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CEOs and the true cost of Covid-19 - for them

Covid-19 has taught us many things, it's also changed the fundamentals of how we do things. There are very few areas that have been left unscathed, whether it's how we work to how we shop and even how we relax. The C-suite is no exception, particularly the role of the all-important chief executive officer (CEO).

Faced with the new reality of remote working with all the nuances which that involves over and above the digitisation of the workplace at warp speed, traditional CEOs have found themselves a little like the dinosaurs of old; as they look up the jungle is fast disappearing. They can no longer walk into a meeting surrounded by a bodyguard of assistants, they certainly can’t make do with their PAs setting up Zoom calls or physically arranging their diaries, now it’s often the CEOs who have to set up those calls and present their slideshow presentations all by themselves.

There’s no more ivory tower either – in the corner office or cyberspace: pre-pandemic, the responsibility of managing human resources was left to HR, these days the CEO has to be more staff-centric than ever before, often with staff she or he has never met in person. The CEO has to ensure those staff are coping with the rigours of working from home, which has been a boon for some and an absolute kiss of death for others. Today’s CEO needs their staff now more than ever because with the rate of change, one thing has become perfectly clear, most CEOs don’t have immediate answers for a pandemic that has no playbook. It’s all the more difficult working with people you have yet to actually meet because during the lockdown especially, most staff were onboarded virtually and only met each other – and the CEO – via Teams or Zoom, but paradoxically the CEO’s visibility and empathy has never been more vital.

None of us have faced disruption at this scale – ever. The CEO bears the biggest brunt: It’s not enough to be able to lead companies at a time when everything we knew has disappeared in the rear view mirror; it’s not enough to be able to pivot and innovate, watching the bottom line for the shareholders and trying not retrench staff: CEOs also have to start thinking about the environmental impact of what they and their companies do.

They have to lead by inspiring their staff at a time when many of those CEOs aren’t just bereft of inspiration themselves, they’re quietly terrified of failure and totally unsure of what the future holds. Boundaries are dissolving like footsteps on the beach and burnout is all too real for CEOs who find themselves having to be always on, whether it’s answering queries from panicked investors or scared staff. So, to add to all these other skills, today’s CEO has to be resilient and mindful.

If it sounds like the perfect post pandemic CEO is a unicorn. They are. Most aspirant CEOs don’t have all these qualities, they certainly haven’t mastered all of them. The good news is that most companies don’t want a unicorn, they want someone who meets the needs of their organisations at the moment who can step in right now, rather than where it should be in five years’ time.

What this means for most aspirant CEOs, is that if you meet the company’s most pressing need, you can have time to develop those other skills as you lead it into the next five years. Perhaps the most important skill is leadership, especially the ability to be an all-inclusive leader; able to manage mixed teams of boomers and millennials, both of whom are vital to the success of the business but polar opposites in how they are managed. It’s about hearing their needs, letting them feel part of the process and yet still getting everyone to pull together in a single coherent fashion to a mutually understood and achievable goal.

It is also about being able to empathise, to be vulnerable and be willing to collaborate with anyone who shares the company vision and can help achieve it. One thing that’s vital is a real feel for IT; not the nuts and bolts of networking, but a fundamental understanding of what the benefits of digitalisation bring to your business. You need to really get how it can be a driver for growth, an enabler for human resources and because of that just how important it is for the CEO to be the master of their own digital destiny, whether doing a Teams briefing with a PowerPoint presentation they have designed themselves or able to work remotely, speaking to shareholders, with little more than a cell phone, a ring light and tripod.

What’s not negotiable either is the humility to understand – and to show – that you don’t have all the answers, not at this time, but that you are person with an enquiring mind free from preconceptions who can both ask the hard questions and at the same time defer to those who do know the answers without losing your authority or your dignity in the process. You need to be humble enough to understand that innovation doesn’t mean the idea of the most senior person in the room. It means being able to understand that in times like these, progress is measured by evolution and experience through trying things and failing, rather than finding a possible solution in the pages of a dusty out-of-date textbook.

Yet despite all of this, qualifications still remain incredibly important, especially when it comes to C-suite appointments in the government and state-owned enterprises – that and a good track record are key to making it to the shortlist and the interview phase. As for succeeding in the job when you get it? That’s all about learning and unlearning in a world that is now truly volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous, but for the real CEOs out there, that environment is oxygen to their ambition.

1 Sep 2021 14:35


About the author

Lucia Mabasa is managing director of pinpoint one human resources, a Johannesburg based executive search firm. Visit for more information.