5 Lessons the Pandemic Has Taught the C-Suite

May 2021
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Even the most veteran communicators could not have predicted the devastating effects of 2020’s crisis trifecta: the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic free fall and demonstrations in the streets for racial justice. A year later, business leaders still anxiously await the return of some sense of normalcy. 

While counseling more than 100 C-suite executives on a variety of crisis-related situations over the past year, I’ve made the following observations:

The pandemic hasn’t turned CEOs into crisis experts.

As the initial shock of the coronavirus outbreak waned, some CEOs began to fancy themselves as crisis experts. True, these executives have been on the front lines — leading teams, making decisions, hiring cleaning crews and sanitation experts, handling employee furloughs, changing operational policies to meet state and federal guidelines, communicating with clients.

But CEOs who suddenly saw themselves as crisis experts failed to note that the pandemic has impacted everyone in the world. Lackluster executive performances were sometimes overlooked in the short-lived “We’re all in this together” camaraderie bubble.

Secondary crises have become worse than usual.

When faced with secondary crises during the pandemic, CEOs have found it difficult to mobilize their already overburdened crisis teams and take swift action. No longer sharing a common experience, teams managing crises secondary to the coronavirus have been on their own. Such crises are harder to manage amid the unresolved primary crisis.

Crisis planning has increased.

Many executives who previously had not deemed crisis planning a priority — saying it doesn’t generate revenue quickly — pivoted after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Business leaders began to assess risks and plan for crises. They examined potential worst-case scenarios, including their own mortality and their companies’ succession plans.

Zoom has torn down walls.

With many employees working from home during the coronavirus shutdowns, the corner offices and boardrooms that once separated C-suites from rank-and-file workers have disappeared, at least for now. Videoconferencing, dominated by Zoom, has given employees greater access to their organizations’ leaders.

Through live-video connections, workers have even caught glimpses of their managers’ personal lives — including the good, the bad and sometimes, the inappropriate. For their part, many leaders have learned to harness the power of videoconferencing to manage work-from-home challenges and shuttered office locations.

Companies have innovated and reinvented themselves.

During the pandemic, many companies have been forced to pivot or reinvent themselves. Corporate communicators and CEOs have researched and embraced new technologies, especially those that disseminate messages to the broadest number of stakeholders in the shortest amount of time.

To deliver news quickly, one client of mine has created its own, in-house production studio. Another client couldn’t find hand-sanitizer stations for its manufacturing facility, so it made its own instead, relying on in-house chemists who held an employee contest to see who could produce the best product. 

The pandemic has humbled CEOs.

As children, many of us learned railroad safety with three easy words: Stop, look and listen. This advice also applies to what the pandemic has taught us. We have gained a new desire to stop, step back and spend more time thinking and learning. Leaders now realize they need to maintain a work/life balance for themselves and for their employees — and to help everyone be happier at home and at work. 

Perhaps most important during the last tumultuous year, a deeper sense of humility has emerged from CEOs. They have been working to address their blind spots, including building stronger programs for diversity, equity and inclusion, and for corporate social responsibility. 

I’m pleased to observe that despite the unrelenting burden of uncertainty the world has endured over the past year, the values of transparency, accessibility and authenticity are thriving in companies across the country. These principles will continue to serve the C-suite well.  

Return to Current Issue Crisis Management: Expecting the Unexpected | May 2021
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