Business

CEOs feel like they are making decisions in a world moving in ‘dog years’


Suzy Welch thought she and other leaders were experiencing decision fatigue during the pandemic, but it was something else, something new taking place in the C-suite that she thinks will ultimately benefit leaders.

“It was really learning fatigue, learning new things every day, and there are only so many new things you can process,” the management expert and CNBC Contributor said during a CNBC Leadership Exchange on Wednesday with CEOs across a wide range of industries.

“We will come out of it a lot smarter, but it’s a lot,” Welch said.

Even though many CEOs say business is great and the transformation during the pandemic went better than expected, they still feel as if there is a fog in decision making, especially when it comes to leading employees through a period of upheaval in the way we work.

“The biggest challenge is how fast things are accelerating. … feels like change is happening seven times the pace,” said Greg Becker, CEO of Silicon Valley Bank, of leading an organization today.

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Even leaders accustomed to a fast pace of innovation say what’s occurring now is unlike anything they’ve experienced in the past. “Things are happening so fast it’s like living in a world of dog years,” said Greg Becker, CEO of Silicon Valley Bank, which handles banking for over 50% of all venture-backed companies. Becker said that for his firm, and among many of its clients, “the biggest challenge is how fast things are accelerating. … feels like change is happening seven times the pace.”

“And seven or even seventy times less visibility at the same time,” Welch interjected. “Put those two things together, and there you are.”

The need to be more flexible than ever with decisions, including with a firm’s return to office strategy, is part of a landscape in which CEOs like Becker expect management choices to be quickly, and rightly, questioned. “Whatever we decide the path forward is, three months after that, we will be changing it again,” he said.

Some CEOs got their start during the early days of the pandemic, a crash course in the unprecedented, including Eric Starkloff, CEO of National Instruments. His first two tasks were setting up a crisis team and shutting down the engineering company’s operations in China. While business has been good since, in other ways he said it doesn’t feel like the situation has gotten much easier since the worst of Covid. “Predicting the future with the seismic shift of change is a fool’s errand,” Starkloff said. “Managing employees through that uncertainty is difficult.” 

Humans and hybrid work

The CEO relationship with employees in a world of increasing remote and hybrid work is a focus, and new pain point, of leaders. “Creating culture on a computer is a new thing for many of us,” Welch said.

There are clear benefits, according to Tom Leighton, CEO of Akamai Technologies, who said “a lot” of his firm’s employees will be working from home “forever.” And he added that “spending time on the treadmill instead of commuting is healthier.”  

Company leaders recently indicated to CNBC that they are “at their wits’ end” in the attempt to bring workers back, and CEOs at the CNBC Leadership Exchange said as voluntary returns have begun for vaccinated workers, the numbers on those returning are low. New work structures are here to stay, but they are concerned about the toll of near two years of work-from-home on individual employees and organizational culture.

Tony Coles, chairman and CEO of Cerevel Therapeutics, a neuroscience firm that took two companies public during the pandemic, said the blocking and tackling in the life sciences sector has included challenges, from making sure clinical trials get enrolled to FDA conversations keeping on track, but “the harder part,” Coles said, “is the loss of human touch.” While Cerevel’s essential lab workers were back in the office early, office workers are still not back and Coles said “we are bemoaning the loss of human contact … and beginning to see signs of wear and that concerns me greatly.”

Ralph Izzo, the CEO of utility Public Service Enterprise Group, said his company learned during the pandemic that focus on the employees reporting to work and how to keep them safe can result in not enough focus on the workers at home. “There is tremendous emotional fatigue for employees who stayed home,” he said. “You have to be a good spouse, parent, teacher, and doing all at the same time is impossible. One is hard enough to do well.” 

Dan Amos, who has been CEO of Aflac for 31 years, said he is writing more handwritten notes to employees than he has “ever done in my life.”

“The quarter just ended for sales and I wrote 80 notes, just very short notes … trying to connect with people, to let them know they are important,” Amos said. “And that’s been something I really had to work on.”

“Hybrid is harder than sending everyone out the door to work remotely,” said Tami Erwin, CEO of Verizon Business. “So that’s what we’re really struggling with, how work be what we do, rather than where you go.”

