In a stunningly short time, demand for her firm’s multibillion-dollar product had dropped almost in half. And almost as quickly, the call for many inside the company was to act fast and preserve as much capital as possible. It was the standard reaction multiplied many times by a global pandemic—save all that is left for better times.

Yet this CEO saw things differently. Cutbacks were made, of course. But instead of purely hunkering down, she directed the teams to work on finding new efficiencies for the product, create new services for customers, and streamline operations. The goal: yes, wait for better times, but give the company an edge for when demand inevitably returns.

In today’s remarkably rough times, with the global coronavirus outbreak upending the modern world as we know it, everyone is dealing with their own challenges. And that certainly includes the world’s chief executive officers. It is these leaders who must keep their organisations afloat. It is they who must inspire people to innovate and try to preserve as many jobs as possible. And while these CEOs are balancing so many impossible dilemmas—what suppliers to pay, what factories to keep open—they must carry the burden of their own uncertainties as well as those of the thousands of workers for whom they bear responsibility.

“It’s something that nearly everyone we’re working with is wrestling with,” says Kevin Cashman, Korn Ferry’s global leader of CEO and Executive Development. “It has never been tougher.”

Cashman and Jane Stevenson, Vice Chair of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services, practice, have been speaking daily, with this group—hearing their struggles as well as their responses. Some admit to having moments of fear. But others have found a way to be energized.

In a recent conversation, Cashman and Stevenson spoke about the common themes that shine through their work with the CEOs, and what great leaders are doing to help not only their organisations but themselves. Here we share what great leaders are doing that separate them from the rest and eight steps that leaders can take now to help their organisations through the crisis. For the full conversation, download Korn Ferry’s playbook: The COVID-19 Leadership Guide

What are the great leaders doing that perhaps other CEOs are not?

Jane Stevenson: In a situation like this where everything feels out of control, there’s an innate move to try to control as much as you can. Just survival can overwhelm you. But some leaders are adapting in the moment and moving forward to new realities even as they address issues like the company’s survival.

For instance, one transportation player has had to retire the vast majority of its fleet and is still dealing with a huge reduction in capacity for the remaining operating segments. So one way to approach this would be to just shore up capital to survive, which is no small issue, and which they are definitely doing. But this CEO is also asking his teams to use technology now to help shift the company for the future. Their approach during the downturn is to look at how they, a sleeping giant, can be ready to come back even stronger in four or five months.

Kevin Cashman: It really seems that the CEOs who are truly purpose-driven are thriving a bit more. Take life sciences, where many are seeing their purpose as healing and touching patients. So what are they doing? Collaborating with competitors on treatments, cooperating with governments, even giving supplies away. That’s purpose playing out, and at the same time, creating an environment of global innovation and service.

Purpose can be set aside very easily in a crisis because we have to survive. But we have to remind ourselves that purpose elevates us from survive to thrive. Purpose clearly shows up in world-class leaders in a crisis.

8 steps that leaders can take now

 ​​​​​​​1. Be purposeful.

  • Constantly remind people why it is so important that we exist.
  • See this crisis as a new way to purposefully serve colleagues and customers in new, meaningful, value-creating ways.
  • Leverage purpose as a new tool of innovation; purpose can touch lives in new ways.
  1. Be empathetic.
  • Acknowledge others’ stress in this situation.
  • Know that people are also struggling with personal and family issues beneath the business issues.
  • Show you care about them versus the enterprise only.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat.
  1. Be calm, clear, and confident.
  • Communicate with realness, clarity, authenticity, and regularity: tell the real story.
  • Express a vision of the other side of this…elevate from now to next.
  • Convert anxiety to the attitude “we will get through this together.”
  1. Be both action oriented and reflective.
  • Reconcile the paradox of pause and action; both are critical.
  • Avoid being too passive or too hyperactive during these times.
  • Step back to reflect, learn, and strategise when the pace and bias for action are too high.
  1. Be inspiring.
  • Share stories that reveal the enduring values and what is really important now.
  • Remember the purpose of the enterprise and rally people around it.
  • See the crisis as an opportunity to more deeply live and serve our people and customers.
  1. Be resilient.
  • Take care of your energy, wellness, and fitness.
  • Encourage others to take care of themselves, and demonstrate by modeling it.
  • Show your energy to take on these challenges with energy and innovation.
  1. Be aware of mindsets.
  • Move from fixed/fear mindsets to growth mindsets.
  • Know that our openness and closedness opens or closes others.
  • Catch yourself in fixed/fear mindsets and move to growth mindsets before acting or behaving.
  1. Be courageous.
  • Make the tough decisions on purpose and with courage.
  • Pay attention to fear-based, reactive decisions.
  • Inspire others with your courage, energy, and positivity.

To learn more and help accelerate your business recovery through the turn, join our webinar: Future-proofing leaders

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About the contributors

Kevin is a best-selling author, global thought leader and CEO Coach, world-class speaker, and pioneer of the ‘grow the whole person to grow the whole leader' approach to transformative leadership. He is the founder of the Executive to Leader Institute and Chief Executive Institute, which has been recognised as one of the top three leadership development programs globally.

Jane works across the global governance continuum on behalf of clients and has served as a pioneer developing the firm’s Succession capabilities at the Board and CEO level. She additionally serves as executive sponsor for the firm’s Power of ALL program to ensure diverse talent in the world’s top leadership pipelines

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