What is keeping you awake at night during this global pandemic?
Over the past few weeks, we asked 600 CEOs that very question. Their responses were touching and instructive, but also daunting about the challenges leaders face at this moment of crisis.
What keeps CEOs up at night? One summed it up deftly: “How to most effectively communicate with all employees remotely and show empathy, while running around with [my] hair on fire trying to save the current business while at the same time trying to shape the future of the company in a 'new normal' environment.”
Other topics mentioned by CEOs included virtual onboarding, sales-pipeline restructuring, performance management, M&A acquisition, managing layoffs and furloughs, rethinking the customer experience, and creating financial projections with an unprecedented number of unknown factors.
In short, our respondents said, almost every aspect of doing business must be completely rethought for both short-term survival and long-term advantage—and CEOs are profoundly aware of that.
We want to share with you both high-level findings about the sleep-robbing concerns of corporate leaders, but also what science and research tells us about what the human body needs physically and mentally to respond to these challenges. Think of these as your new toolkit for high performance in a business world turned upside down.
Let’s start with some executives’ comments from the survey, as well as what they imply for new skills needed to lead in this environment.What CEOs told us
“Priorities have changed, personally and professionally. There can be no thought paralysis. What will the new norm look like and how do we adapt? I ask myself that on a daily basis.”
“In order to survive, new business opportunities appear, and new talents are needed while some are not. How to change the organization and management teams to create new competencies without changing your essence and core values?”
Skills needed now: Continuous learning and integrating new information; developing new personal and work practices.What CEOs told us
“As the quote goes, ‘Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its students.’ So, if time is of the essence, how to best think and frame the problems we need to solve with our teams to survive this crisis? What is sequence of those actions and decisions … to have a higher probability of survival?”
“Do we have the resources, ideas, and ability to quickly pivot the deployment our sales strategy in a new format? How are we going to differentiate when our new mode of communication is the same as everyone else?”
Skills needed now: Making complex decisions and plans; solving problems.What CEOs told us
“Having empathy in day-to-day interaction with employees, customers, vendors, investors, etc. is always an important leadership skill, but this empathy is dramatically heightened during a crisis that is impacting everyone personally and professionally. Keeping in mind the person on the other end of a call may be having a dramatic experience during this crisis is an important subtext for how they are navigating the conversation with me.”
“[Pacing] ourselves as leaders to remain strong for all the people that depend on us, [managing] organizational stress and fatigue over a long period of time and with limited financial resources.”
Skills needed now: Empathy; maintaining self-control and focus.Let’s build your new executive toolkit
The skills needed to conquer these challenges are not possible without good mental hygiene. You don’t download a big application when your computer is at 20 percent battery power. Your brain is your most vital asset; it is a physical organ that, like any other piece of equipment, requires maintenance and care.
Both physical and mental hygiene practices need to increase right now, because both physical and mental health are at risk. We are all under unprecedented mental strain of a kind people are not designed, evolutionarily, to deal with. We deal well with acute emergencies experienced in groups. The pandemic is a long-term, slow-rolling crisis of uncertain duration involving multiple unknown factors and experienced in physical isolation,l possibly in potential danger.
One of our interviewees noted, “As CEOs in this crisis, we have no option but to become the wartime CEO, however ill equipped or prepared we are.” You can equip yourself better immediately. Here’s what your brain and body need to maintain stamina and adaptability for the long challenge ahead. We’ve included direct responses from our 600 CEOs to reflect their current thinking and concerns.
Nutrition and hydration
This may seem obvious—but under stressful or traumatic conditions the body’s usual signals of hunger and thirst don’t always make it to the brain. And working from home removes the usual social signals about when to eat or drink. Don’t rely on feeling hungry or thirsty! Put meals and hydration times on your to-do list or set alarms if necessary. One of us recently witnessed a colleague pass out from dehydration during a Zoom meeting and can vouch that it is a terrifying and morale-destroying experience.
In addition to maintaining physical health, diet has a strong effect on intellectual and emotional functioning (as anyone who has seen a toddler melt down from too much sugar understands). The ability to pay attention, process information, make decisions, remember information, and control mood are all affected by diet.
What you need: Nearly all research on nutrition converges on one point: Eat as many vegetables and fruits as you can. Beyond that, avoid processed food (to whatever extent possible, given disruptions in the supply chain) and drink plenty of water. Omega fatty acids, B and D vitamins, and antioxidants promote mental functioning; sugars and saturated fats impair it.
As one of our wise CEOs noted, “The primary task of leaders is to avoid as many sleepless nights … as they can.” Sleep helps you make sense of what you did and learned today and prepare for tomorrow. The Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep appears to be dedicated to the former function, shaping the day’s barrage of stimuli and events into memories and lessons, and connecting those memories and lessons to your larger set of concerns and motivations. This is why sleep so often incubates insight—that reference librarian in your brain has just put two volumes together. It is also why many people are having unusually vivid dreams right now.
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[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]