After Covid:

C-suite executives reflect on an unprecedented crisis, a road to recovery and how they see the future.

Within a few months after the first Covid-19 diagnosis in the US, there were millions of Americans living in some form of lock-down. Now as we brace for a resurgence, a new study, based on more than two dozen in-depth interviews, details the perspectives of global CEO’s and their executive teams.

The Crisis

The North American CEO of a global CPG company recalled a surreal trauma in starkly emotional terms. “What’s keeping me up at night is keeping people safe. I am not a contagious disease expert. Suddenly I am forced to make decisions that are literally life and death.”

For him and many others, the crisis demanded sweeping decisions, on a dime, with few internal sources for expert advice. Intuitively, most executive leaders called on frequent, authentic communications to keep both employees and customers engaged. Many found themselves speaking with raw vulnerability.

The hospitality category was particularly hard hit. One global CEO recorded an all-hands message about furloughs and was brought nearly to tears. Staffers recommended a re-take, but he declined. His emotional message was met with heartfelt approval.

A Tactical Imperative
As one health care CHRO puts it, “the tactics become the strategy.” Like most executive leaders, she “challenges the idea that things need to be perfect.” There is a new expectation of “speed and execution over perfection.”

Many feel this echoes consumer sentiment for whom pragmatic solutions are supplanting more aspirational experiences.

Moving Toward Recovery

Corporate leaders insist that willingness to return to shared spaces like work and public events falls short of the “normalcy” everyone seeks. People are willing to do only what they feel comfortable doing, and that relies heavily on trust – trust that they will be safe, “trust that things are going to be okay.”

Comfort also signals an attitudinal change and a corresponding change for marketers. Product benefits will shift to comfort and trust at the cost of richer experiences. According to one hospitality executive, “People are dying for a getaway, but are likely to make local trips initially, depending on their level of comfort with us.”

Planning Through Uncertainty
The volatility of the post-Covid business landscape drives change in strategic planning – quarterly sales forecasts now subject to monthly or even weekly updates. Assumptions about just-in-time delivery and supply chain management are called into question. For one distributor of health care products, “we got a kick in the back side from our supply partners; we won’t be able to navigate the future with a single point of supply,” she said.

The antidote to business planning disruption is agility. For a health care CEO, “it’s not about what you can predict, it’s about how quickly you adapt.” A London-based management consultant compared the Covid-19 crisis to Brexit in its lack of certainty. He referenced Winston Churchill who spoke of making decisions with imperfect data, “Sometimes people just need a decision.” “That’s insight in leadership,” he concluded.

The post-Covid world will introduce new pain points that will drive innovation. High-touch experiential and luxury retailers may be especially challenged. Covid-19 gave many companies a crash course in remote working. But many, including a financial services executive who is responsible for new product development, remain wary, “We have learned that it is not as hard to supervise people working from home as we thought, but we don’t know what we’re losing in terms of serendipitous collisions of different people with different points of view.”

Still, some industries found a silver lining. Essential retailers kept stores open and many benefitted from Covid-19 sheltering trends. An executive with one of the world’s largest asset managers has been trying to “de-service” their branches for years, “Now, we have accomplished more in the past two months than we did in the previous 10 years,” he observed.

The Next Normal

When asked about the telltales of recovery, executive leaders answer conclusively. It will take a vaccine, widely available and well deployed.

If comfort is the stretch goal for the recovery experience, freedom is how people will find a new normal. For one hospitality CMO, “freedom is the ultimate emotional benefit of recovery.” It’s only when comfort changes to freedom that “people can return to work eagerly, congregate without worry and enjoy life’s pleasures.”

Arguably, management consultants have given the most consideration to business disciplines that will be critical to the next normal. “The single biggest challenge for businesses in the Western world is how we do the jobs of the 21st Century,” one advanced. Another global firm with a robust business transformation offering is actively preparing for increased demand for services such as crisis management and digital transformation.

Some C-suite executives preparing for change will re-architect product portfolios or announce re-orgs that are “long overdue.” For one, “our operations leadership have been in place for a long time. Their approach is far too traditional.” Here, the Covid-19 crisis is both a driver and a rationalization of positive change.

Bold Optimism
Strong, well integrated corporate purposing – like values and guiding principles, which served as helpful beacons during initial recovery steps – surface as critical success factors for the next normal.

A global management consultant referred to the Great Depression, “It was bold inventions that got good momentum. We must proceed with boldness.” Lessons like this empower today’s executive leaders who know they must assertively stake a claim to the future. It’s a mindset of realism, confidence and resilience. As one summarized, “We have a right to operate. The world needs what we have. It is our job to get it there.”