Health

Business leaders struggle with endless upheaval

But at companies large and small, new
and old, public and private, 2022 was a year that played havoc with
expectations. Through it all, CEOs swapped some of their favourite tropes —
timelines, confidence, strategic plans — for something new: saying “I don’t know,”
or even “I changed my mind.”

Take Daily Harvest, a food delivery
service. It had a major advertising campaign ready to begin this week. In the
works for months, it would highlight the problems with the global food system
and invite customers into the woes of modern farming. Then, days before
Christmas, CEO Rachel Drori considered scrapping the campaign.

“A week ago it felt right,” she said.
With omicron cases surging, the stock markets tanking and a pall cast over the
holiday season, “it’s definitely not the right moment,” she said a few days
before Christmas.

The Daily Harvest team began a frenzied
attempt to create a new set of advertisements that spoke to the nation’s unease
while also encouraging potential customers to buy pre-made mulberry oat bowls
and turmeric soup.

Then Drori reconsidered. The original
campaign would continue, after all.

The myriad related crises of the second
year of the pandemic — including a supply chain gone haywire, a topsy-turvy
labour market and constantly evolving public health guidelines — turned
executives’ projections into estimations and return-to-office dates into fairy
tales.

Companies that had prized their
in-person collaborations went remote forever, with the share of Americans fully
working from home rising 27 percentage points from pre-pandemic levels, and
others remade their business models to try to stay afloat. Those decisions
demanded agility: In one IBM study, 60% of executives surveyed had changed
their approach to management during the crisis.

“I’ve been in retail for 30 years now,
and this absolutely feels like a uniquely disruptive time in modern business
history,” said Kelly Caruso, CEO of Shipt, a same-day delivery service owned by
Target and based in Birmingham, Alabama. “Nobody has come out of the last two
years without feeling the pain of the pandemic. The level of uncertainty in
business right now — that takes a toll on all of us.”

‘Several Years of Uncertainty’

Ryan Petersen, CEO of Flexport, which
arranges international shipping, has spent recent months navigating the supply
chain crisis. He toured backlogged ports hoping to understand why shipping
containers weren’t moving. Then he hired a boat so he could observe firsthand
the megatankers marooned off the coast of Los Angeles.

Now, as a year marked by unceasing
disruption comes to a close, Petersen is confronting a distinctly of-the-moment
disruption: On the Tuesday before Christmas, he tested positive for the
coronavirus.

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“I wasn’t sure if I was sick or if I ate
too many Cheerios last night,” he said, adding that his wife, who tested
positive a day earlier, usually looks after his diet. “My wife is really sick,
and I just gorged myself.”

Petersen said that his symptoms were
mild and that he expected to return to work in a matter of days. But his brush
with COVID-19 — nearly two full years into the pandemic — highlights the
unrelenting chaos facing companies, their workers and their leaders.

“It’s been several years of
uncertainty,” Petersen said, adding that because of the omicron variant,
Flexport had delayed its return-to-office plans again. “We try to embrace it.”

There was once a time when annual
planning was anchored in reality. At the start of the year executives could
determine, with some accuracy, what made sense for budgets and hiring, which
made bold decisions easier to execute.

“As the leader of an organisation, you
want to give your employees as much certainty as you can,” said Jeff Boss, a
former member of the Navy SEALs and the author of “Navigating Chaos: How to
Find Certainty in Uncertain Situations.” “It’s very basic, Leadership 101
stuff.”

Boss, who runs a personal defence
training company that teaches special operations combat tactics to ordinary
people, said those wartime principles were just as relevant to executives in
the C-suite.

Scott Harrison, chief executive of Charity: water, in New York on March 27, 2019. At companies large and small, new and old, public and private, 2022 was a year that played havoc with expectations. (Gabby Jones/The New York Times)

Scott Harrison, chief executive of Charity: water, in New York on March 27, 2019. At companies large and small, new and old, public and private, 2022 was a year that played havoc with expectations. (Gabby Jones/The New York Times)

“In the military we had a key saying:
‘Shoot, move and communicate,’” he said, preaching the virtues of forceful
decision-making, a determination to keep pressing forward and maintain
transparency. “That same sort of strategy translates into business.”

John Waldmann, CEO of workforce
management platform Homebase, learned early in his career the primacy of plans,
first in management consulting and then in private equity. As someone who had
never built software but decided to found a software company, he practiced
making promises and then figuring out how he could keep them.