If companies return to a world where half of a meeting’s attendees are in person and half are joining by video, “I guarantee you the half online would feel out of place,” said Jack Remondi, Navient CEO. “And that will be a really significant challenge as we move into this next phase.”

Hybrid work models can be “well-orchestrated,” according to Tiger Tyagarajan, CEO of global consulting firm Genpact, but like many CEOs, he remains concerned about building and maintaining a culture in the new work norm. “A number of our younger workers have said they are missing apprenticeship and the ability to ‘learn from people like you.’ It’s a tough one and I don’t know how to solve it, and I think the world is grappling with it. … There is a danger of losing some things. Some of the things we used to have we need to bring back with all of the things we learned. That’s the tough part of the mixture,” he said.

Genpact has instituted a few simple rules for the new work environment, and as more workers think about coming back to offices, on a hybrid basis. Genpact employees are being told to think about coming to the office as a “team sport.”

“That is more important than individuals coming back,” Tygarajan said. “And don’t come back if it is all Zoom calls.” He added that mode of work is fine, but defeats the purpose of returning to the office.

Labor shortages, supply chain bottlenecks

Amid the broader human dimensions in decision-making and employer-employee relationships, the global economy rattled by labor shortages and supply chain cracks is testing these leaders in specific ways.

While a work world leaning into tech has opened up opportunities to recruit from anywhere, and firms including Cerevel have removed restrictions on C-suite executives needing to relocate to its Boston base, the labor shortage is hitting some organizations hard.

Anita Jenkins, CEO of Howard University Hospital, said staffing is a huge issue for her hospital system. “The pandemic created a market that doesn’t exist like it did. [Nurses] can get twice to three times as much money as they did before, and they are going for money,” she said, even when it means moving long distances. “All of the hospitals and health-care centers are vying for the same people, or less people,” she added.

The reevaluation of life and work caused by the pandemic also is weighing on staffing, Jenkins said, with experienced nurses who had five to seven years of a typical career left now saying, “I’m done. I’m going to spend time with my family, I’m going to be safe. I’m going to get out of that workplace. … We are struggling with staffing and ‘we’ are all over the country,” she said.

The “double-edged sword” of the supply chain is being felt at J.M. Smucker Company, said its CEO Mark Smucker. Business is strong. More people are eating breakfast and lunch at home and drinking more coffee, and adopting more pets, and all of those pandemic life trends have been good for the company’s business units. But “the supply chain has been tough,” Smucker said. While consumers have felt the pain in grocery stores from early in the pandemic through to now, he noted it has been hard on workers, too. “The ongoing time commitment required for the supply chain is tiring for people, and we need to look for ways to give them a break,” he said. 

Line between work and life ‘shattered’

Leaders are prepared to guide organizations from Point A to Point B, but in the current world, they are more willing to accept limitations on their knowledge and the skills that got them to their leadership positions.

“I wonder if there are any know-it-alls left,” Welch said. “It used to be quite endemic in the C-suite, the lack of humility, and you come out of this with the knowledge that tomorrow you can know absolutely nothing.”

“We all came into these chairs as CEOs because we’re really good at getting things done inside organizations, but the past 18 months, in particular, caused us to look outside organizations and to extend our purview,” Cole said. “I’m consoler in chief and listener in chief and Black man in chief. Just had so many different roles in response to the external environment.”

“Whatever line was between work-life and the rest of life was totally shattered,” Starkloff said. That has required leadership to be more authentic and vulnerable and holistic, he said, in leadership approach. “And it’s not going back. It is a permanent change in contact between employer and employee,” he said.

It is an example of the experimentation that will need to continue well past the pandemic nadir. “We are an engineering company and we said early on, we cannot predict this thing, so we will take an engineering approach and experiment like crazy and measure,” Starkloff said.

That experimentation can’t only be about the physical redesign of facilities and conversion of office space to meeting rooms, but the work norms for employees. “Start experimenting,” he said. “Come in two days a week, do a hybrid meeting, see how it works. All of this has been essentially quick and rapid experiments that we can change and grow and learn from, at that pace of ‘dog years’ change,” he said. 

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