[MCKinsey] The CEO moment: Leadership for a new era

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On this subject here is an article about the CEO role: 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.

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.”

CEOs are recognizing that the barriers to boldness and speed are less about technical limits and more about such things as mindsets toward what is possible, what people are willing to do, the degree to which implicit or explicit polices that slow things down can be challenged, and bureaucratic chains of command.

Realizing this, CEOs are appropriately celebrating the magnitude of what their organizations have achieved and considering how to stretch for more. Michael Fisher, CEO of CCMHC, thinks that going forward telehealth will account for up to 50 percent of visits in certain ambulatory settings, and perhaps 30 percent of visits overall. Before COVID-19, less than 1 percent of visits were telehealth. Says Fisher, “I keep pushing myself and our team to think about how we use this inflection point to reimagine our potential together, as opposed to allowing our organization to just go back to the comfort of ‘Let’s do what we’re doing.’”

Research by our colleagues in McKinsey’s Strategy and Corporate Finance Practice has long shown that CEOs making bold moves is vital to achieving outstanding performance, which itself is elusive—only one in 12 companies goes from being an average performer to a top-quintile performer over a ten-year period. Making one or two bold moves more than doubles the likelihood of making such a shift; making three or more makes it six times more likely. Our research has also shown that CEOs who are hired externally tend to move with more boldness and speed than those hired within an organization, partly because of the social pressures that constrain internally promoted CEOs. As a result, we often advise CEOs who are promoted from within to ask themselves the question that famously prompted Andy Grove and Gordon Moore to focus Intel on microprocessors: “What would an outsider do?” Given the performance we have seen during the pandemic, we would now encourage CEOs to ask themselves and their teams a follow-on question: “What would your COVID-19 answer be?” The power that these frames of reference hold, to reimagine the possible and recalibrate what can be achieved, is profound.

Other questions for CEOs to reflect on to help calibrate their aspirations include:

  1. Where should we be aspiring 10x higher and/or 10x faster?
  2. What beliefs or long-held assumptions do I need to explicitly reset in the organization and with stakeholders to achieve this?
  3. What do we say no to, or stop doing, to create the additional space to go bigger and faster?

Zero-base how work gets done

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One Response

  1. nimabi November 30, 2023

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