A CEO’s job – mission impossible?

The role of CEO is anything but easy. But that’s the way that it’s supposed to be. After all, the CEO assumes responsibility for the entire company and workforce. Nonetheless: The pressure being placed on the man or woman at the top of a company have never been so high.

Innovation cycles are becoming shorter and have put a complete end to long-range business planning. Any top executive who is determined to keep up with the times has to anticipate developments and make fast decisions. Once made, these decisions are then publicly ripped to shreds. In the face of a relentlessly revolving news cycle, CEOs live their lives in the glare of a perpetual spotlight. The corona crisis has intensified this trend even further. The current economic environment has never been so unsettled. At the same time, CEOs are expected to do no less than set a clear course that will lead their companies through these perilous waters. Far-reaching decisions can easily become matters of life and death that determine the fate of the executives who make them.

One question emerges from all this confusion: Is a CEO’s job a mission impossible?

It may sound paradoxical. But the answer to this question is to be found in the very crisis we are facing today. In unstable times, employees first look to the executive ranks for guidance. During the global financial crisis of 2008/2009, decision makers let their silence do the talking for them. By contrast, many of today’s CEOs have decided to play a much more constructive role. They are seizing the opportunity, positioning their companies as part of the solution, and shaping their own future in the process.

Test capacities have been made available. Productions have been converted to making disinfectants and personal protective equipment, and products have been donated. And, not least of all, many CEOs have forgone or donated a significant amount of their own salaries. The interim results are quite clear: The image of many CEOs improved tremendously at the beginning of the global pandemic.

From admiral to skipper – how to pull off the role change

Nevertheless, the situation remains extremely fragile. All it takes is a careless remark, a lack of sensitivity for the needs of stakeholders or an unpopular decision to put a CEO in scoldingly hot water. If CEOs have any intention of holding onto this newly won freedom in the future, they will have to defend it and adapt their role to the new situation.

The times in which CEOs acted like admirals on the bridge who largely made every decision themselves and led by issuing orders are gone. Today, CEOs should view their roles rather as skippers of a sailing boat – as a member of a strong team who will pitch in and help hoist the sails. The skipper CEO has three chief characteristics.

  • The human CEO! The polish has largely worn off the image of the unerring, all-knowing CEO in recent months. And it is a welcome development because this image had little to do with reality anyway. Acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses. You do not have to do everything yourself. You simply have to have the right experts in your team. This will also require members of management boards to think increasingly in terms of teamwork. And: You should be approachable as an executive. During the corona crisis, many CEOs have revealed their personal side and used digital communication platforms to reach stakeholders directly and immediately. In video conferences, interviews and blog posts, they have shared their very own personal corona experiences – frequently from their home offices. This has made them feel like real members of the team.
  • The entrepreneurial CEO! The economy will remain volatile for the foreseeable future, and the course of the corona pandemic is unpredictable. It is a situation that will require fast, bold decisions – there is no time for exhaustive analysis. You will succeed in your job only if you take a flexible approach to the leadership of your company. Anyone who makes fast decisions will naturally also make faster mistakes. But people will accept these mistakes if they are part of a clear leadership approach – it is better to make fast, bold decisions and to correct them just as quickly than to wait much too long.
  • The respectable CEO! After the corona crisis, entrepreneurial activity will be measured more than ever before by social values. Corona has moved collective thinking back onto center stage. Once the crisis ends, the underlying principle will be to increasingly assume responsibility for one another and society as a whole. As a CEO, you have to be a role model and act this way: The question about a company’s contribution to society can no longer remain unanswered.

The daily life of the CEO will be permanently changed by the crisis. You should seize the new opportunities being created by direct communications and the role of your company as a member of something larger: a historic chance to actively shape your own role and gain more decision-making freedom.

For further information contact Raphael Eisenmann or Dr. Julia Caspers.