Hitting the Reset Button: CEOs Put 15 Months of Intensive Learning to Work

When we first spoke with more than two dozen CEOs and their closest advisors, it was Spring 2020. The initial shock of COVID-19 still resonated, but they were clear-eyed about their priorities moving forward and spoke of strategies for survival – even growth.

Today, with effective vaccines as a tool to put the pandemic behind them, do those strategies prevail?

In large part, no.

We returned to the same executive panel to ask what they got right, what they misjudged and what leadership means in the future.


Agility Well-timed

In Spring 2020, we asked executive leaders which of more than a dozen management disciplines would become more important in the future because of the COVID crisis.

Almost unanimously, they put Resiliency Planning at the top of the list.

Just over a year later, most C-level respondents reflect with compassion for the pain suffered by many, but take great pride in their organizations’ ability to rise to the challenge – immediately, effectively and practically. No one showed an interest in turning up the dial on Resiliency Planning.

For one CEO, “We were unprepared for a crisis that hit us like a light switch, but we managed.”


COVID-19 forced companies to urgently redeploy resources into an effective response. One business casualty was expected to be innovation.

However, leaders honed their innovation skills by inventing new micro-revenue streams. From a global lodging company promoting local stay-cations and balcony-room packages, to a national hospital reconsidering how existing therapies might help people in quarantine, solutions exemplified timely marketing innovation. Many COVID-inspired solutions will endure.

On his refreshed product portfolio, a B2B technology CMO embraced the outcome. “We were status quo way too long.”


In 2020, leaders spoke of damage control, profound empathy for their employees and how to report to owners and shareholders during a financially disastrous year.

Today, two financial themes indicate more proactive strategies for the future.

First, companies that thrived during the pandemic credited a strong, often conservative “cash-is-king” financial foundation, which enabled them to overcome hurdles like supply chain disruption. The CMO of a national retail chain was not the only respondent who said his company took an opportunity to “double down on growth, through acquisition.”

Second, some vertical industries were disrupted much more than others, real estate being the example cited by most. How real estate space will be used in the future will reconfigure the balance between residential and commercial properties and consequently disrupt pricing, occupancy regulations and the tenant’s power.


If the pandemic created an environment of uncertainty and change, companies found a stabilizing force in their guiding principles – or values.

“Strong guiding principles, long-term planning and a solid cash strategy” were cited by one CEO as reasons why his B2B company survived unscathed.

The managing director of a Chicago-based consultancy focused on his mission to build authentic and mutually supportive relationships. “We were worried that the lack of travel would hurt relationship building, but that has not been the case. We have the same level of referrals, and we’re pleasantly surprised,” he said.

Leading During Transition

“Recovery will not be like flipping a light switch – but that’s what everyone wants,” continued the same respondent who remembered how abruptly his business was thrown into crisis.

Looking forward, most agreed that it would be the end of 2022 before we feel business has completely stabilized.


Marketers wrestle with how to move from “now” to “from now on.” Here are just two examples.

This summer’s exuberant return of pleasure travel is ultimately not enough for any business that relies on travel. The recovery of business travel will be key.

Having experienced the effectiveness of remote meetings, most leaders predict less than full recovery for business travel. Hoteliers are circumspect or say they are more hopeful. For the CMO of a global lodging company, “The first person who loses a deal because he didn’t get on a plane will never do that again.”

Some luxury brands, too, may struggle. The loss of service intimacy and physical touch, a death knell during COVID lockdown, appears to be in full recovery. However, a global retail consultant observes a change in how consumers see luxury goods, after adapting to a year of casual meals and comfortable shoes.

“We have a vague sense of guilt about how much money we spent before – COVID made this very tangible. We may not go back to buying some premium goods, because it is now tinged with regret,” she said.


Respondents were more certain about their own leadership approach during the transition to normalcy.

One global CMO benefitted from a neighborhood group of colleagues who provided mutual support during the pandemic and her take-out highlights the gravity of COVID-19. “No one won. We have to acknowledge that people have been through something major.”

A New York-based retail chain temporarily traded its acerbic tonality for one that is “kinder, friendlier, and more respectful and caring – because people have been through a trauma.”

Another CEO noticed a “leveling effect” in Zoom staff meetings. “Something about a face on a screen – no one had an advantage. It felt less hierarchical.” It is a feeling he hopes will continue.

Finally, the head of a global CPG sales organization committed to “rebuilding” employees. “The best way to get them well is to lean in and be with them in the healing process,” he said. “Remind them anyone can bring leadership, even if they don’t consider themselves leaders. I call it speaking to the giant.”


Leaders are determined to rebuild organizational culture – in some cases an evolved culture informed by valuable lessons learned.

Defined by a global consultant as “the values and norms that attract people and keep them together,” culture is the “who we are” in corporate purposing. He believes that more than one of his financial services clients will hire a Chief Culture Officer and take full responsibility for internal culture build for the first time.

“Our habits have changed many times during COVID,” he said. This makes it important to offer solid ground in the face of tumultuous change.

One executive leader reminds us, “It will take time to rebuild. People need warm-up time.”

Another augments the sentiment, “It’s a re-education process – for both our employees and our customers.”

New Priorities, New Power


Pent up demand prompted many consumers to flood retail and hospitality markets as soon as COVID restrictions were lifted. That caught many businesses unprepared. It takes time to rehire and retrain.

A global hotelier reported, “We had retained about 20% of employees who had Swiss-army-knife skills and a can-do attitude. Now that we can bring more people back, we have lost people to other industries. This gave us a big black eye.”

Employees have new power and a new commitment to return to jobs that meet their individual requirements. Pay scales are already being recalibrated, which disrupts economic models in labor intensive industries. “The bar been seriously raised.”


People are not flooding back into the office.

Staff members insist they are more productive at home and most will resist returning to an office full-time. Time wasted during a long commute may be the ultimate deal-breaker. Multiple leaders documented this mindset with employee surveys.

Executive leaders share a more nuanced view of the work-from-home experiment. Without question, initial productivity levels generated encouragement and relief, as we reported in 2020.

However, for a financial services executive, “Productivity was initially high and is now beginning to drop – people are taking advantage. They are starting to burn out.”

A health care CMO, who made many new hires during COVID lockdown and has still not met them in person, misses face-to-face contact. “Soft types of communication make it easier to build a rapport. We may only bring people back two or three days a week, but one of those days we will all be present.”

A leader responsible for new product development sharpens the point. “Being together – the ability to spontaneously knock around ideas – this is where creativity comes from.”


The work-from-home debate will be resolved in due course. The COVID-19 pandemic forced reconsideration of many more management conventions, which most executive leaders agree was long overdue.

While the pandemic is not over, leaders share a collective optimism as they feel increasingly in control of their fate and their future.

The word “freedom” was used in virtually every conversation.

A CMO of a national hospital was closer to the human reality of the pandemic than many, as she saw her organization migrate through several stages of reinvention to do its part during the crisis, “As we come out the other side, we’re so aware that we have weathered a storm.”

Eager to reset a once conservative corporate mindset, “It makes you proud. It gives you a feeling of confidence. It makes you less risk-averse. It makes you feel bolder.”


Photo: Janice Pedley