Supporting Your CEO Through Challenging Times

The position of CEO has always been stressful. However, today (and tomorrow and tomorrow and…) that stress is compounded by a seemingly endless pandemic and social unrest. Directors and boards would do well to pay attention and check in with their top executives.

Researchers from a variety of fields and institutions have addressed the challenges of stress and burnout. This research — combined with my own work with CEOs (including throughout this pandemic) and military veterans and my ongoing studies of New York Fire Department 9/11 first responders, as well as my personal experiences — yields some straightforward and well-supported recommendations for boards concerned about the stress levels of their CEOs.

There are best practices for leading through hard times — practices that can serve as a measure of the performance of your senior leadership. To implement those practices, directors can ask questions to evaluate the wellbeing of the CEO and other senior leadership who are operating under ongoing and unusually taxing conditions.

The person filling the role

Evidence of the rising importance of supporting people as they grind through these times appears almost everywhere, including unlikely sources such as the National Association of Basketball Coaches, which issued a statement that players need mental health tools and support platforms that include journaling, meditation and yoga. These times have highlighted numerous established techniques for handling stress and avoiding burnout. What should you as a director look for from your CEO and their reports as they contend with the heightened, unusual and prolonged challenges that surround them?

Are they clear about who they want to be as a leader? Do they have a personal North Star to guide them? If not, then time to get to work on locating one. Expedite their discovery.

Are they employing best practices for leading through challenging times (as listed below)?

Have they changed behaviorally? In particular, do they seem more irritable, less able to focus, less interested in others, more reactive, more blaming and critical, more isolated, less productive or notably less likely to smile or laugh?

Does their schedule seem maintainable? Have they built in self-care? Are they truly taking time off, or are they always available and plugged in? Are they having any fun? How’s their family doing?

In addition to planning for the future for the business, are they making plans for themselves? In effect, do they have something to look forward to?

Do they report having adequate personal support? Are they maintaining professional and personal links to others?

Are they grateful? Gratitude energizes oneself and others, especially in these times, in no small part because of the connection and the positivity inherent in it. Relatedly, do they see the accomplishment represented by simply still standing, as a person, as a leader and as an organization?

The job of leading through hard times

Once you’ve asked the right questions — and gotten answers — you can put best practices in place to guide leader behavior in hard times and, therefore, review their performance.

Clarify values (yours and the organization’s) — you’ll need them. Hard and challenging times can easily test values. Determining what one stands for will provide a guiding star and help avoid common traps such as inconsistent or reactive decision making. During challenging times, organizational members attend closely to the differences between words (e.g., expressed organizational values or purpose) and deeds.

Be honest and clear. Truth and clarity on the part of those in charge helps those not in charge to stay calm and to trust leadership. Restated, tell the truth as simply as possible, and nothing but the truth. Say what you know and don’t know. Say when you expect to know more. Delineate the process for any decision making. Provide no false assurances — being caught in a falsehood at any time is risky and especially during a challenging time can cast a long and lasting shadow over the working connection between leader and potential follower.

Lay out the dots, then connect them. Help others understand what is unfolding. Use reliable data from reliable and referenced resources. Don’t forget to provide a desired end state, one worth the journey. Help people understand what’s happened, what will happen and why. When communicating, remember the adage, “anxiety up, intelligence down,” including yours. Adjust to this reality and keep it as simple as possible in order to help you and others limit the cognitive and emotional chaos in order to focus. Literally, make sense.

Create routine and structure. A regular schedule of group and individual check-ins along with clear goals for one week or even one day helps people keep their corner of the universe tidy. Reinforce order amid the unknown and chaotic. It’s high-stakes personal and professional feng shui. Specific short-term tasks also enable people to maintain a sense of their own efficacy, a sense that they can influence their environment and therefore should maintain hope and not give in or give up.

Don’t just prioritize a “to-do list” — build a “not-to-do” list. There’s simply too much to do. CEOs had more than enough to do before COVID and waves of unrest arrived. Now, as the head of North America for an international “essential business” firm put it, “My goal for 2021 is to get below two hours a day spent on COVID and COVID-related matters, which today takes over four hours of every day.”

