6 key leadership challenges, according to CEO/CFO roundtable

By Robert Half on 18th May 2020

Robert Half held its first online CEO/CFO roundtable at 8.30am on Wednesday 13th May 2020. Normally run as a face-to-face event, the roundtable presented an opportunity for senior board leaders to discuss emerging COVID-19 related ideas, challenges and opportunities in an open forum under Chatham House rules.

Having previously met three months earlier, those attending the roundtable are now considering important issues for senior leaders to address, such as how to support staff; how to plan for property needs going forwards; and reimagining business models. This report captures six key leadership challenges discussed at the event, an overview of the findings and some further sources of information.

13 May 2020 Key Takeaways

  • Continue to engage as much as possible one-to-one with employees.
  • Be as transparent as possible with the rest of the senior management team and employees about the current situation and future direction.
  • Move from long-term planning to scenario modelling.
  • Use global supply chains to your advantage and gain learnings as other countries emerge from lockdown.

Speed of decision making and innovation

The Covid-19 crisis has forced through new levels of speed in both decision making and innovation for senior leaders, powered by technology. The CFO of an electrical retailer said that new processes are now underway to enable in-store staff to demonstrate equipment over video links, for example, while his company has also had to gear up for Black Friday levels of sales immediately rather than with weeks of planning to spare.

This has forced through efficiencies as the board has had to make careful decisions about what to do and what not to do. And rather than acting as the brakes on progress the finance team has run daily cash committee meetings that improved the clarity of cashflow and liquidity for the wider leadership team.

Collaboration and partnership

Attendees noted that the crisis has brought collaboration and partnerships to the fore as different industry sectors work to get through the crisis together. Internally, CFOs and their finance teams feel more integrated with the rest of the business as well as more visible.

The Group CFO of a global logistics company said that having a strong business model with standard processes based on central cloud-based technology had helped to break down differences and barriers between country operations, and this is paying dividends in the current climate.

Tighter governance and an end to annual/five-year plans

CFOs that have introduced tighter governance in financial reporting and planning said these efforts were welcomed by the rest of the business, and that they would probably continue, albeit at a lower frequency, as conditions return to normal.

The rapidly shifting changes in conditions mean that many annual budgets and strategic plans have now been jettisoned in favour of three month rolling forecasts and scenario planning. This is particularly true of organisations with global operations, which need to deal with multiple scenarios as different countries move in and out of lockdown.

Despite the view that UK businesses should seek to source more goods and components locally, some attendees said they had actually benefited from global supply chains that could flex up and down in line with local conditions and government restrictions. This information should be factored into ‘what if’ planning so local resources can be accessed at the appropriate time.

Dealing with psychological pressure on staff

Although staff working from home or on furlough have been broadly positive about their situation until now, dissatisfaction is starting to escalate. Those on furlough are understandably anxious about what will happen with their jobs when government support ends. Those working from home are juggling a lot of demands on their time and missing physical contact with colleagues.

It has therefore been important for leaders to keep staff engaged throughout the crisis, particularly when key events are cancelled. Being open and transparent is vital, as are regular communications by phone or video, together with online social events. One attendee has found that running these events has brought field staff closer to the company as they would not have normally been involved in office drinks or get-togethers in the past.

There was some concern that higher productivity rates reported by some companies would tail off as the initial novelty of responding to the crisis wears off, and also that it is more difficult to run strategic planning meetings online than it is to work on transactional tasks.

Planning for future working patterns

A number of leaders at the roundtable are considering the wisdom of returning to wholly office-based working models, especially when end-of-year accounts and other milestones have now been achieved with teams working remotely.

Rather than take two floors in an expensive office building as had been previously planned, one company had decided to take only one, while a second had decided not to renew their lease on a London HQ office.

New working models are likely to be adopted, such as having just two days in the office and the rest at home or sharing offices with another company. The ratio of employees to desks may well have changed for good.

Another consideration was that productivity may be high currently when a critical mass of people are working remotely, but the balance changes when most are in the office and one individual dials in – offices will survive because people are social beings, but the way in which they are used will alter significantly.

Pushing through with strategic planning when focus is on the short-term

Noting the difficulty of having high level strategic discussions on-line, Robert Half’s Director of Leadership said it was important to push through with these conversations even when colleagues are more focused on the short-terms and dealing with emergencies.

Leaders need to feel ‘comfortable with feeling uncomfortable’ about not always getting decisions right every time, while still recognising that most employees value certainty over ambiguity.

This is because the companies that concentrate on how to come through the crisis ‘match fit’ and that have considered how they can change people, processes, and technology to meet business objectives will be the ones that succeed moving forward.

Understanding that ‘perfect is the enemy of good’ and making incremental changes rather than waiting for the right time to introduce large-scale transformation is also important.

Finally, look for the silver linings within the current difficult situation. As Winston Churchill reportedly said when working to form the United Nations after WWII, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”


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