The role of the CEO has permanently changed. Here’s what it will take to lead a company in the future
It was an unexpected introduction to the CEO’s job in the age of the pandemic. Laxman Narasimhan was running a video meeting with colleagues at Reckitt Benckiser Group, the U.K.-based maker of cleaning and personal care products—Lysol, Woolite, Clearasil, many others. A Wharton-educated multilingual former McKinsey partner, he had been brought in as CEO just months earlier, before the pandemic, to turn the company around. Now, from his apartment in West London, he was orchestrating a major strategic transformation that would require buying and selling billions of dollars’ worth of brands.
Then his 79-year-old mother walked into camera range and said, “Sorry to interrupt you, but you haven’t taken the garbage out.”
He did the only thing a son could do. He put the meeting on hold and took the garbage out.
Today Narasimhan looks back on that moment as a gift. It helped him understand something CEOs across industries and around the world would discover in the following two years. “I found the magic in an organization is about being super down to earth,” he says, “letting people see you for who you are, with all the vulnerabilities that you face.”
The pandemic has changed the CEO’s job, often in ways that inherently clash with a leader’s traditional role, and CEOs have been forced to change profoundly. They’re supposed to be informed, prepared, and firmly in charge, not vulnerable. They’re supposed to be optimistic and confident. “Being a CEO means that in addition to having to do the job, you have to adopt the persona,” says Matt Paese, an executive and CEO coach at Development Dimensions International. But in a once-a-century crisis with no playbook, they sometimes had to abandon that persona.
More broadly, “CEOs went from being godlike to being more human,” says Jim Citrin of the Spencer Stuart executive search firm, who interviewed over 100 CEOs in the pandemic’s first six months. They spent significant time addressing employees’ emotional needs, though not all were adept at that skill. “There was a confluence of two trends,” Citrin says. “One started 10 years ago but just accelerated, and that is the importance of purpose. CEOs really tapped into that. The other one was the permission to be real and authentic and transparent.” Consultants, professors, and other experts who study CEOs noted similar trends.
Some CEOs struggled with the changes. Others embraced them. Now, willingly or not, comfortably or not, all CEOs and their successors will have to confront a new reality: The pandemic has changed what it takes to be an effective CEO.
Humanity comes to the fore
When COVID-19 arrived, many CEOs realized immediately that employees’ overriding reaction was raw fear, not just for their livelihoods but also for their families’ lives. That was the issue leaders most needed to address, even if how to do so wasn’t clear. “You have a lot of people looking to you for guidance or support, for answers,” says Kate Hurley, a member of Spencer Stuart’s CEO practice. “And it’s your responsibility to show up for them emotionally in a way that maybe you haven’t had to previously.”
Some leaders quickly shifted gears. “Humanity came to the fore,” says Rose Gailey, a consultant at the Heidrick & Struggles search firm. The CEO of a major insurance company, a buttoned-up, nuts-and-bolts executive, “didn’t even talk about business at his town halls,” says Cathy Anterasian, who leads Spencer Stuart’s CEO succession services in North America. “He was just sending messages about care, empathy, concern, the well-being of the workforce.” In some industries the fears were extraordinarily intense, none more so than health care.
“Maintaining trust with our workforce became the No. 1 priority,” says Bruce Meyer, president of Jefferson Health, a Philadelphia-area system of 18 hospitals and 100 ambulatory care centers. Questions he had to keep answering: “How are we protecting you? How are we allowing you to have a safe working environment where you can feel like you’re not going to jeopardize yourself or your family by continuing to work?” Business issues were secondary. This was life and death.
Ministering to the human needs of employees was hard work. Narasimhan says that because the crisis was so intense and he wasn’t well-known at the company, last year he made 15-minute calls to 400 employees, twice a year. Do the math: That’s a month of full-time work.
Meyer often spent a half-day at one of Jefferson Health’s 18 hospitals — roughly nine days out of every 15. As he walked the hospitals’ halls, he mostly thanked people and asked how he could help them. “I couldn’t always provide it instantaneously,” he recalls, “but at least I understood and was listening.”
