The pandemic created a sense of urgency, and inside companies, individuals stepped up. Now it’s up to leaders to find ways to keep metabolism high, even as the crisis fades.
Coming out of the Covid-19 crisis, many well-intentioned senior executives are pushing to turn systems back on and restore operations. They want to see the organization return to “normal,” running the way it ran before Covid-19.
Arrayed across those same companies are some new heroes of the business, who brought forward their expertise and acted swiftly when the company needed it most. They helped the organization rapidly adapt to complex and brutal circumstances, moving with new speed and agility. Many of the new heroes pushed aside blockades of bureaucracy and cut red tape to connect with the right people and solve issues in real time, regardless of seniority or standard operating procedures.
Over the past year, we’ve been tracking leadership lessons from the pandemic with more than 850 CEOs across 35 countries. Some powerful patterns have emerged: CEOs have been both astonished and inspired by the way people in their organizations have taken the challenges of the crisis in stride, exhibiting resourcefulness, dedication, and creativity. The new rank of heroes have some common characteristics, including a strong bias to action and a willingness to learn by doing.
CEOs now face a career-defining moment of truth. The schism is growing between those who desire a return to normalcy and those who want to sustain new ways of working. According to a Bain survey, 65% of employees are concerned that the pandemic-induced sense of urgency in their organizations will go away. These heroes are at risk of disappearing back into the fabric of the pre-crisis organizational hierarchies. And the strong working relationships between those heroes and the C-suite, forged through the challenges of Covid-19, are at risk of fading away alongside bad pandemic memories.
Among the hundreds of pandemic hero stories we heard in our research, many fell into two categories, providing two salient lessons on how CEOs can build a new culture that maintains and uplifts the voices of the most critical members of their organizations.
Lesson #1: Moving beyond the matrix
We heard many stories about leadership teams that knew what needed to be done — and freed up their teams to do so. These CEOs recognized that in order to run the business better, increase speed, and bolster trust, they needed managers to get out of the way and give more freedom to the teams closest to customers.
“What we learned to do is empower our teams to deliver, but make sure there was enough creativity on the ground to adapt to rapid changes in the local markets due to Covid-19 and government response,” says John Santa Maria, CEO of Coca-Cola Femsa in Mexico.
As they try to maintain this organizational energy generated by the crisis, CEOs are finding that an enduring question becomes more pressing: How can firms develop a competitive strategy that lives in the boardroom, but also in the routines and behaviors of its people?
Prior to the pandemic, the answer was a matrix. Through hierarchical systems, senior leaders tended to micromanage business as usual, creating silos and distancing functions from the front line. Around the organization, the voices of hierarchy whispered that an execution job is one to escape from, that good careers move people further from the customer and closer to the CEO.
The matrix is slow and inflexible. It drowns out the voices of the customer and the front line. It traps resources in silos. Yes, leaders must hold their teams accountable for results — but doing so doesn’t require a constant presence.
To move away from the matrix in the post-pandemic company, some CEOs are reframing their organization around the metaphor of a Formula One team. The heroes who created urgency during the pandemic are the drivers — and they take the podium, rather than the managers. Every lap represents the customer experience — which they can win or lose. Pit crews support the drivers by following known, practiced routines and avoiding variance. And speed matters.
At Swiggy, a leading food ordering and delivery platform in India, restaurant delivery team leaders are in the metaphorical driver’s seat. They have the responsibility of engaging the right restaurant owners, attracting the right consumers, and building a crew of delivery drivers. It’s up to the team leaders to serve the needs of all three groups — with the ultimate goal of a great customer experience. Providing invaluable support, Swiggy’s Net Promoter System team serves as the pit crew. They help team leaders review daily survey feedback and data to determine which short- and long-term actions can help delight customers or resolve pain points.
“There’s great freedom in our system, and this gives us speed. But there are also clear constraints. And this gives us speed and scale,” says Swiggy COO Vivek Sunder.
