August 16, 2021

Two Observations from CEOs About Leading in the Pandemic

Executive Director

One of the perks of my job is that I get to talk a lot with people from employee-owned companies, and I have noticed two themes in my conversations with CEOs around the country in recent weeks.

Theme 1: Tolerance for Uncertainty Has Almost Disappeared

Since March 2020, people have been living with high levels of uncertainty. That is inherently difficult, but most people have been managing. In just the last several weeks, however, people have been increasingly stretched past their tolerance. That’s partly because many started to let their guard down as we all saw a wave of vaccinations, positive trends, and encouraging words from local and national leaders. It’s also because companies’ future performance is less predictable now than ever for a variety of big-trend reasons: difficulties with supply chains and recruiting new employees add stress to companies’ ability to manage day-to-day, and the 2018 reduction in corporate tax rates and the forgiveness of PPP loans both confuse valuation trends.

One CEO I spoke with said that “people are simply less tolerant of change,” and as a result, that company is consciously taking steps to reduce the chance of having to revise its plans by making more conservative decisions. For example, even if a September date for returning to offices seems possible, the company might choose an October date to minimize the chance that it would need to backtrack.

Other companies are trying to reduce the feeling of an uncertain future by shifting rewards from the future to the present. Rather than an annual profit sharing, for example, they may be shifting to monthly or quarterly.

Theme 2: Disruptive Times Are Fertile Grounds for Investments in Training and Leadership Development

A period of economic turbulence is not what first comes to mind when most people think of the right time to do training, but I’ve talked with a number of CEOs whose companies have increased their investment in training since last March.

For some of them, that investment is driven by the observation that being overworked is an obvious source of stress, but so is not being confident that there is enough work to do. They aimed to fill what would otherwise be slow work hours or layoffs by making training and job development more available. Others found that the pandemic led them to promote newer staff more quickly than they otherwise would have, and they have offered training to help the newly promoted succeed. The most essential ingredient for successful training is people who want to be trained, and the opportunities caused by economic change give people a compelling reason to want training.

Some NCEO member companies have found that Manufacturing Extension Partnership programs offer a broad range of training, and that such programs are not limited to manufacturing companies. Others are in states where the government subsidizes worker training programs, and still others have used coaches, industrial psychologists, or training/ leadership development experts who are in the field of employee ownership (see our Service Provider Directory). Some CEOs are focusing on their own training through the ESOP program for CEOs at the University of Pennsylvania.

Several CEOs raised two concerns about training. The first is that training should intentionally extend not just to senior managers or people learning job skills but also to the middle managers and supervisors who have faced some of the greatest adjustments during the pandemic—adjusting to new requirements, remote work, and disruption.

The second theme is that a common failure of training programs is, in the words of one CEO, “we head people in a direction, then it loses steam, and then we start a different direction.” Another advocated making a four-year commitment to a training approach. An explicit commitment helps alleviate employees’ disappearing tolerance for uncertainty, and it also makes it easier for the training to be a coherent part of the company’s operations—it can be integrated with job descriptions, performance evaluations, and company-wide strategic goals.

The CEO Networking Roundtable

This post was inspired in part by conversations taking place in the NCEO’s CEO Networking Roundtable. This network is different from other events for CEOs because (a) it has no guests—only the NCEO, a facilitator, and the participants are present; (b) it is a small group that meets repeatedly to build trust and familiarity; and (c) the agenda is set by collaboration between the NCEO and the group members. The next cohort will begin meeting in late 2021.

We will be hosting an introductory roundtable on September 15 as part of our Fall Forum. If you would like to be informed about future meetings of the CEO Networking Roundtable, please indicate your interest by using this form.