How has the role of the CEO evolved post-COVID?

Stephen Phipps our consultant managing the role
Posting date: 29 June 2023

The pandemic, with all its challenges and adaptations, is thankfully behind us. It’s time for leaders to pivot once again, this time to one that is more focused on results and more questioning of senior management. 


That’s not to say we should lose all empathy, but CEOs, in this climate now more than ever, have a pivotal role to play in driving their business forward and shaping the future of their organisations. Many CEOs I’ve spoken to are understandably and consciously taking a more performance focused stance, and it’s one that I believe all leaders should take.


A recent PwC survey shows that nearly 40% of CEOs don’t think their companies will be economically viable a decade from now if they continue on their current path. That stat alone shows that change is due. The same report also says that CEOs, “are taking actions to spur revenue growth and cut costs, without delaying strategic M&A initiatives. Interestingly, although 52% of CEOs say they have already begun cutting costs, just 19% are implementing hiring freezes, and 16% are reducing the size of their workforce.”


Delivering results, whether financial or otherwise, has to be a CEO’s focus, and to do that in our current climate means placing a greater focus on individual and collective performance than you may have (understandably) done over the last couple of years.

From empathy to expectation

In the past few years, a concept dubbed "COVID empathy" emerged, under which CEOs exhibited a softer, more understanding leadership style. This new style (because it was a pretty big pivot for most global CEOs) was about ensuring employee engagement and happiness, providing the right support and politely implementing change. 


This more empathetic approach was a necessity, allowing companies to navigate an entirely uncharted and turbulent business landscape. But in a sense, it was the tail wagging the dog, and there’s been a slight hangover from that even though we’re now free of COVID restrictions and everything they entailed.


But it’s my hope that the tables are turning. I’ve seen that CEOs are becoming more data and results-focused, their expectations ramping up on multiple fronts. Office visibility, client activity, financial results – the intensity dial seems to be turning back up after being relatively low over the past three years. I’m sure that this shift reflects not just the waning of COVID, but also the overall state of our economy and the tightening labour market - figures show that the UK hiring rate decreased by 34% between March 2022 and March 2023.

Reclaiming control & delivering results

The markets are challenging, with increased cost-cutting and pressure to deliver financial results - and leaders seem to be getting ‘compassion fatigue’ and feeling the need to lead and steer the business in a different way. 


The 'new normal' isn’t just about adjusting to a post-COVID world, but also adapting to evolving economic realities. The fear of losing talent has diminished as job availability has decreased, and this is also contributing to this shift in leadership style.


The result is a highly pressurised environment in which demand is far higher than ever before, even compared to the pre-COVID era. Companies are pushing hard, even encouraging (or telling) employees who were hired remotely to come into the office. And with greater expectations comes greater accountability.


One example of this is from BlackRock CEO, Larry Fink, who has claimed that a decrease in productivity at the firm is due to remote work, and he wants employees back in the office to address this problem. Another is Google, whose CEO, Sundar Pichai, told employees that if better results weren’t delivered, there’d be layoffs - and lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened.  

Time to deliver

Where once businesses were treading on eggshells, now the message is clear: people have to deliver. This might seem like a pendulum swing from drastically empathic to drastically directive but I believe it will settle. 


This is having an influence on leader leverage and potentially salary, and working flexibility demands.


And while some might view this as an unfavourable change, it’s necessary for businesses to thrive in today's competitive markets. 

The changing employee experience

The workplace experience is undoubtedly evolving. Research suggests that many employees see positive effects from remote work and are more engaged in such roles. As a CEO, your remit lies in striking a balance between harnessing these positives while also overcoming the challenges of a remote working environment, such as improving connectivity, developing skills and having the visibility you need to define your next set of leaders. Plus, of course, if productivity uptake is a by-product, no one will complain.


Moreover, the notion of flexibility and remote work can coexist in this high-expectation environment. The key lies in thoughtful and purposeful management, clear communication of expectations and instilling a sense of responsibility and accountability in your employees.


As we navigate this shift, remember that being demanding does not mean being uncompassionate. It’s about fostering a culture of resilience and high performance while respecting individual needs and wellbeing. 


With the right balance, we can drive our organisations to new heights and carve out a successful path in the ever-evolving business landscape.


Interested in chatting through your approach to senior leadership in the current climate and how I could support you? Contact me directly and let’s set aside time for a call.

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