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The CEOworks Team May 19 2020 12 min read

Leadership in Uncertain Times

Welcome to our Team Talks Series. Candid conversations on current events recorded on May 8th, 2020.

As the crisis continues, building confidence and alignment are imperative.

In this third Team Talks conversation, Senior Partners Bill Allen and Hein Knaapen, and Associate Partner Dhaval Bhagat, talk with Shefali Salwan about what is showing up in their conversations with C-suite executives who are leading people through these uncertain times.

Watch the complete 10-minute video or read the transcript for details.

Bill Allen:

There’s a lot going on out there. We've been through the crisis [and] we're continuing to go through the crisis. There’s still a lot of uncertainty. The questions every CEO and their leadership team are asking are, “How do we win? And what do we need to do to win?”

A conversation I had just this morning was all around, “We have a strategy. We have the team in place. But how do we ensure that we all head in the same direction—at a very high level of speed—so that we can take advantage of the reopening opportunities?”

The discussion I had with [this morning’s] CEO was  really around  three things. First, alignment. Alignment with the board, to make sure they have confidence and that [this] confidence has kept [them in] alignment with the senior team, to provide the direction to everybody. And then having a discussion with the broader employee population around everybody having a job and an opportunity to contribute to the winning formula as we come out of this. That was the first part of the conversation.

The  second part of the conversation was ensuring that there’s a disciplined operating cadence  in place. [Are] there checkpoints on a regular basis to see how we are doing on these different milestones?

When there’s something other than where we want to be pulling it off to the side, doing a deep dive in terms of the problem solving, then coming back and making it work. And doing that all quickly and doing that on a weekly basis. Not on everything—but on the critical things that are required for the plan to unfold [and] for that confidence to continue with the board.

I’ve  always looked  at it this way: the enemy of confidence is uncertainty. If you’re not certain, it’s very hard to be confident.

So, working on the alignment, ensuring that the plan gets operationalized. And then, on a regular basis, addressing progress and taking situations offline to make sure that, when things aren’t working, that they get corrected, and [that] it doesn’t devolve into this big argument about what we should do and making sure that everybody’s accountable.... I think that’s a critical piece I’m seeing now [that] is really important for successful  reopenings.

Shefali Salwan:

I’d love to build on that, Bill. Something you said that resonates with me: [it’s] the role of the leader  to create that alignment. That was your first point.

We were talking to a client just yesterday who  actually do[es] auto parts. But they also do other parts. One of the things that they’ve been able to do through this COVID crisis is create  ventilators. And  so  the role of the leader there was  actually corralling  the morale of the people by really seeing that as celebratory. Even though it was a small part of that  business, [he was] using that story to say, “Hey, we were agile. We could pivot very  quickly to doing something which was needed for the larger society.” [That] was  actually very  [morale-]boosting for the team.  His role was to amplify that. It could [just] have easily been, “Okay, it’s 9% of the business, it’s fine.” But the ability to amplify that to the larger workforce was something which at least helped me think, “Okay, that’s the role of a leader.” It’s about aligning my mind [so] that it’s in that same space. It's almost boosting [confidence] with that alignment.

Hein Knaapen:

I like that. There’s one perspective that I’d like to elaborate on. I totally agree that alignment is critical to speedy delivery.

[I am] currently working with a portfolio company of a private equity firm just trying to come to grips with all the new challenges. What I see as a risk around alignment ... [can best be expressed by] saying,

Focus trumps exhaustiveness.

There’s only so much you need to focus on in order to drive the success, the performance of your company, in the panic and the chaos of today. And in an attempt for the leader to be inclusive, it’s very tempting to allow all kinds of additions to what you need to take on. And then you get a pseudo-alignment.

There’s only so much you can do in order to really either urgently repair value destruction or create value at speed.

So  the summary would be, yes, I totally agree—and don’t forget there is a focus on the big milestones to be achieved. And that is also for the leader to bring about.


I agree, Hein. That’s why the weekly get together around the kitchen table, if you will, where you talk about the critical pieces, how they’re going, and get the point across that these are the things that are going to help us win is absolutely critical.

Now, let’s not sit around the kitchen table and solve every problem. In fact, let’s not solve any problems. Let’s identify the problems and take the problems offline. Come back and be accountable for delivering a solution to  those problems: that’s going to move the needle. Because if the needle is not moving, then we’re not making progress and we’re not going to be successful.

I’d  say 99% of the colleagues that I’ve had in my career come to work and want to do one thing: they want to be part of a winning team.  The leader’s job is to set them up for success by doing these things.  So  alignment is a critical part of it. The management cadence often gets overlooked. It should be a weekly focus on the things that are really,  really critical—not the things that are urgent.

Dhaval Bhagat:

Yes. And if I may add, based on the breadth  of clients we have worked with over the last few weeks, a lot of these companies are in different stages of this crisis because of how it has moved across the globe. However, [when] it comes to the piece around reopening, as Bill and Hein indicated, [it’s not only] the alignment across not only [the] leadership. But we’re also seeing [it’s] how this CEO is going to take the messaging and the communication of that messaging not only to the internal people, but also to the customer [and] external folks as well. Driving that cadence [of the] clear messaging around what they are doing to come out of the shutdown phase and going into the reopening phase. Why they should continue to have confidence in their company and their ability to deliver is huge on their mind. The CEOs are managing, right along with the safety of their people, this communication piece—and doing an amazing job as well.


Dhaval, I know one of the clients that you and I are working with is saying exactly that. The ability to call clients and say, “We are in business. We are secure.” Not everybody’s assuming that you’re still in business. Because some have shut down so  hard and they’ve lost some capability...


Even with these guidelines on social distancing, the first mindset that everybody goes through [is]... it’s just these guys. [And they] will not have [the] capability to open [with] the capacity that my business needs. So that’s where communication [with] the client comes in very handy.

Say, “We will be operating at 25% capability. However, we have put these plans in place that will allow us to have a broader capacity to support your needs.” That communication is also very important.

What that messaging should be and the alignment across senior leadership on that messaging is also very key.


The CEOworks Team

Articles created by the CEOworks Communications Team are based on content from Sandy Ogg, Sumeet Salwan, Shefali Salwan, and other team members.

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