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CEOs say the pandemic hasn’t paused their focus on purpose—it’s accelerated it

November 17, 2020, 9:00 PM UTC

In the past, major crises have often been reasons for companies to narrowly focus on maintaining their bottom lines. But according to CEOs on a Fortune-hosted call Tuesday, the coronavirus pandemic has instigated a different reaction: Businesses are putting purpose at the front of their recovery plans.

Leaders on the call, which is part of Fortune’s Global Forum/CEO Initiative series, said that as a result of COVID-19’s disruption, they are now more focused on climate change and sustainability, empathy and transparent communication with employees, flexibility around work arrangements and schedules, and racial justice and diversity.

Genpact was already searching to define its purpose last year, said Tiger Tyagarajan, president and CEO. When the pandemic began to force economic lockdowns, his workers scrambled to continue delivering services.

“What we realized was our teams actually made purpose come alive without actually defining purpose,” he said. That discovery has informed the formal definition of purpose the company is currently finalizing.

One theme that dominated the conversation was the importance of transparent and open communication between corporate leadership and frontline workers. 

According to MassMutual chairman, president, and CEO Roger Crandall, videoconferencing technology has allowed for more authentic conversations with employees. “The days of sending a memo and never hearing back are gone. One way or another, you’re going to hear back,” he said.

Annette Clayton, president and CEO of Schneider Electric’s North American division, agreed, referencing a “turning moment” for the company during a virtual discussion with an employee who had contracted the coronavirus while doing fieldwork in hospitals.

“Having that dialogue in a transparent way and showing empathy of what everyone’s personal situation [is] was hugely powerful,” she explained.

As the discussion closed, Tyagarajan emphasized the crucial role of leaders in changing the climate inside their companies.

“If you don’t do it, the schism is going to be even worse than ever before” between leaders and workers, he said. “It’s not a ‘nice to do’ anymore.”

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