Jan 13, 2021 - Economy & Business

The age of wartime CEOs

Illustration of a suited CEO with military stars on their shoulders

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

In the last year, Americans have worked through a deadly pandemic, social isolation, racial injustice protests, a presidential election and, now, an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Why it matters: Laboring through this string of crises is exacerbating employee burnout and pushing CEOs to turn into wartime leaders.

I asked HR experts and CEOs about the best ways to lead through crisis. Here's what they said:

1. The most important move for CEOs is to acknowledge chaos — such as the events in D.C. — instead of ignoring it.

  • "Being silent is the biggest mistake," says Lars Schmidt, founder of Amplify, an HR consulting firm. "All your employees are thinking about it. And the idea of continuing to have meetings and expecting employees to be productive while this profound moment is taking place is shortsighted."

Burnout is already high as many people have now spent nearly a year in isolation.

  • Without a break room to hang out in or a watercooler to gather around, companywide communications during national events are even more essential. Hearing leaders or managers empathize with feelings of loneliness or stress can improve employees' mental health, experts say.
  • Those who say nothing appear tone-deaf, says Deidre Paknad, CEO and co-founder of the software company Workboard.

CEOs have to choose their words carefully, too, says Schmidt. Some companies shied away from addressing the difference between how police treated last week's white mob and how they treated Black Lives Matter protestors last summer. "And their employees of color noticed."

2. It's also important to remain optimistic, Paknad says. CEOs can point to signs of hope, such as the vaccine rollout, or help employees refocus by speaking about the company's greater mission or purpose.

  • "Acknowledge the fray and the fraction and the friction and the destruction, but don’t dwell on it."

3. A good culture is now a company's strongest asset."Employee wellbeing has crawled out of the corner of the benefits department, and it has crashed onto the CEO's desk," Josh Bersin, an HR industry analyst and author, tells Axios.

  • As the pandemic has dragged on, American workers have ranked "a sense of belonging at work" higher and higher on their list of workplace priorities. It's becoming as important to employees as getting promoted.
  • And America's compounding crises are just going to make fostering belonging and wellbeing even more key to recruiting and retaining talent.

"Most businesspeople are trained that customers are No. 1, shareholders are No. 2, and employees are No. 3," says Bersin. "But what we’re now realizing, thanks to the pandemic, is that if the employees are not happy, we don’t have a company."

The bottom line: As the nation wades through public health and political crises, CEOs have the opportunity to fill a leadership vacuum.

  • But those who avoid confronting the events head-on risk shedding talent.

Go deeper: How CEOs became the fourth branch of government

Go deeper