Chief People Officer Forum | Lessons Learned in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Chief People Officer Forum | Lessons Learned in the COVID-19 Pandemic

“In a pandemic, a chief people officer can make or break a company” The Economist, 26th March 2020. A week prior to this article we launched the FK CPO Forum, inviting a diverse range of Chief People Officers across our community to come together in virtual sessions to share, to listen and to provide support to one another.

The impact of Covid-19 has been described in many different ways: a “pandemic”, a “global crisis”, “The Black Swan of 2020”. Schools have been closed, lockdown implemented and life as we know it has changed dramatically. How it is impacting our people and how we navigate through it is something every business in our network is trying to understand.

The FK CPO Forum is a curated community that operates on an invitation only basis and meets weekly under Chatham House Rules. Our community invites executive people leaders from Public, Private, Venture-Capital and Private-Equity backed businesses, that span multiple sectors and range in size, from those with 100 people to those with hundreds of thousands of people.

The good news:

Good hiring is paying off.

As people have come under pressure recruitment strategies and hiring decisions are being put to the test. “I’ve realised how lucky I am to be supported by such a wonderful team – we hired right!” said one leader. If you take a look at your people right now, you will learn a lot about your People and culture priorities.

We are all modern now!

Resistance to flexible and remote working has been huge in many businesses and yet overnight it has become standard practice. Teams are proving themselves to be incredibly adaptable and things that people previously said couldn’t be done are now being done.

Lessons learned so far by our CPO community:

Dear Business Leaders….

“Put your own oxygen mask on first”

These are challenging times for everyone and the message coming through loud and clear is that everyone is looking to the top. To manage this, it is essential that leaders look after themselves.

We must lead our people with empathy and kindness, but this also applies to us. Don’t forget to check in on each other – “how are you?” is a question that executives also like to answer!

“Being honest and showing vulnerability is a good thing”

Showing vulnerability and admitting we too find things difficult, gives permission for others to speak freely about how they’re feeling. People need to feel safe to open up, leaders need to lead by example here.

Communicate and listen

“Communication needs to be managed centrally but tailored locally”

Managing communication needs to start centrally, with company values and purpose being clearer than ever. In one business the CEO records weekly videos, whilst their central internal engagement and comms teams post updates daily – everything is done digitally. People can handle a lot (good or bad) if they are prepared and know what’s happening.

Lots of signposting and sharing of what’s new, what’s happening. Make everything super clear. In one business they have moved some people from HR to help with comms.

“If people aren’t performing well it’s usually because they don’t know what they’re doing”

Focus needs to be communicated clearly. People like direction right now and are appreciating directive and prescriptive communication. This may involve having to adjust your style.

“The answers are out there, if we listen.”

Effective communication is critical right now, but so is listening. Don’t underestimate its importance.

Having some sort of gauge/feedback loop/sentiment tracker crucial. Some companies are using surveys, some are using software such as Peakon, and some are doing simple things like updating communication channel statuses with emojis. However you do it, having up to date employee feedback and insights is invaluable. This also applies to customers, investors and other external stakeholders.

Let your people shine!

“Ask people for their ideas first – you’ll be amazed how creative people are”

Give people a chance to feel they’ve had a say in a situation/solution. To keep up morale and motivation, people need to feel connected, heard and to have a purpose

“How we support and provide for our people must be personalised.”

Covid-19’s is affecting us all, but how it’s impacting us is different for everyone. Give people the freedom and trust to work out what works best for them. And track their output not their hours.

One company has allowed all parents in their organisation to reduce their hours by 25% without any reduction in pay. Furthermore, giving them the option to take additional unpaid time off to ease the strain at home.

Some companies are running incentives to encourage employees to take their holiday. “Getting through this crisis is a marathon not a sprint”–juggling personal and professional demands is causing stress and anxiety for many and burnout is a real risk.

“Move people around. Give people a shot/chance to do something new”

For many leaders redistributing work is proving a hit. Empowering people to discover new strengths has not only helped with redundancies and furlough, but it has also improved motivation, engagement and morale for individuals and across teams.

One company has attributed a programme manager dedicated to helping the group coordinate this. Others have created a business “to do list” and asked people to volunteer themselves.

Furlough and hiring have been big topics, to the extent we will be doing additional focus sessions on them. Summaries of these will follow separately.


Sim Lamb is a Partner at Founders Keepers and the facilitator of the FK CPO Forum, a diverse global community for world leading executive people leaders.

If you would like to join the CPO forum or learn more, please contact Sim on or +44 7415 146 917.