COVID-19: Inside the Corner Office

Many corporate CEOs are facing their toughest leadership challenge. Two Korn Ferry veterans on what they’re hearing—and seeing—from the corner office.

Today's remarkably rough times are challenging everyone—including the world's chief executive officers. Since the start of the pandemic, Kevin Cashman, Korn Ferry’s global leader of CEO and executive development, and Jane Stevenson, vice chair of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice, have been talking to this group daily—hearing about their struggles as well as their responses. Here’s an excerpt from a conversation with the two of them.

What are CEOs struggling with the most right now?

Kevin Cashman: In a crisis, “perform” can become “survive,” and that can provoke fear. Many CEOs right now are saying, “I have to act. I have to move forward.” But sometimes the desire to thrive, to transform, requires you to slow down. The more something is complex, the more need to go slow to get it right. The paradox in the crisis is where do you push, where do you pause. You have to do both. 

Jane Stevenson: The fact that you can’t fix so much of what you’re dealing with is really hard for many CEOs. Some CEOs carry these burdens more easily or with less weight than others. Those who take on the challenges without carrying the weight of them personally have more internal space to stay creative. Taking on today’s challenges personally adds enormous emotional weight to an already heavy load. For example, the leader of one major company I work with is doing all the right things, but I worry that it’s almost killing him.

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Cashman: Are CEOs courageous enough to deal with the immediate problems but also courageous enough to do the things that will connect the organization to the future? And that, during a crisis, is one hell of a challenge. You have to be both empathetic and executional. Most of us are typically more one than the other.

How isolated do these CEOs feel?

Stevenson: The round-the-clock nature of this is taxing. The sense of not being in the same place as your team is also isolating. But there’s more interaction than what you’d expect. Because of the nature of this crisis, top competitors are talking with one another more about issues. For example, several CEO clients in the healthcare sector are talking in real time with CEOs of “rivals” on how to fight a common enemy: COVID-19. There’s more collaboration than ever before around “What are you doing on this or that issue?” and “Here’s what we are thinking…” In this sense, for today they’re in it together, despite being competitors.

Do most CEOs have a “we have to survive this” mentality now?

Stevenson: We’re seeing an innate reaction to pull back, but the great leaders are pushing forward.

Cashman: Yes. There’s a big difference between what we’re seeing with CEOs across the bell curve distribution and what we’re seeing with great CEOs. The best leaders are not only connecting across everything they can within their organization to keep people engaged and motivated but also across the industry with collaboration that fits a deeper, broader purpose. Also, in the face of these tough, complex dilemmas, these top CEOs are doing their best to balance empathy and execution across stakeholder groups.

What are the great leaders doing that perhaps other CEOs are not?

Stevenson: In a situation like this where everything feels out of control, there’s an innate move to try to control as much as you can. Just survival can overwhelm you. But some leaders are adapting in the moment and moving forward to new realities even as they address issues like the company’s survival.

For instance, one transportation player has had to retire the vast majority of its fleet and is still dealing with a huge reduction in capacity for the remaining operating segments. So one way to approach this would be to just shore up capital to survive, which is no small issue, and which they are definitely doing. But this CEO is also asking his teams to use technology now to help shift the company for the future. Their approach during the downturn is to look at how they, a sleeping giant, can be ready to come back even stronger in four or five months.

Cashman: It really seems that the CEOs who are truly purpose-driven are thriving a bit more. Take life sciences, where many are seeing their purpose as healing and touching patients. So what are they doing? Collaborating with competitors on treatments, cooperating with governments, even giving supplies away. That’s purpose playing out, and at the same time, creating an environment of global innovation and service.

Purpose can be set aside very easily in a crisis because we have to survive. But we have to remind ourselves that purpose elevates us from survive to thrive. Purpose clearly shows up in world-class leaders in a crisis.

What else are the top leaders exhibiting?

Stevenson: They are defining the firm’s values concisely, so people have the clarity and guidelines to make decisions on their own and quickly. The leaders don’t have time to check in with everyone constantly, so everyone has to know what the values are against which they’re going to operate and make decisions. Those values aren’t inconsistent with the firm’s normal purpose and values, but firms haven’t always defined them well in the first place.

For instance, one CEO says, “Our first priority is the safety of employees. The second priority is to use every available opportunity to add unique value to our customers, building brand loyalty during this time. And the third priority is to use these opportunities to learn and develop as we go.” That gives all of her employees the ability to operate with confidence and purpose for decision-making. It doesn’t change the amount of risk there is in the world, but it does provide clarity and clear accountabilities as employees move the business forward with agility.

Cashman: They are showing resilience. I asked one CEO recently “how are you doing?” and was ready for some pretty tough stuff and then to empathize with him. He said, “I hesitate to say it, but I’m really energized by all these challenges.” This situation will drain every bit of energy that most of us have. To be resilient and, as Jane says, to elevate in this situation is huge.

What type of guidance are you providing during this crisis?

Stevenson: Honestly, rather than providing answers, I am being more of a thought partner and asking questions that may open up thinking. I remind them that human nature is driven by gravity and right now it is pulling us down. So this concept of elevation and really getting above the tactics of the essential minute-to-minute firefighting is really critical. I also want the CEO to, instead of pulling back, really look at the most pivotal points that will make a difference. That’s even more important for the organization than it is to the CEO. If the CEO can focus on the key priorities, then the organization can harness its energy around the right things and not feel like it has to tackle everything.

Cashman: All of these conversations start personal, no matter what their role is, and then move to professional and all of the complexities. With CEOs, you want to give them a place to think out loud and sort through things.             

Have CEOs done anything that has surprised you?

Stevenson: One of things that has helped is to maintain a sense of humor, even during this very serious time. One of the people we’re coaching oversees a huge global business that has seen its sales drop by billions in a few months. She is a results-focused leader with a keen awareness of the global gravity of their situation, including a huge number of employees on the front lines daily. Despite that, every day when she has a video call with her top team, she places something totally ridiculous somewhere in the background behind her. The day I saw her, she had stuck a huge British saluting gnome right behind her and started the meeting as if nothing was out of the norm. It was hilarious! I laugh just thinking about it! She is doing something different like that every day and, despite grim realities, her team is looking forward to seeing what she’s going to do next. Silly, corny things like that can bring people to a common sense of reality. Having the emotional intelligence to know when and how to do that is really significant.