Adopting to the structure and behaviors of a Formula One team often requires significant change from senior leaders, as they have to grant their teams new degrees of freedom and establish new levels of trust. The process can be uncomfortable at first, but the companywide benefits are worth the pain.
Lesson #2: Amplifying heroes’ ideas
In the second type of stories, heroes acted like entrepreneurs. Despite working in large companies, they came up with entirely new solutions and formed small cross-functional teams to execute them. They deployed agile ways of working, by testing, failing, adapting, and retesting their solutions.
CEOs learned that matching the speed of change calls for new levels of agility, partnerships, and sources of expertise. According to a Bain survey, 75% of CEOs say that while the pandemic did not fundamentally change their plans, it required them to accelerate their strategic agendas. Some companies quickly shifted their attention from the pursuit of the perfect solution to the pursuit of “good enough” solutions that could scale. “We needed to get protocols into existing factories fast, even if they were only 70% at full potential,” says one CEO. “Getting 70% protocols out in a matter of hours and improving was far better than doing nothing for a week while we were working to be perfect.”
Winning firms will continue this mindset beyond Covid-19. The goal is to amplify the successes of “good enough” innovations from the organization’s heroes, providing the support and resources needed to scale those solutions across the firm.
To find and move the right ideas forward, rather than pushing back, senior leaders are learning to champion the expertise and energy of those heroes who excel at translating ideas into routines. They will shift the time and talent of those heroes toward scaling ideas and building future businesses.
At Barilla, a multinational food company, the future of the organization already lies in the hands of its heroes. Total, 360-degree innovation cannot be a top-down push — it is a responsibility of its internal ecosystem. “To be successful, it had to be embraced with enthusiasm by our best young talent in each of their markets,” says Mariapaola Vetrucci, Barilla’s Chief Strategy Officer. “We wanted them to be presenting in front of our CEO and group leadership team, learning from them, and helping them learn.” Through this bottom-up approach, leaders can elevate the voices of the heroes, gaining their unique perspective and inspiring the next set of heroes to forge the future of the business.
Five steps to continuously celebrate heroes
As they transition their companies into the post-pandemic reality, the most successful CEOs will be surgical about which systems they turn back on and which changes they make to the organization. The biggest obstacle CEOs will face is the entrenched behaviors of senior leaders. In order to support a culture that celebrates heroes, the executive team needs to unlearn the typical roles of the professional management system.
Among top CEOs, some common steps are emerging to transform leaders’ behaviors and build the business back up without losing heroes in the fray:
- They co-create their company’s purpose. The crisis reinstated the primacy of purpose — and purpose can’t be divorced from people. Engage the firm’s heroes to align on the “what” and “why” of the company mission, but empower them to figure out the “how.”
- They identify and share lessons from their top Formula One teams. The energy of winning drivers and crews can inspire managers to free the organization from the matrix. They will also come to recognize speed as a critical source of competitive advantage.
- They establish teams of star players to take on their biggest challenges, role modeling new ways of working for the rest of the organization.
- They challenge senior leaders to embrace conflict. It’s up to executives to balance the tensions between speed vs. scale, innovation vs. routine, and running the business vs. changing it. In order to strike the right balance, they must leave their egos at the door and tune in to the voices of heroes.
- They keep doing what they’re doing. Leading CEOs plan to continue using town halls to share and commend hero stories — inspiring future generations of heroes. They will invest heavily in mentorship and apprenticeship, recognizing that heroes will write the future of the company.
James Allen is a partner in Bain & Company’s London office and a member of the firm’s global strategy practice. He is a co-author of a number of bestselling books including Profit from the Core and The Founder’s Mentality: How to Overcome the Predictable Crises of Growth (Harvard Business Review Press, June 2016).
Dunigan O’Keeffe is a partner at Bain & Co and leads the firm’s global strategy practice.
Copyright 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.