Facing that reality means confronting the reality that much that is worth doing simply will not — and cannot — get done. Listing all those well-worth-doing items will only increase the experienced burden of the role, the sense of frustration and the possibility of burnout. A board can help a CEO decide what to-do’s not only could but also should get left by the side of the trail. Boards may need to help a CEO let go of pre-pandemic objectives. Sometimes, powering ahead is not the best approach for a CEO or for an organization. Consider sitting down with the CEO and asking what perfectly good ideas and initiatives will go on the “not-to-do list” and stay there for the foreseeable future.

Get out in front. Lead from the front when times get tougher and from the back when times ease up. Don’t hang around headquarters when the shooting starts. Find your unit. Walk the parapet. People want to know that they’re not cut off, that they remain connected to the organization and that they matter enough for those of rank to show up. Talk to people regularly as a group and as individuals. Stay in touch. The contact with key members of the chain of command supports a sense of connection to the rest of the organization and, quite simply, makes them feel valued. Also, a higher-ranking person often can, when needed, secure resources and make bigger decisions and so help people feel that they have or can get what they need to overcome the challenges.

Stop, question and listen carefully. Do not assume that you know others’ frameworks or that their frameworks are as they were at the advent of 2020. Much has likely happened and is happening at home as well as at work. Those individual frameworks will determine the meaning and effect of your words. It’s not what the leader says that matters. It’s what gets heard and that depends significantly upon the condition and, hence, the frame of the audience.

Manage conflict proactively. Name the real enemy and keep them in sight. A common enemy (e.g., a pandemic or, more specifically, the struggles of working remotely) serves to unite. Also, move toward conflicts among your reports and address it, since it probably will not just “blow over” under the grinding stress of seemingly relentlessly challenging times.

Do what you say you will do. Hold yourself accountable by setting standards and objectives for your own behavior and then meet them. Model focus, performance, learning and responsibility. Sticking to the basics and walking the proverbial talk never mattered more.

Feed your horses, feed your people, feed yourself. Identify what your people need to succeed and get it for them. Tend to their well-being and then (and only then) tend to yourself. In the presence of isolation, connect. In a world of social depletion, provide sustenance. But don’t forget to tend to yourself as a person and as a human resource. Do so for yourself and for your family, because your followers will need you tomorrow — and the day after.

Play… regularly. Research reminds us of the psychological and physiological benefits of laughter and of staying in touch with the joy of living. This is why people have joined to sing across rooftops and balconies around the world as the sun goes down on another trying and isolated day. You and your people should too. You don’t have to come up with all the party games. You can delegate that, but you can authorize and support experimentation in, for example, what constitutes fun on Zoom.

In brief, regularly take the pulse of your CEO and the senior team. Don’t just offer support — give it. Normalize your increased attention by discussing and identifying the special demands of these trying, protracted and unusual times. In that context, inquire about the special demands that they believe the times place on the people of the organization and especially upon them, the leaders.

Get specific. Ask about them. An “I’m fine” isn’t detailed enough. Just as with any other set of challenges, you want the challenges identified, a plan to address them and ways of measuring effectiveness. And don’t ask just once, especially if you’re the board chair. Make it a regular topic. “How are folks doing? And your team members in particular? Let’s spend a little time discussing each of them. And how about you?”

Finally, don’t cram those questions into a few minutes at the end of the conversation. Dedicate time up front. These check-ins need not end whenever the pandemic ends. The current demands can produce a closer working connection between the board and the CEO, a connection that enhances support for the CEO without compromising his or her discretion. Such a result from these challenging times would benefit both the leadership of the organization and its members, both in these and in coming times.

Gregory P. Shea, Ph.D., consults, teaches, researches and writes in the areas of organizational and individual change, leadership, innovation and group effectiveness. He is a senior fellow at the Wharton School’s Center for Leadership and Change, adjunct professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and of its Aresty Institute of Executive Education and adjunct senior fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at the Wharton School. He can be reached at or on LinkedIn.

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