech Republic, agrees on the necessity to find new ways to cooperate but also warns about the risks: “remote work (besides many positive trends it is going to bring and accelerate) creates a number of challenges in people leadership, among them difficult soft skills development, bonding among team members or creative team problem-solving via remote channels”, which he says represent “a significant risk for negative working culture changes.” Jindrich says his recommendation can be summed up as follows: “despite COVID, when possible managers should retain a regular face-to-face contact with their team members – be it at the workplace or otherwise. Leisure and non-work related topics should also be part of the remote/VC interactions and should be planned and allocated time for.”

All leaders I spoke to agree the current crisis is an opportunity to put the human factor at the center of the agenda. Joachim Dehmel illustrates: “more than ever, leaders should demonstrate and transmit positivity, hope and confidence”.

This also means for CEOs to reconsider how they will choose to communicate with each and every person they interact with, internally or externally, perhaps by choosing a quick call rather than email or capping the length of internal meetings for example – in other words being more directly personal. Omar Koleilat, the CEO of the Czech real estate development company Crestyl, says he evaluates every interaction in order to make it as personal as possible: “each day I decide which meetings I will do online”, he told me, “and which ones I will postpone and do face-to-face in order to give the person the maximum of attention.”

Restate what your company’s purpose and values are

Not only does COVID create the necessity to invent new ways to cooperate, it serves as a strong reminder that CEOs need to show which values they stand for, which purpose their company serves and answer that very simple question: what are we here for? But also act accordingly. Values and purpose are indeed essential pillars of company culture, especially in a crisis such as this one when employees feel isolated as they are working from their kitchen or from their sofa: as a result the bond with their employer has never been so fragile.

Values and purpose are actually the favorite topics of studies of Thierry Wellhoff, a leading figure in Paris in the communication industry and the author of two acclaimed books on values. Thierry explains the connection between COVID-19 and values: “COVID-19 serves as an accelerator of trends which were already at work in the society before”, he says, “”among them the preference of employees for companies with a positive contribution on the social and/or environmental sphere”. One could say COVID should serve as another opportunity for companies with a true mission to demonstrate their contribution towards building a better world. “The second trend accelerated by COVID-19”, he says, “is related to the growing importance among employees of doing work that makes sense to them and gives sense to what they do.”

In this respect one could say COVID is also an acceleration of a crisis of meaning and sense. At a time when the future is becoming very uncertain, people get to ask themselves the right questions: does my job actually make sense? Am I really aligned with what I truly want? Do I really make a positive impact on the society – or at least my community? CEOs should not underestimate these daunting questions which are invading the mental space of employees while they are disconnected from their former daily routine and their usual social interactions.

Make a positive difference in people’s lives

It is very likely that once the COVID-19 crisis is over, most employees will keep a lasting perception of their CEO – good or bad– based on how he or she acted and interacted during the pandemic. How did he or she bond with his or her team? Did he or she show genuine empathy to people? How did he or she relate to people’s anxiety and insecurity when facing the future? How much gratitude did he or she express?

It’s quite likely that people will also remember the COVID-19 crisis as a breaking point which will leave a never-ending trace in their life (especially for the millennials population), almost the same way our grand-parents used to describe their life before and after the war. Joachim Dehmel acknowledges this and makes a firm recommendation: “be clear to your teams that COVID is irreversible. There will never be a pre-COVID time”, he says.

One thing is for sure: never before have CEOs faced the challenge – but also been presented with an opportunity – to make such a positive difference in people’s lives. For them COVID-19 will remain forever an exceptional and revealing test of leadership.

Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges, by Gemma d’Auria and Aaron de Smet, McKinsey & Company

“Les Valeurs. Donner du sens, guider la communication, construire la réputation», by Thierry Wellhoff, éditions Eyrolles

 “L’Entreprise en 80 valeurs”, by Thierry Wellhoff, éditions Liaisons