In a Post-COVID-19 World, CEOs Should Model This Attribute
For several years, we've been studying how leaders can be resilient in the face of disruption. Based on our research and interviews with CEOs, we identified five characteristics that are likely to enhance their ability to navigate through disruptive times. We first reported on these themes in our 2017 article, "Can CEOs Be Un-Disruptable?," and recently shared a perspective on how these five attributes are even more relevant today.
As continuous and relentless as business disruptions of recent years were, COVID-19 adds several orders of magnitude. A true meta-disruption, it has brought about radical change in our lives, our work, and our mind-sets. In such unprecedented times, a particular leadership trait, that of empathy, can play a significant role guiding leaders to recovery.
Our recent study on this attribute, The CEO as ultimate end-user ethnographer, delineates a path that may help retail executives. As their companies begin to re-emerge from the pandemic, empathy can play an oversized role throughout the organization. With the dislocation wrought by COVID-19, we’ve seen some leaders responding to the crisis in innovative, selfless ways. The shift toward a more humanistic approach, particularly one that calls for a higher level of customer understanding, is more likely to be successful if it's guided and modeled directly from the top.
Further exploring this idea, it’s clear that customers would like to be understood as humans, rather than be marketed to as if one of many identical people or, worse still, feel manipulated. And therein lies the limit of “big data.” There will always be a very human place where technology can’t reach, even if some would argue that it can. And it’s the CEO — as an organization’s ultimate end user ethnographer — who is best positioned to lead the way to that understanding.
Customers, Not Technologies or Startups, Drive Marketplace Disruption
For most incumbent organizations, the distance between the CEO and the organization’s end users is vast. It’s a distance measured not in miles, pay ratios or levels of hierarchy, but in degrees of detachment from an empathic understanding of the human experience of the organization’s customers — their subtle, yet vital needs and frustrations. Through the pandemic crisis, these needs have often been unusual, and even these are changing at a rapid pace. There’s broad recognition that we have yet to understand how customer behaviors might shift for good coming out of the pandemic. In a recent Fortune/Deloitte CEO Survey, 74 percent of CEOs who responded named customer engagement as one of the top three topics most important to setting long-term strategy.
The natural distance from the customer is a potential liability for CEOs confronting disruption, because disruption is at its core is a customer-driven phenomenon. Despite new technologies and aggressive startups often being called “disruptors,” it’s customers, not technologies or startups, who actually create disruption. Products and services with disruptive power become that way because their purveyors understand and meet often imperceptible customer needs in ways that others couldn't do or had chosen not to. Indeed, many startups that have attracted capital and rapidly scaled did so not because they introduced mind-bending technologies per se, but because they were giving their customers exactly what they wanted, faster and with greater precision.
It’s easy to imagine CEOs of startups running around 24/7 monitoring the pulse of their present and potential customers, fearing that someone else will understand their end users better, sooner. But perhaps surprisingly, our research suggests that CEOs of large, legacy firms can also benefit from making understanding their end users a personal responsibility. As noted in our study, Can CEOs Be Un-Disruptable?, many of the CEOs we interviewed made it clear that they were not only willing to fight the customer wars on multiple fronts, but were all but obsessed with it. They were bent on garnering deep and tactile insights into their customers to feel assured that they had as accurate a pulse on their end users as those who interacted with customers far more closely.
Leaders should consider striving for a deep human understanding of the customer experience. These abbreviated guidelines from The CEO as ultimate end-user ethnographer may help CEOs lead their organizations toward a culture of empathy. In turn, insights about people’s lives, values and emotions can translate into greater organizational value.
- Remember that customers themselves are the experts on how they feel and act.
- Collectively create end-user stories to find out what's important to the customer, how the customer relates to people and things, internal signals that guide the customer’s actions, and more.
- Seek customer insights in public digital forums and extrapolate further — empathy works online, too.
- Become an “undercover boss,” keeping close proximity to the end user. Encourage employees to do the same.
- Intentionally exercise your organization’s “empathy muscle” by cultivating an empathy-driven mind-set that strives to elevate the human experience above all.
Embedding these practices into everyday operations — the very fabric of organizational culture — begins with the CEO. Corporations have a natural tendency to become insular, their executives and employees immersing themselves in the convenient predictability of well-optimized processes and focused on playing on internal organizational dynamics to advance their careers. To an organization in this state of inertia, the customer shows up more as a source of irritation than insight. The pandemic has turned this entire state of affairs on its head, with consumer behavior changing daily, and the need for marketers to constantly monitor developments. The CEO should take the lead in counteracting this inertia and create real change by championing and modeling empathy.
Mark Lipton is graduate professor of management at The New School in New York City, an accomplished author, and an eminence and content contributor for Deloitte’s Chief Executive Program. He is based in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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