CEO/MD Forum | Virtual Meet-Up

13th April 2020

Founders Keepers hosted a CEO/MD Forum on Tuesday 7th April, bringing together a diverse range of exceptional, cross-sector business leaders. We focused on the immediate thoughts, lessons, reflections and advice participants could share on how they and their teams had reacted to the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis.

The key takeaways from our conversation (conducted under Chatham House Rules), which featured leaders from public, Private, Private Equity and Venture Capital-backed businesses from across the world, including Xero, Pets at Home and Impossible Foods amongst others, are summarized below.

Above all, look after your people. Leaders won’t be remembered for the actions they take, but how they took them.

Forum participants were unanimous on this point, citing the short and long-term impacts of falling short of staff expectations on doing the right thing, from morale maintenance to post-Corona staff retention. Nobody will be on the fence on their company’s leadership at the other end of this crisis.

  • The worst decision is the one you don’t take. It’s crucial to have a clear framework in place now for decision making, never compromising on your company’s purpose or principles for a quicker fix.
  • Most important thing right now is to be incredibly kind, and that has to start at the top. The people you currently have are the ones who are going to keep you going. They will be the ones who judge you at the end, with the best companies retaining the best talent by treating them in the right way.
  • Small gestures make big differences. People are currently worried about all manner of things, large and small. Providing free refreshments and informal virtual meetings may seem small gestures, but in the current climate, means the world to exceptionally stressed people.
  • Leading from the front. This is crucial, be it a salary sacrifice or daily check in with staff at all levels. Staff are looking for leaders they feel are in the trenches with them.

Every member of the group raised the need to deeply focus on keeping their teams safe, healthy and motivated, with commercial goals a necessary – if counter intuitive – immediate-term irrelevance.

  • The immediate role of leaders is to be human. “How are you feeling?” is the only real question leaders should be focusing on currently. Staff balancing work, children and/or elderly relatives cannot be expected to deliver to the same capacity with so many equally important priorities to manage. Empathy is required.
  • Make space for emotion across the business. Some businesses are hosting short daily broadcasts in which teams thank each other for work they’ve done. In a world of negativity, it’s crucial to create space to celebrate amazing contributions colleagues are making.
  • Leadership is a team sport. There is massive benefit in devolving communications to other leaders in the senior management team. No single individual could take this on alone for a sustained period.
  • Get your teams off their screens. With meetings now all video-based, staff are spending entire days in front of screens. This amount of screen time is detrimental to physical and mental health. One Forum participant flagged that their Global CEO sent a company-wide message banning video calls from noon-1:30pm every day, recommending people step away from their desks for some exercise or fresh air.

Communication strategy was a central feature of the Forum’s discussion. All agreed that regular contact across the company reassured colleagues now working remotely. There were various views on frequency, time management and, should the lockdown continue, whether businesses should evolve their strategy for fear of communication fatigue.

  • Sometimes, just being present is enough. Staff are looking for connectivity to the business. Several CEOs and MDs in the Forum are holding open sessions with no specific agenda every week, simply to allow colleagues to engage should they wish.
  • For some, lockdown is months in. International offices in Asia have been locked down since February, with many colleagues frankly sick of speaking about Covid-19. With the news agenda also roadblocked with Coronavirus coverage, some leaders are now being less explicit on virus-related communications.
  • “Command and control” leadership may be required. Leaders who have built their leadership around empowering others to take big decisions are now adopting a more top-down approach, observing that, though they may not wish to admit it, many colleagues are looking for the comfort of being told what to do.

 Everything will change. What comes next?

In closing, I asked the Forum how they were gearing up for the – hopefully soon – end of the Coronavirus crisis.

  • Survive, survive, survive: A leader’s first priority is to keep their business alive, with one eye on making sure they aren’t left a zombie business at the end of the crisis.
  • There will be an austerity impact. Most companies will come out with liabilities to pay they hadn’t forecast.
  • Flexible working will continue. Now we have seen company’s capacity to work remotely, work practices will evolve, with flexible workspaces likely more appealing.

 

The FK Forums are global meetings for senior leaders of the world’s most dynamic businesses, across every asset class, sector and geography.

If you would like to join the CEO/MD Forum or learn more, please don’t hesitate to contact Stephen on Stephen@FoundersKeepers.co or +44 7725 144 124.

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