The CEO’s ivory tower is now looking precarious - comment

Covid-19 has seen CEOs face increased pressure – but they can seize opportunity from the crisis, according to Billy Partridge, director at Grayling Communications.

Many CEOs have left the ivory tower to sound the bell and roam the streets, says Partridge. Picture: Graham Flack.
Many CEOs have left the ivory tower to sound the bell and roam the streets, says Partridge. Picture: Graham Flack.

Lyndon B Johnson was no stranger to crisis. From assuming the Presidency of the United States after John F Kennedy was assassinated to sending half a million troops to Vietnam, his leadership was defined by moral as well as political decision-making. He remarked: “Doing what is right isn’t the problem. It is knowing what is right.” Many CEOs will relate to this today.

The moral compass of chief executive officer has never been under greater scrutiny. In the 40 days since lockdown began, mentions of CEOs in the context of coronavirus have increased seven-fold in major UK news and business media when compared to the first 40 days of the year.

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The chief executive is now on the front line. CEOs have gone from being mentioned in the UK’s major media outlets 114 times a day at the beginning of the year to nearly 800 a day now in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

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The significance of this is best understood through the lens of business, not media. Decision-making has taken on wider import as every business faces choices that affect society, not just sales. It is because of this correlation between life, livelihood and lockdown that the CEO has become the messenger. Decisions made now may affect people forever.

Thus many CEOs have left the ivory tower in order to sound the bell and roam the streets. Now, the role is not just strategist but sympathiser. Our business leaders are explaining not only what they do, but why, how they feel about it, and why they care. It is a more vulnerable, if relatable, position.

The frequency and volume of media interactions only serves to illustrate how many businesses are actively managing change. We have all seen the examples, from airlines grounding their fleets to craft brewers making hand sanitiser; wholesalers becoming retailers and retailers become e-tailers; staff being furloughed, staff volunteering, staff surviving, staff suffering.

Change is coming at us from all angles. The pull from different audiences is at its greatest now that so many businesses are being forced to adapt to circumstances.

Suppliers can’t deliver goods in the same quantities or timeframes as previously; shareholders and investors want to understand the plan for recovery urgently; customers can’t get the products they want in the ways they used to get them; employees are physically separated from one another, and from leadership; and government and regulators are both setting expectations and expecting feedback so it can help.

New expectations

Firefighting is almost all one might expect. But businesses should be warned: the “new normal” is coming and a new set of expectations will follow.This creates both opportunity and uncertainty. Being more vulnerable might work for staff and customers now, but can it wash in the future? While decisions are being made at break-neck speed, mistakes will be made, and the CEO is now the easiest and most prominent target for feedback.

What’s more, expectations of access to the CEO have grown. And that expectation is not limited to customers or staff. Shareholders expect more frequent communication; stakeholders and the supply chain are getting used to almost constant information-sharing; and as restrictions ease and business-development gathers pace, the task of growing the business will take on greater urgency, particularly in the services industry.

Now is the time to build more resilience into the function of CEO. All businesses are “recovering” or “reshaping,” so anticipating the future and owning certain aspects of change will help to bring clarity to the role. That articulation could sway purchasing decisions, share price and talent acquisition.

CEOs ignore at their peril the fact that their reputation is intertwined with that of his/her organisation. As they identify their own role for the future, they can still choose how to communicate. They do still have options. In crises, it is important to prevent the feeling that events are happening to you and start to get to grips with how you can take control of them.

Being able to articulate how and when you choose to communicate is an important part of leadership. Identifying the CEO’s role in the coming months empowers everyone else to take control, too. It helps those around the leadership function to find theirs, too.

The likelihood is that CEOs will remain in the role of messenger for some considerable time yet. Having a confident view on why you communicate will help businesses, and their leaders, feel less exposed.

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