Article: The new CEO predicament, in pandemic times


The new CEO predicament, in pandemic times

The findings of the study, undertaken across FMCG, Information Technology, publicity and media, startups, and social entrepreneurship sectors, reveals a new set of challenges that CEOs now have to come to terms with. Let's take a look.
The new CEO predicament, in pandemic times

The zeitgeist in India at the beginning of 2021 seems to be nothing short of euphoric. News of the nation-wide vaccination programme, global economic turnaround, fresh influx of FDI, projections of a double-digit GDP growth in FY21-22, and the stock markets scaling ever-new bullish heights, all combine to buoy and reinforce such sentiments. However, a recently concluded Leadership Survey undertaken by Bullzi Inc and NUVAH ELINT LLP, reveals a more nuanced picture. The findings of the study, undertaken across FMCG, Information Technology, publicity and media, startups, and social entrepreneurship sectors, reveals a new set of challenges that CEOs now have to come to terms with.

Overall Impact of COVID-19:

The first aspect of the survey focused on the concomitants of the pandemic, such as lockdowns, concerns around safety, social distancing norms, and working from home. Leaders were asked how all these factors affected the working of the organization as a whole, and also their individual experience of work. As regards the first question, 39% of the respondents felt that things were very difficult to being with, but had now become smoother. Only 13% complained of stress or felt that work at an organizational level had become tougher, while 26% felt that the disruptions caused by the pandemic had actually made a positive impact on how the organization gets work done.

In comparison, with regard to how the pandemic had impacted one’s own work, 26% of the respondents felt that their work had become tougher (double the corresponding figure for that of the organizational level), and another 8.7% stated that while they were hopeful things would eventually get better, they were currently facing issues due to the disruptions caused. A mere 13.04% felt that there had been a positive impact on how the individual gets work done.

This marked difference in the response between the organizational and individual levels seems to indicate a general trend that leaders have become attuned to WFH and hybrid modes of working, crafted crisis management procedures, and also revisited their existing SOPs, to negotiate the current vagaries of the workplace in an “Unlock” mode. However, more than a third of them are continuing to struggle when it comes to calibrating the changes in their own lifestyles and approach to working. The corollary stemming from this is that leaders find it relatively harder to inculcate new behavioural traits and habits than establishing new work processes and technologies, for their organizations. This may also partially explain why many are so euphoric about the possibility of being able to go back to more familiar territory.

Strategic Direction:

Asked as to what extent the strategic direction of the organization has changed, since March 2020, as many as 26.08% of the respondents replied “To a Great Extent” while for a further 65.23%, the change in direction was moderate or small. Only 8.69% replied “Not At All”. When asked further, leaders who had seen their strategies change materially felt that the pandemic had forced them to question everything about the way they think of business, and that in turn led to a general rebooting. They also stated that while there were inherent opportunities amidst the disruptions, they were compelled to think differently, particularly as regards their strategic relationships in the market.

Asked to choose from a range of options that most accurately reflected where leaders currently saw the organization, around 26.1% felt that while they knew that the business model and offerings had to be adapted, they were struggling to identify the right opportunities. The largest cohort, 52.17% of respondents, said that they had a clear understanding of the organization’s future direction, but were planning for just a 3-6 month period. The remaining 21.74% stated that they already had a 1-3-year plan put in place.

These findings seem to indicate that many CEOs were still uncertain of future possibilities and 3 of 4 were still operating with only the near-term perspective. Industry leaders might benefit from looking at some different approaches at getting ready. The situation presents both risks and opportunities. A strategic planning process would be useful – focusing on the longer-term alternative possibilities, together with some ‘what if’ scenarios, to help them calibrate their strategies in a more proactive, nimble-footed manner. Key to success would be the ability of execute strategies swiftly in the short term, with a vision to adapt to changes in the environment. One thing that the pandemic has taught us is that along with the positives, we must also be prepared for what may appear to be unlikely, but in fact are, rare possibilities. Leaders should also operate with a clear understanding of the current competencies and change readiness of their leadership team. Approaching this period purely from the leaders’ or talents’ emotional need to get back to normal and believing all is or will soon be ‘normal’ is asking for trouble. It’s imperative at this stage for organisations to take stock of the competencies of their leadership and talent.

Operations and Upcoming Challenges:

Here, the respondents were asked to choose from the options the one they felt most accurately reflected the operational state of their organization. As many as 47.82% of them felt that they had identified the operational challenges, but needed to find concrete solutions to address them, while a further 39.13% stated that they had a clear understanding of the operational challenges and had already put a plan in place, to address them. Only the remaining 13.05% admitted they were uncertain about the operational challenges in the near future.

Asked what they felt would be their topmost challenge in 2021, 52.17% chose “Strategic Challenges”, 39.13% of the stakeholders chose “People Challenges”, with “Operational Challenges, at 8.7%, bringing up the rear. The lopsided figures across people and operational challenges indicate not only the state of readiness in these two respective domains but are also symptomatic of the relative importance accorded to them, thus far, by the stakeholders. Coupled with the earlier finding about change in business model  (great to a small extent) the need for buttoning down on this aspect is probably the number 1 priority at the moment. 

The Human Dimension

In this section of the study, the CEOs were first asked to choose from options the one that best reflected where their organization currently was, on talent. A fairly substantial 21.74% of the respondents said while they were aware that they needed to need to upgrade the current talent pool, they didn’t know how to identify the right future competencies. The largest section, 47.83%, felt that they had a clear understanding of the future competencies but hadn’t put a plan in place as yet. The remaining 30.43% stated that they had a clear understanding of the future competencies and had also put a concrete plan in place.

The respondents were then asked to choose from options the one that best reflected where the organization currently was, on employee engagement. An alarming 43.48% of CEOs said that there were challenges around employee engagement and motivation but they hadn’t identified the causes. 39.13% of the CEOs surveyed felt that they had a clear understanding of the challenges around employee engagement and motivation; and had put concrete plans in place. The remaining 17.39% of the respondents were of the position that they were taking things, one step at a time, or had identified the challenges, and were in the process of developing plans.

The continuing inability of so many stakeholders to identify the right behavioural competencies, has wide ranging implications for motivation, morale, focus, productivity and attrition – all of them adversely so. However, even the identification of competencies would not translate to effective initiatives on the ground, unless backed by a robust and comprehensive mechanism of assessing these behavioural competencies across the board, at individual, departmental and enterprise levels. It’s in this regard that psychometric solutions assume a renewed importance, especially those that focus on strengths and potential areas rather the lacunae, while not missing sight of demonstrated mindsets, and attributes that are the need of the hour – Resilience, Emotional Intelligence, Grit, Self-Esteem, and Depression.

At a more holistic level, the insights from the Leadership Survey have a three-fold purpose. To begin with, they provide immediate food for thought to industry leaders, amid their frenetic work of planning for the year; there is a definite need to adopt different planning methods. They effect a deeper understanding that challenges and hurdles will continue to be part of the recovery process, particularly the underlying abilities of the teams. And the acknowledgement that this process itself will be lengthier and more volatile than euphoric projections would have one believe.

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Topics: C-Suite, #GuestArticle

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