CEOs reveal how they continue to lead effectively when anxiety and fear abound.

The world has seen so much change this year. Emotions are running high and people are struggling to perform at their best. Where should we be focusing our efforts during the current crisis to lead ourselves and our people into a brighter 2021?

To find answers to this and other questions, we spoke with high-profile CEOs and our own senior leaders about leading people through uncertain times. Here they share their insights, perspectives, and personal stories.


Gary Burnison
Korn Ferry
Carol Tomé
John Donahoe
Nike, Inc
Tim Schmid
Group Chairman
Johnson & Johnson Medical Asia Pacific
Y.K Pang
Deputy Managing Director
Jardine Matheson
Alicia Yi
Senior Client Partner
Korn Ferry
Anita Wingrove
Senior Client Partner
Korn Ferry
Gurprriet Siingh
Senior Client Partner
Korn Ferry

Comments edited for brevity and clarity.

Building hope and trust

Great leaders inspire trust and give us a sense of hope and optimism that can act as a protective factor against adversity.

Gary Burnison, CEO, Korn Ferry

"Despite all the technological innovations of the past century, the simple truth remains that only people make businesses truly successful. So, I think for all of us, we have to make sure that our employees are inspired and provided with hope."

Tim Schmid, Group Chairman, Johnson & Johnson Medical Asia Pacific

"My greatest learning as a leader through the pandemic is the power of being human and vulnerable. This year has taken a toll on everyone and as we trained our people on energy management, and mental health and well-being, our leaders talked about their own personal experiences. It had a profound impact. It showed us how being human, compassionate and vulnerable actually builds confidence and trust."

Carol Tomé, CEO, UPS

"Know that it is not about you; it is about everybody else. You are there to support them. You are here to invest in them. You are there to see them shine and get the most out of their potential. That is your job as a leader."

Alicia Yi, Vice Chair CEO & Board Services, Korn Ferry

"In times of crisis you need to share stories that reveal the enduring values of a business, remind your people of the purpose of the enterprise and rally them around it."


The importance of purpose

Purpose is the “why” behind every great organisation and during this crisis, we have seen the power of purpose in uniting workforces. Now is the time for leaders to embrace their company’s values and purpose even more strongly and offer their people hope.

John Donahoe, CEO, Nike, Inc

"I think purpose is important, particularly in a period of uncertainty. Every company must answer the “why” questions, the “what” questions, and the “how” questions. But the “why” questions are: why do we exist? Why should someone want to work here? Why should we care? These why questions are all around purpose.

The “what” questions are: what are our products and services? What are our target customer segment? What is our business model? That is around strategy. The “how” questions are: how are we going to behave? How are we going to operate as a team? How are we going to bring our purpose and strategy to life? Those issues are around culture. In times of uncertainty, you do not need to go to strategy. Purpose is what matters.

During times of uncertainty, I think more talk about purpose and culture—less talk about strategy—is what motivates people, keeps us connected, and gives us the resilience and inspiration we need for the long road ahead. We must find ways to nourish ourselves every day."

Y.K. Pang, Deputy Managing Director, Jardine Matheson

"During the pandemic, we have created temporary purposes within the larger purpose of our business groups. For example, in our supermarket business in many countries, the regular purpose is obviously to provide a large, diverse range of daily goods to the population at competitive prices. In this crisis, our supermarket business purpose has been changed to be an essential service provider while also taking care of our front-liners. We make sure people who are providing very important service to the community are looked after first. For example, we look after medical workers by allowing only medical workers to shop in the supermarkets in the morning before the rest of the customers.

Our restaurant business is one of the biggest franchisees in the region,  we continue to bring our people into the workplace so we are able to fulfill orders for people who are most vulnerable and need food delivered to their homes such as the elders.

Our colleagues have responded very well to the focus on a specific purpose during these difficult times and it has also given them a heightened sense of mission."


Continuous learning and reskilling

An open mind can be your best weapon during a crisis.

Gurprriet Siingh, Senior Client Partner, Korn Ferry

"We are doing more remote work than ever before, and this has implications for not only how we interact with clients and colleagues but especially how we manage ourselves as members of teams. New behaviours, new mindsets are needed to navigate this new way of working - everybody needs some level of technical or emotional reskilling to adapt to the new reality."

Anita Wingrove, Senior Client Partner, Korn Ferry

"The pandemic really shone a light on how we have spent a lot of time building cohorts of managers rather than leaders. Essentially, as soon as your workforce works from home or works from somewhere that is outside the office doors, you need to connect with them and lead them instead of managing them against a set of tasks. I think this is a burgeoning problem for a lot of businesses that are having to quickly make this transition. This means pivoting from the more controlling style such as setting activities, managing processes and tasks and measuring time, to developing leadership styles that have to do with how do I engage people, how do I help them set goals and manage them to outcomes. Organisations have to help managers to be more leader-like, so that they can access a broader repertoire of styles to lead their people rather than manage tasks."

John Donahoe, CEO, Nike, Inc

"Never stop learning. You have this image that the senior leader, the CEO, has all the answers. But it is the opposite. The more senior you get, the more you need to learn."


Taking care of yourself

This has been a leader’s toughest test. To weather this crisis and emerge stronger from it, they cannot ignore their personal well-being.

