What the best CEOs are doing now

Future adventure - sInsights from my conversations throughout Covid…

One of the highlights of my week at the moment, is the three quarters of an hour I spend, first thing every Thursday morning, on a weekly call with a group of between twelve and twenty of some of the sector’s top CEOs.

We have a different topic each week, I feed in what I’m seeing not just in the non-profit sector, but across my business network as well, and others share what’s working for them, how they’re approaching and thinking about things, and from time to time, what’s still challenging or vexing them, so they can get thoughts and ideas from the others.

And through those sessions, as well as my conversations more widely with people across the sector, I’m starting to see a noticeable shift in emphasis, focus and tone.

Through March, most of us were simply reacting to the changing situation, our focus flicking between government announcements, service and delivery issues, and the internal implications of what looked like an impending upheaval of all our work and plans. At a leadership level, it kept us incredibly busy: shifting to weekly sprints, racing from call to call, making the big decisions incredibly quickly, all while engaging the board, organising the response, and rallying the troops.

The shift in gear was dramatic and had enormous impact. Some leaders talked about having achieved more in the first six days on some of their most critical actions, than they’d planned to achieve in eighteen months with their normal approach. Many of us discovered there’s a pace of change we’d never imagined our organisations could achieve; but it turns out they can.

In early April, some of us felt a bit of a dip. The most urgent fires were largely fought, home-working was in place, those being furloughed were being furloughed, and safer ways of working were rolling out. Not all the problems had been resolved by a long shot, but a slow recognition was dawning, that this would be a long haul. Those weekly sprints will need to carry us the length of a marathon before this will be over.

And over the last two weeks I’ve seen a dramatic shift again, from dealing with the issues of today, to looking at the challenges of tomorrow; of Summer, Autumn and Winter; and of what comes after that. If you listen to the economists, that’s two or three years of lost growth, of wages rising behind inflation, of unemployment back up at financial crash levels, and public sector debt a third higher again than it was at it’s peak during austerity.

Many in my community have already started pulling teams together to start working on scenarios, prioritising three or four big, strategic challenges, and often giving the team carte-blanche to come up with new ideas, different approaches, innovative models that can work through the coming uncertainties and bring us out stronger and fitter on the other side.

And the enthusiasm they’re getting back from those teams is huge: the pace is high, the cross-divisional working is breaking down all kinds of barriers, and the culture itself is shifting positively, substantially, and rapidly.

For some, it’s not just this year’s annual plan and budget that’s going out the window; it’s the whole notion of annual planning and budgeting. Flexible, adaptive models for strategy execution; rolling forecasts for financials and non-financial KPIs; frequent conversations to update assumptions, numbers, and the outlook for the year; fundamentally different, more dynamic ways of working from the top to the bottom of the organisation.

Which leads me to the biggest shift I’m seeing in CEOs right now. A shift in expectation and ambition; a sense of just how much more agile, more efficient, more focused, aligned and engaged their organisation could be on the back of this experience. And the potential impact and the speed of progress they could make, if they were.

The most consistent question I’m hearing them ask themselves right now is: what kind of organisation do we want to have on the other side of this crisis? And with the burning platform we now have, the engagement from trustees to the frontline, the obvious acceptance, indeed appetite for rapid change, how quickly can we start building that future?

In recent weeks, we’ve started to see hints of our true potential, fleeting images of what we could become. There may be months of uncertainty ahead of us, but one thing I think is becoming more certain by the day: the most successful charities in 2021 will look, operate and behave, very differently to the way they did in 2019.

And right now, I think the best CEOs are starting to firmly grasp that nettle.

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