When COVID-19 hit, that approach
collapsed. Homebase temporarily lost 60% of its customers, which were mostly
small businesses and hourly workers. The company laid off 30% of its staff.
Waldmann sat in meetings with his board of directors presenting wildly varying
forecasts of how many clients he could ultimately lose or when the economic
recovery might begin.

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Other organisations were charting
similarly tumultuous territory.

At Bombas, a sock company, executives
instituted a raise and hiring freeze, and had to be honest that they weren’t
sure whether at some point they would have to do layoffs. At large tech
companies, return-to-office dates have been postponed as many as four times.

“We threw out any plans we had, any
budget, any road map,” Waldmann said, and with those went the sense of rigid
confidence that had previously been at the core of his leadership. “It made it
easy to say, ‘Let’s not kid ourselves.’ We have no idea when this is going to
end.”

‘Positive Cases in Every Office’

There’s nothing quite like falling ill
to bring home the immediacy of the crisis, and Petersen, of Flexport, wasn’t
the only CEO in isolation.

Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines,
tested positive this month, just days after testifying before Congress that
masks “don’t add much” to the quality of airplane cabin air.

Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg said on a
company webcast that he had tested positive for COVID-19 this month, adding
that his symptoms were mild and encouraging employees to get vaccinated.

And Rich Handler, CEO of investment bank
Jefferies, shared this month that he had tested positive for the coronavirus
and was isolating, days after the bank sent its employees to work from home and
mandated booster shots for all those returning to the office by late January.

“The one thing that keeps growing
(besides your beard) when you are in isolated lockdown is a very long list of
fun things you want to plan to do once you and the world are healed,” Handler
wrote on Instagram. “The trick will have to be that list remains a vital
priority once all of the uncertainties pass.”

With the virus spreading as rapidly as
at any point during the pandemic, more C-suite infections are all but
inevitable. And for some executives, falling ill themselves has reinforced the
unpredictability of the moment.

The staffing challenges emerging as
workers fall sick, stacked on an environment of already soaring resignations,
has made it hard for business leaders to anticipate what the coming months
might bring.

Chuck Robbins, CEO of Cisco, was supposed
to be in Davos, Switzerland, next month for the annual meeting of the World
Economic Forum. But as omicron cases rose last week, he emailed Klaus Schwab,
head of the forum, and told him that Cisco would not be attending. Two days
later, Schwab postponed the gathering, which was set to draw thousands of
politicians and executives to the Alps for a week of canapés, cocktails and
speeches.

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“We’ve had ongoing challenging
situations since I became CEO, from tariffs, to the ongoing political situation
in the US, to the pandemic, the lockdown, the social justice issues, and now
the pandemic that won’t seem to end, and the supply chain issues,” Robbins
said. “Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, you get another curveball
thrown at you.”

‘Am I Being Punked?’

Charity: water — a nonprofit — used to
hold its annual plans almost sacred. Advancing its vision of clean drinking
water for all meant thinking within the widest time horizons, CEO Scott
Harrison thought. But looking back at 2022, he realised that some of the
organisation’s biggest decisions couldn’t have been predicted in its
start-of-the-year plan.

There was the move to begin a Bitcoin
trust, which will hold onto its funds until at least 2025, in the hopes of an
exponential leap in value. There was the announcement that the team would end
its New York office lease, giving staff members more flexibility in where they
worked and lived.

With the world and the virus in a state
of constant flux, Charity: water has shifted its approach to annual reports.

“We’re now moving to six-month goals and
even more of a quarterly sprint cycle,” Harrison said. “It’s so hard to imagine
where we’ll be 12 months from now.”

Some are finding humour in the tumult,
whether in broken-up Zoom calls or meetings interrupted by hungry pets. It may
be an interminable mess, but at least everyone is going through it together.

Lisa Osborne Ross, US CEO of public
relations firm Edelman, said she had gotten an outpouring of sympathetic notes
from her staff after she led one of the rockiest meetings of her career this
month.

She tried to display an end-of-year
memory video, which somehow ended up visible only to her. The audio cut out.
Murphy’s Law prevailed. Everything that could go wrong went wrong — and her
employees loved it.

“I was like, ‘Am I being punked?’” she
recalled. “But people said it was the best town hall ever because it was human
and funny.”

©2022 The New York Times Company

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