Here is an excerpt from an article written by Carolyn Dewar, Scott Keller, Kevin Sneader, and Kurt Strovink for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.
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COVID-19 has created a massive humanitarian challenge: millions ill and hundreds of thousands of lives lost; soaring unemployment rates in the world’s most robust economies; food banks stretched beyond capacity; governments straining to deliver critical services. The pandemic is also a challenge for businesses—and their CEOs—unlike any they have ever faced, forcing an abrupt dislocation of how employees work, how customers behave, how supply chains function, and even what ultimately constitutes business performance.
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Confronting this unique moment, CEOs have shifted how they lead in expedient and ingenious ways. The changes may have been birthed of necessity, but they have great potential beyond this crisis. In this article, we explore four shifts in how CEOs are leading that are also better ways to lead a company: unlocking bolder (“10x”) aspirations, elevating their “to be” list to the same level as “to do” in their operating models, fully embracing stakeholder capitalism, and harnessing the full power of their CEO peer networks. If they become permanent, these shifts hold the potential to thoroughly recalibrate the organization and how it operates, the company’s performance potential, and its relationship to critical constituents.
Only CEOs can decide whether to continue leading in these new ways, and in so doing seize a once-in-a-generation opportunity to consciously evolve the very nature and impact of their role. Indeed, as we have written elsewhere, part of the role of the CEO is to serve as a chief calibrator—deciding the extent and degree of change needed. As part of this, CEOs must have a thesis of transformation that works in their company context. A good CEO is always scanning for signals and helping the organization deliver fine-tuned responses. A great CEO will see that this moment is a unique opportunity for self-calibration, with profound implications for the organization.
We have spoken with and counseled hundreds of CEOs since the pandemic first hit. It is clear to us that they sense an opportunity to lead in a new, more positive and impactful way. If a critical mass of CEOs embraces and extends what they have learned during the pandemic, this CEO moment could become a CEO movement—one that is profoundly positive for the achievement of corporate, human, and societal potential. As Rajnish Kumar, chairman of the State Bank of India, reflects, “This will be a true inflection point. I think that this pandemic, in terms of implications, will be as big an event as World War II. And whatever we learn through this process, it must not go to waste.”
Aspire 10x higher
The global health crisis and its resulting business dislocations have unlocked change at a pace and magnitude that has made even the boldest and most progressive of CEOs question their assumptions. From what we have observed, there are at least two related areas that are ripe for innovation: goal setting and the operating model.
Think bigger and faster
During the pandemic, many organizations have accomplished what had previously been thought impossible. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC), for example, scheduled 2,000 telehealth visits in 2019. It is now handling 5,000 a week—a goal that, prior to the pandemic, it had estimated would be accomplished several years from now and only after a large-scale transformation. At Dubai-based Majid Al Futtaim (MAF), attendance at movie theaters fell (as a result of government-mandated closures) while demand for its online supermarket soared; in two days, the company retrained 1,000 ushers and ticket sellers to work for the online grocer. Without the crisis, that speed and magnitude of reskilling to leverage talent across MAF’s portfolio of companies would never have been contemplated. Best Buy, which had spent months testing curbside pickup at a handful of stores, rolled it out to every store in just two days. In four days, Unilever converted factory lines that were making deodorants into ones making hand sanitizer. Life insurers have wrestled ingeniously with a unique COVID-19-related problem, says Jennifer Fitzgerald, CEO of Policygenius, an online insurance broker: “Some consumers don’t want the examiner in their house. We’ve seen a lot of flexibility from carriers. Some have moved quickly on the electronic medical-record side. We’ve also seen carriers increase the face amount that they’re willing to underwrite using data instead of the medical exam. . . . Overall, I think this has pushed the industry to adopt some changes much more quickly than it otherwise would have.” In a week, companies went from having 100,000 people working in offices to having 100,000 people working from home—a shift requiring systems and policy transformation that under normal circumstances might have taken years.
Of course, the unprecedented scale and speed of the pandemic have created “burning platform” impetus for these feats, but it is still remarkable that organizations have been able to make it happen. These achievements have come partly from people working faster and harder, although this is not the whole story, and many CEOs are taking the long-term view. Says Guardian CEO Deanna Mulligan, “We’ve been worried about our broader team in general because they’ve been working very hard. We’ve found that people are substituting their commuting time with working. Our IT guys are telling us that they’re getting three extra hours a day out of the coders. We’re mandating across the whole company that they can’t work after a certain hour at night or that they have to take vacation because nobody’s taking their vacation days; they don’t want to waste their time off hanging around at home. But it’s going to be this way for a while, and we don’t want them to go a whole year working at this pace without a break.”
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.
Carolyn Dewar is a senior partner in McKinsey’s San Francisco office, Scott Keller is a senior partner in the Southern California office, Kevin Sneader is McKinsey’s global managing partner and is based in the Hong Kong office, and Kurt Strovink is a senior partner in the New York office.
The authors wish to thank Monica Murarka for her contributions to this article.