It wasn’t just employees who were afraid in the pandemic’s early days. CEOs were too—not only in the way everyone was afraid, for families’ and friends’ health, but also because they simply didn’t know what to do. Part of the crisis leadership playbook is to reassure employees and other constituents that the organization has been through this kind of trial before, has learned from it, and has emerged stronger. That approach works when the crisis is a recession, inflation, war, or natural disaster. But few of today’s companies were around in the last global pandemic, and it was so long ago (1918) that it offers few lessons for today. In stark terms, leaders didn’t know if they could lead.
CEOs from around the world opened up to Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg and colleagues, who interviewed them in July 2020 and again five months later. They acknowledged the personal crisis they confronted, trying to lead when “no one knows the answer,” as one put it. Another confessed vividly that the pandemic struck at the heart of his leadership ability, saying it was like “[waking] up to all of the decisions I had not made/delayed in the past, and they all needed to be decided on at the same time.” The feeling was one of “paying the price of having postponed them and living the nightmare of all of it at once.”
A government chief executive, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney faced not just the pandemic but also the civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Beyond the significance of the protests, they also held the danger of sparking a surge in COVID-19 cases. “I remember sitting in the emergency operations center watching about 10 screens of things burning, cars being set on fire,” he tells Fortune. “You really don’t know what to do next. That sounds kind of helpless. And I think in some ways we felt a little bit helpless and lost.”
The choices and stresses could be wrenching. Royal Caribbean CEO Jason Liberty was CFO in the pandemic’s early days while also handling other executive tasks. As with all cruise lines, the pandemic meant his company “got directly hit by a meteor,” he says. “It’s very few species that survive a meteor.” He and his family moved from Miami to a home in North Carolina, where he spent long days raising the billions of dollars needed to get the company through. He recalls arranging a crucial lending facility in May. “As soon as I signed those documents, I had to rush to the hospital,” he says, “because my mother passed away a couple hours later.”
Other leaders had to choose between company and family. A CEO told Groysberg and colleagues about making the difficult decision to “move to a different city to be closer to the employees, [leaving] the family behind.” Reckitt’s Narasimhan didn’t see his daughter for 19 months; she was in the U.S., he in the U.K. “Even though you’re a CEO leader and all that, you’ve got these multiple roles,” he says. “Some people haven’t seen their parents for two years because they worry about them falling ill. It does at some point have an impact on you. And not seeing my daughter for 19 months had an impact on me.”
Responding to the pandemic crisis and to their own leadership crisis, many CEOs began by imposing order on their personal chaos. “The boundaries that I had very carefully established between my home life and my work life disappeared,” recalls Meyer of Jefferson Health, echoing a complaint of office workers everywhere. “For about a year, they utterly disappeared.” He says he’s still working to reestablish the boundaries. Dinner is a place to start. “In our family, family dinner is really, really important,” he says. In the depths of the pandemic, “it became even more important.”
His experience was typical. Groysberg and colleagues report that “the foundation of CEOs’ self-care was to replace the ‘lost structure’ of the workday” and to protect it through constant diligence.
A remarkably consistent element of CEOs’ response to the pandemic was exercise, which became something more. It was one of the most common themes of Groysberg’s CEOs, many of whom reported that they stepped up their pre-pandemic routines. Leaders reported the well-established benefits of exercise—improved mood, judgment, stamina, and mental sharpness. But there was another key element too. Whether CEOs mentioned it or not, it’s clear that for many of them exercise was also meditation. Many of the regimens described by Groysberg’s CEOs “were repetitive and contemplative in nature,” he and his colleagues report: “No one mentioned foot or bike racing, punching-bag work, or any other competitive or aggressive physical activity.” That is striking, considering that CEOs are among the world’s most competitive people. Yet in the pandemic crisis, more competition wasn’t what they needed. The Groysberg study reports, “This aligns with the fact that half of the sample considered daily meditation or prayer a crucial grounding element of their self-care.”
