Nick Chia, the Singapore country manager for Russell Reynolds Associates, has spent two decades in the executive search business: finding C-level talent and working on CEO succession planning across a variety of sectors in the Asia Pacific. This included finding leadership candidates during the various major crises of the last 20 years, up to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
People Matters asked Nick for his thoughts on how times of crisis change our definition of good leadership, and what kind of C-level talent organizations are going to be looking for now and as they plan for the post-pandemic recovery. Here are the highlights of the conversation.
One of the questions the pandemic situation has raised is, what do leaders need to do to bring their organizations through a crisis like this? What are your thoughts?
The willingness to communicate—not so much the actual communication skills but the willingness—is important. In times of uncertainty, leaders tend to only want to communicate when they know for sure that something is going to happen. But by definition, in a crisis, there is no certainty. You end up waiting to be sure, and waiting some more, and people become more nervous meanwhile. Leaders need to understand that even if people are not sure what is going to happen, they want to know what their leadership is thinking. So even if you think you are already communicating a lot, you must communicate even more. You don't need to be a wonderful speaker, but you need to be authentic. Of course, that has to be appropriate to the culture and the organization.
The second thing is to be optimistically realistic. There is danger in being too optimistic, in that expectations cannot be met, and also being in too pessimistic in that no one will want to follow you. It's a real balancing act.
The third thing is to take care of yourself personally.
What often happens is that the leaders are expected to take care of the people. But who's taking care of the leaders? This is a question of resilience: leaders are already expected to be available at all hours during normal times, but during a crisis they will be up and about even more.
Now, with COVID-19, you see some companies having almost daily calls to figure out what they are doing next. To consistently do that day in and day out, over an extended period of time, means that not only must your mental health be good, you must also be physically capable of withstanding that. Leaders burn out, like everybody else, and with a situation like COVID-19, that has no visible end point, it's crucial to find ways to rest and rejuvenate yourself.
Do you find that with COVID-19 changing the way leaders have to operate, people are now looking for different traits when they choose a leader?
The question everyone asks is: "If I have you as my leader, are you going to be able to lead us through good times and bad, times of growth and times of downturn, whether the legislation changes or whether there is a trade war?"
But these criteria are based on the environment, and the environment is never certain. Let's take Australia as an example. The last recession there was what, three decades ago? There's probably not a CEO there today who's ever been through a recession as a CEO. So how do you find a suitable person when a recession hits? Do you look for someone whose skills lie in restructuring, transformation, cost-cutting? But you cannot cut your way to growth. You need to be able to take advantage of opportunities, and for that you need someone who is a strategic thinker, innovative, radical. Can you find both of those characteristics in the same person? In fact, yes, you can.
More and more, we are finding that our clients are looking less at predicting the environment. They are instead saying: "Regardless of the environment, I want a leader who can flex between the different situation and, like a helicopter, move from a big-picture approach all the way down to the ground level and back up again." These are what we call competing competencies.
Could you explain a bit more about competing competencies?
Take Steve Jobs and Tim Cook for example. Both are very strategic. But Steve Jobs was strategic in a very radical, innovative way: he created new ecosystems, new industry dynamics. Tim Cook is much more pragmatic. He's inherited an ecosystem and he spends a lot more time looking at what can be done within the ecosystem, and his strategic moves are guided by what the organization is capable of rather than by the need to make a breakthrough. Now, which is right and which is wrong? The answer is: neither. Both are right at different points in time. These are competing competencies: the pragmatic side, and the disruptive side.
And so in the future, you will need leaders who have sets of competing competencies. People will not just be looking for strategic, results-oriented team leaders. They are looking at leaders who can flex between being execution-oriented, and influencing others.
We have done some studies with Hogan and found that this combination is probably the best predictor not just of success, but of durability—how long they stay in the role.
Otherwise, what you see is growth leaders staying only until a crisis hits, then being shunted aside for restructuring leaders, who are then moved aside for growth people. And then you go back to needing the efficiency and operations people again. So the issue is not one of "either/or". The issue is "and". Can you find people who have both?
Does that mean this crisis will result in a lot of senior leadership turnover?
Yes and no. I think in situations where boards are impatient, they will change the leader just to signal that they are doing something. However, the flip side of this crisis is that some companies are trying to do more with what they have. Because how do you bring someone on board and integrate them without ever meeting them? Right now, the uncertainty is such that even if you recruit someone, you cannot even be sure when they will be able to show up and start work, let alone how they will observe the culture and integrate when no one is physically in the office. That is setting too high a bar for a newcomer.
Therefore, companies are saying: let's take a closer look at the people we already have. Even if they are not ready, they may be close enough—and that means, the trade-offs are manageable. Perhaps you have a very operational person already in place, and you can pair the person with someone who is more strategic as a deputy. Or you can identify several people with potential and put them through an accelerated 12-month development program with coaching, interventions, and anything else they need, and at least one of them will be suitable at the end of the program.
A third option is to bring back someone who has previously worked with you, who understands the culture, and who is trusted. We're already seeing some board members doing this—they step down and then come back in as an interim CEO to steer the company through this period.
Lastly, boards are having to be much more involved. We are seeing already a lot more internal assessments and developments, succession planning that focuses on internal alongside external sources.
What do you think we're going to need in leaders as we plan for the post-crisis recovery?
Coming out of COVID-19 will require a set of skills that no one can really say they have proven. It's going to be a risk looking for talent outside the organization, it's going to be a risk looking for talent internally, and the question is how to mitigate that risk. We're spending a lot of time right now helping boards and CEOs think through this. Don't forget that succession planning costs money. Recruiting people costs money, developing and assessing them costs money. The question is, which is the better return on investment? It's never obvious, and it comes down to what an organization's particular needs are.