Tim Schmid, Group Chairman, Johnson & Johnson Medical Asia Pacific

“The pandemic has created many challenges and tough moments for all of us. For me it was the confluence of professional and personal family pressures brought on by the unfolding pandemic. The 24/7 work cycle, children home-schooling, a daughter stranded on the other side of the world and ageing parents we could not get to.  In the midst of the Singapore lockdown, with that added disconnection from people, it felt pretty overwhelming and was testing my own behaviours and resilience.

I realised I needed to do something different and had to make time for things that gave me positive energy or I would risk burning out. Exercise, family and friends were the ones that made the difference. And what’s been clear as we have been talking about our mental health and wellbeing with our leadership teams, is that so many of us have really been tested. Sometimes people may fear that talking about these topics is a sign of weakness. We found the exact opposite. It’s helped build trust, engender followership and strengthen employee engagement.”

John Donahoe, CEO, Nike, Inc

"One of the greatest mentors of my career has been a man named Tom Tierney, who was my predecessor at Bain. Early in my career, when I was stressed out and he was my boss, he said to me: “Donahoe, when I come in and I’m stressed or I’m irritable, do people notice? “I said: “Yeah, Tom. We definitely notice.” He said: “Does that make you guys work more effectively?” I said: “No, Tom.” He said: “When I come in and I seem rested and present, do you guys notice?” I said: “Yeah, Tom. We love it when you’re like that.” He said: “Does that make you guys work more effectively?” I said: “Yeah.” He said: “What I would encourage you to do is spend more time taking care of yourself—because taking care of yourself is part of your job.”

And he was right. As a leader, it’s really important, especially in stressful or uncertain times, to be present, to be calm, to be nourished.

So during this pandemic, I’m working out more, I meditate and (guess what, people!) I need eight hours sleep. I’m not afraid to say that anymore. I’ve done the hero thing and it really doesn’t work."


Making hard decisions

Leaders who are guided by their sense of purpose when facing hard decisions, walk compassionately in the shoes of employees.

Y.K. Pang, Deputy Managing Director, Jardine Matheson

"As the situation (pandemic) progresses, there is realization that many businesses need to be repurposed, reshaped and change, to face the next six months, and then the next six years. So how do you minimise the impact on the whole organisation and yet having to take some very unfortunate painful decisions regarding our co-workers and colleagues. The last thing you want to do is to make people's lives even more difficult than they are. But, unfortunately, you have to make a choice. During such time, we learn to communicate, communicate, communicate even more.

Create new policies that allow people to feel safe and give them the comfort that we are still doing our best to look after them, that we are having the best interest of the whole organisation at heart is important."


Managing Diversity and Inclusion

The pandemic is widening equity gaps but proactive organisations are prioritising D&I practices to prevent their diverse talent from being left behind.

Tim Schmid, Group Chairman, Johnson & Johnson Medical Asia Pacific

"It’s very simple, given that half the global population reside in this part of the world and the ongoing economic and innovation growth in Asia Pacific, the tremendous talent and leaders from this region must play a greater role on the global stage. We need more representation of leaders from Asia for the globe. That requires more cross-pollination of talent across our region, sometimes moving globally and also back into Asia. That’s not as easy as it once was because of the abundance of opportunities for top talent in Asia Pacific. We have to ensure we are stretching our people, creating more opportunities and also bringing capabilities from our global businesses into Asia to create rich and diverse leadership experiences."

Alicia Yi, Vice Chair CEO & Board Services, Korn Ferry

"For businesses that are serious about embracing diversity and inclusion, they will need to look at ways to transform themselves structurally to build trust and create environments where everyone feel safe to contribute, not just during the pandemic but at all times. This involves using inclusive design principles to build fair and equitable talent management structures, processes and practices.  Inclusive design begins with a transparent, inclusive exploration of what kind of equality the organisation stands for and how it manifests itself in talent management practices and processes. APAC leaders must also broaden their perspectives on diversity and inclusion to look beyond just gender and race, but to also include factors such as age, professional backgrounds and past experiences."

Gurprriet Siingh, Senior Client Partner, Korn Ferry

"Never before have we had four generations in the workforce. Never before, have we had as much diversity that we must, as leaders lead. I was pondering just this morning before the session that the kind of leader I learned to be 20 years ago – it is not the kind of leader I can be today. I think the imperative, more than ever, is that we need a very different kind of leadership."

Tim Schmid, Group Chairman, Johnson & Johnson Medical Asia Pacific

"We have an extensive diversity and inclusion program across our company as a fundamental. But I have to say, the black lives matter movement has really had a profound impact for us and our people and it’s been a prompt to look further at how we can address racial injustice and systemic inequality wherever we are in the world. There is no simple fix, but we have started a program to listen and understand how our own people across the Asia Pacific region feel. How we can shape our role to address racial injustice and systemic inequality at a local level in a genuine and authentic way."

Y.K. Pang, Deputy Managing Director, Jardine Matheson

"We understand that in many places, perhaps ladies have a traditional role that they play but we make sure that they are given the same opportunity as the men. We provide more work from home opportunities for ladies with young children for example to help them get over certain phases in their life so that they can continue to contribute to our company. Performance is measured based on merit, basically, your performance at work and how you deal with customers and your colleagues and deal with the company are what we value."


Leaders can draw upon a range of approaches and process to address change, depending on the specific challenge/situation. How do you approach leadership? Take the quiz.

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About the contributor

Alicia Yi is the Vice Chairman Consumer Market for Korn Ferry. Based in Singapore she is also a member of the Board & CEO Services Practice Human Resources Practice Private Equity Practice and Supply Chain Practice.

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