Like everyone, only more so, CEOs need trusted colleagues, friends, or peers with whom they can talk candidly. It really is lonely at the top, and it’s hard to find confidants who understand the quandaries CEOs face. Some bosses say that arranging those talks got easier in the pandemic. All it took was a Zoom invite, and “everybody wanted to connect,” says HP CEO Enrique Lores, including “CEOs of other companies that were going through similar issues.”
But other leaders felt even more alone. Mayor Kenney considers former Philadelphia mayor and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell “a friend and guide and confidant,” he says, but “I couldn’t even call him and say, ‘What would you do?’ Because nobody knew what to do.” Meyer worried about confessing that he was struggling. “The inner circle to whom I would reveal my innermost thoughts and concerns and anxieties—that circle got way smaller,” he says. “There were portions of the pandemic, in all honesty, where there wasn’t anybody [to talk to] inside the organization at all.”
Many CEOs turned to executive coaches as confidants. “The majority of CEOs we’re working with have identified an external coach,” says Heidrick & Struggles’ Rose Gailey, “somebody they can just say anything to and have confidence they’ll get honest feedback. It’s a safe place for them.”
The coming wave of CEO departures
For six months or so after COVID-19 arrived, CEOs were in emergency management mode. Then stimulus checks and PPP loans resuscitated the economy, and a few months later, vaccines appeared. CEOs could finally unclench, at least a little. Some had lost family members or friends. They began to do what millions of others were doing: reassessing their lives, careers, and futures. “They started listening to the inner voice we all have within us,” says Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, a former executive at the Egon Zehnder search firm who now counsels CEOs and teaches them in executive education programs at the Harvard Business School. “They were recalculating everything. Where do I want to live? How much do I want to be in the office? What type of company do I really want to work for?”
Some CEOs came to new realizations about themselves and decided to leave. Others confronted the reality that they were worn out. “During COVID we heard a lot of CEOs and C-suite players talking about when they’re going to leave,” executive coach Paese reports. “‘This has become too difficult’—we got a lot of that.”
Many CEOs who have decided to change their lives, and others who had previously planned to step down in 2020 or 2021, still haven’t left. “Boards put CEO succession on hold,” notes Spencer Stuart’s Anterasian. “CEOs felt they would need to steer the ship. It was the call of duty.” CEO turnover at public companies plunged in the past two years to the lowest levels in at least a decade, says the Challenger Gray & Christmas outplacement services firm.
Now, with the pandemic seemingly in long-term decline, the C-suite gates may be about to open. Spencer Stuart’s Citrin believes 2022 “is really going to be a record year” for CEO departures. Meyer of Jefferson Health, observing his peers in health care, says that “particularly at the CEO level, there’s a whole wave of retirement starting now. As people start to process what we’ve been through, they say, ‘I’m just done.’”
As the pandemic CEOs step down, and as employees look ahead to a post-pandemic future, will the highly personal, emotionally aware leadership style of the past two years continue? The best bet is that just as workers won’t go all the way back to the office and shoppers won’t go all the way back to physical stores, CEOs won’t go all the way back to pre-pandemic leadership.
The next generation of CEOs, and likely the generation after that, will be managers who were scarred by the pandemic experience. In addition, that experience has changed employees’ expectations. It’s only partly because the pandemic labor shortage has accustomed them to royal treatment. “The approach to leadership right now is more personal than it ever has been,” says Hurley of Spencer Stuart. “That’s what employees are asking for. They’re not saying, ‘Think about the situation.’ They’re saying, ‘Think about me.’” They won’t break that habit anytime soon.
The pandemic CEOs are relieved to be past the most demanding, most disorienting, most exhausting experience of their careers, and for some the most frightening. Yet history suggests it’s just possible that they may someday remember it with gratitude. The past two years have been a classic crucible experience. It has been painful, and it has forced CEOs to look into themselves more deeply than most people ever do. It has transformed them. Few people seek out a crucible experience. But those who go through one almost always conclude much later, looking back, that it changed them for the better.
Correction, April 27, 2022: A previous version of this article misspelled the surname of Enrique Lores.
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