The challenges of becoming a CEO in a crisis

Compassion, passion and communication are the three critical skills newly appointed chief executives believe are key

Leading a business is challenging enough for any chief executive (CEO), but taking the reins of an organisation during the coronavirus pandemic makes it more difficult than most business challenges. 

“At that level, you’ve already had a significant amount of pressure on you,” says Jane Walsh, CEO of SEEN Group, a specialist beauty agency, since November 2020. “But you usually go into a CEO role wanting to tell the business how you want to run it. Here, with furlough and other things, society was telling us how to run the business.”

Stan Pavlovsky, who became CEO of media library Shutterstock in April 2020, agrees. “Immediately we had to prepare for some seismic shifts,” he says. “You look at your business, and travel and advertising go away just overnight. Everything was cancelled, impacting our editorial coverage. Companies were scrambling and reducing their marketing budgets.” Pavlovsky recognised they needed to adjust the business.

Resizing businesses during the pandemic

Shutterstock launched several new subscription products for smaller businesses, reflecting the shift in advertising and marketing needs, and that big-budget investments were unlikely. Businesses knew they needed to cut their cloth differently and the companies serving them recognised this too. 

The company also took stock of what separated them from competitors and how they could help businesses do things they couldn’t otherwise because of restrictions around the pandemic. They began refreshing how they presented their pre-packaged editorial content, as clients would still need stock footage for advertising campaigns, but couldn’t necessarily produce it themselves.

But it wasn’t just their business offer that companies changed during the pandemic. How they transacted business and how they kept their own firms running was also different. Pavlovsky worried that working from home would be a strain for employees and could negatively impact the company. He took the decision to proactively over-communicate with employees. “We tried to put people at ease,” he says. 

Walsh concurs. “When the pandemic hit, I felt there was only really one way to navigate it, which was to completely over-communicate,” she says. Employees, worried for their future, needed clear messaging: something all CEOs can carry forward regardless of global events.

Enacting your vision of the company

It is a common trait for incoming CEOs to want to put their imprint on an organisation when they arrive in the C-suite. “I’m 33 and have a perspective that I want to break all the accepted wisdom down,” says Sam Hawkey, who became CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi in June 2020. 

Perversely, the outside issues brought by the pandemic made that job easier. “People talked a lot about how things were changing and this ‘new normal’,” he says. “Because of that, everyone knew stuff had to change. In chaos there’s always opportunity.”

Hawkey used the challenges brought about by COVID as an opportunity to justify his more radical decisions for the firm. The company saw a 12 per cent drop in revenue in 2020. Normally, that would be a brake on any big decisions to rethink the company, but this time it allowed him to accelerate changes.

Others found the pandemic more of a challenge to their efforts to recast firms in their image. “My vision for the company was to become much more ingrained in the workflow of our customers,” says Pavlovsky. But the first three months of the pandemic, and the first few months of his time in charge, were instead spent settling employees and listening to their concerns.

Keeping employee communication open

The shift to digital working was eased by Pavlovsky’s experience as chief operating officer at Shutterstock and the firm’s global outlook. “Our employees are used to seeing me on video, even before the pandemic,” he says. Video calls therefore aren’t unusual. He did, however, have to cut back on plans to visit every Shutterstock office in the first year of his tenure. “I like to learn from employees face to face,” he says. “That’s been a lot harder, for sure.” 

At Saatchi & Saatchi, Hawkey would have expected to see 100 employees a day, saying hello and picking up their general attitudes to work and the business. “Without that touch, you lose any sense of how the business is feeling,” he says.

In its place, firms sought much more proactive pursuit of employee feedback, actively courting their opinions to raise any concerns before they became a larger issue. “Whether it’s a pandemic or not, stakeholders in the business need that anyway,” says SEEN Group’s Walsh. It’s also important to be honest with the workforce about uncertainty. 

“Communication is so critical,” says Walsh. “The change which the pandemic forced is the need to be way more transparent.” She instigated weekly town hall meetings, giving key business updates. 

It was also important to set expectations around work, something that, as we rebound from the pandemic into a recession and people feel more uncertain in their jobs as competition increases, is more important than ever. 

Through the quest for employee feedback, Hawkey realised the danger of staff burnout during lockdown: “They end up working and working.” But he remains optimistic. “My mum taught me two things,” he says. “You make your own luck and, if you’re a positive person, you get 10 to 15 per cent more out of yourself and those around you.”

Walsh concludes: “Right now it’s about survival and team protection.”