Chief Executive Officer
Survival Skills from the CEOs of Nike, UPS
Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.
“In my career, I used to think, ‘I can’t communicate if I don’t have the answers.’ By definition, in periods of uncertainty, we don’t have the answers.”
John Donahoe, President and CEO of Nike, summed up the challenge facing every leader these days. As one might expect from a company whose long-time slogan has been “Just do it,” John’s advice during a crisis is equally compelling: “Just showing up … being authentic, being transparent.”
Indeed, more is being demanded from leaders today, particularly amid long-overdue demands for social change. As Carol B. Tomé, CEO of UPS noted, “We need to get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations.”
These two CEOs, who took over the leadership of iconic companies just a few months ago, joined me last week in a webinar about leading in uncertainty. Although our three industries could not be more different, it was uncanny how all of us gravitated to the importance of authenticity, vulnerability, and agility.
Nike, with its ubiquitous swoosh, has more than 75,000 employees around the world who are geared toward empowering the athlete in all of us. UPS has 528,000 people around the world, transporting the equivalent of 6% of U.S. GDP and 3% of worldwide GDP every day. One company tries to keep people active as the world shelters in place; the other makes our lives safer and simpler.
Yet we came together around six key principles that all leaders must embrace today, which collectively we call Leadership U: Anticipate, Navigate, Communicate, Listen, Learn, and Lead.
Here are some insights:
Anticipate: what lies ahead.
I can remember sitting down with the late Warren Bennis, a well-respected leadership guru who advised CEOs and U.S. presidents alike. He explained to me that the key to anticipating is accurately perceiving the reality of today. In other words, we don’t have to be turtleneck-wearing visionaries; we just need to be grounded in what’s really happening today—because that’s the starting point for tomorrow.
John agreed. “I find that during periods of uncertainty or turbulence or adversity…you have to confront reality and act. I also try to keep in mind that it’s during periods of uncertainty that the biggest movements in competitive position can happen. Leading companies can extend their leads. Strong companies can get stronger.”
On the day of the webinar, Carol was in her 60th day as CEO of UPS. Drawing on that experience, plus her prior position as CFO of Home Depot during the Great Recession, she commented: “A crisis is a terrible opportunity to waste. We are investing through the crisis.”
There’s no need for a crystal ball or to read the tea leaves to anticipate the future. Rather, it means creating a culture of world-class observers throughout the organization. Collective genius rarely cascades down; leaders must foster organizational curiosity so that information and ultimately innovation can bubble up. That’s one secret behind how great companies make their best moves in uncertain times.
Navigate: course-correct in real time.
Navigation focuses on what happens in the present, with real-time adjustments. In the early days of the pandemic, navigating the crisis required a framework of safety, caution, and agility. Now, it also means seizing the opportunity of change.
UPS has not been the fastest shipper when it comes to “time in transit,” Carol explained. The company has had an initiative to improve, but that wasn’t scheduled to be completed until June 2021. “When I asked the team, ‘What’s getting in the way of improving our time in transit?’ they said money. I said, ‘We’ve got money—let’s accelerate it!’ We’ll be delivering that (initiative) in October of this year, which will give us a competitive leg up and allow us to transform our business.”
It reminds me of a story told to us by Lucien Alziari, CHRO of Prudential, early in the pandemic. He described how, in normal times, transitioning to a 97% remote workforce would have required “an 18-month project … (with) six risk committee meetings, and at the end of the project that conclusion would have been, ‘We can’t do that. It’s too risky.’” Amid the pandemic, though, that goal was accomplished in 24 hours.
We must all continue to have that “start-up” founders’ mentality. As we navigate, leaders are reminded that strategy is not only direction but, as important, velocity.
Communication is where leadership lives and breathes—especially today.
“There has been no time in my adult life when the world has been more polarized—politically, socioeconomically…all over the world,” John said.
The remedy, as John and Carol both reiterated, is purpose. It unites!
Every leader must genuinely believe in purpose and mission. As Winston Churchill said, “Before you can inspire with emotion, you must be swamped with it yourself. Before you can move their tears, your own must flow. To convince them, you must yourself believe.”
Listen: to what you don’t want to hear.
To accelerate through a crisis, leaders can’t manage from a spreadsheet. It’s all about “Zooming around.” Personally, in the early days of the pandemic, I made 50 calls a day to clients and colleagues at all levels—listening twice as much as speaking; not just to hear, but to comprehend.
More than ever, leaders need to listen—and especially to what they do not want to hear.
Although she had been a board member, Carol is the first outsider and the first woman to lead UPS in its 113 years. That prompted her to go on a “listening tour”—originally conceived as traveling the world, visiting plants and package facilities. The pandemic changed all that to a video tour.
“Actually, it was probably better,” Carol said. “It wasn’t such a tour of shaking hands and photos. It was actually conversing and getting to know [people] and listening to what was top of their minds.”
Similarly, John engaged in a “100-day listening and learning tour” to identify three key areas: what Nike absolutely must get right in the next 1-3 years; what it should maintain—the “secret sauce of who we are;” and the two or three things that need to change. After conducting about 150 one-on-one conversations and 30 small group sessions, John did a Zoom call with 25,000 associates on the 100th day when he reported back “here’s what you told me.”
The reset button has been hit. Now, we’re all outsiders. We’re starting from zero. Tomorrow is our first day.
Learn: fail fast, learn faster.
“Never stop learning,” said John. “The more senior you [are], the more you need to learn.”
To learn, leaders must be humble. Those who are humble are probably self-aware—and if they are self-aware, they’re more likely to learn.
It takes mental agility, people agility, change agility, and strategic agility—all of which is learning agility, which Korn Ferry research (based in part on nearly 70 million assessments of professionals) shows is the No. 1 predictor of success.
Lead: being all-in, all the time.
Amid such massive change, leaders can’t just talk about hope—they need to deliver it.
As we were writing Leadership U, I was asked: “Pretend that a leader is about to enter the arena. What advice would you give?”
Instinctively, I said, “It’s not about you. But it starts with you.”
Unless you are a sculptor working alone in your studio, chipping marble or shaping clay, you aren’t a solo performer. Despite all the technological advancements of the past century, one simple fact remains: it’s people who make businesses successful.
I’d like to thank John and Carol for sharing their time and perspectives. And thanks to my colleagues Dennis Baltzley, Global Head of Leadership Development, and Mike Hyter, Chief Diversity Officer, for moderating, and to Jane Stevenson, Vice Chair of Board and CEO Services, for facilitating this conversation.