Lessons A/E CEOs learned about themselves during pandemic

CEOs in the A/E industry reflect on the lessons learned from this past pandemic year relating to their leadership style and discuss what has changed.

July 21, 2021

What CEOs learned about themselves as leaders over the past year:

About being a better leader

“…this past year was more than implementing strategic plans, engaging with our business sectors leaders and clients, growth, metrics, etc. This past year has caused me to realize that patience and empathy are natural characteristics of my leadership style, and are especially important during these times.”

“Being a good listener was critical to succeeding during these uncertain times. I gained a greater appreciation for the different perspectives employees brought to the table on a number of issues based on their individual circumstances…”

“I have become a better listener; I had a bad habit of listening but not hearing.”

“I have learned that if I delegate appropriately, the work can be done more efficiently and more quickly – leaving me to concentrate on strategy and overall management. Amazingly, I am a bit of a control freak (who knew??) and I have had to work on myself to understand that just because something is not done the way I would do it, does not mean that it is wrong.”

“I had to tone my enthusiasm down considerably and become much better at reading body language. It is w/o a doubt the imperceptible aspect of body language I studied the hardest on. It helped tremendously to get people to open up. And people needed to talk.”

“For me, I really started to think about gratitude and how blessed I have been in a time of some much difficulty. Some may call it empathy, but I think for me it’s about looking for the things that I am grateful for everyday and that helps provide a solid foundation to help others see the world differently, lead differently and act differently. These last 16 months everyone needed more joy and hope. This is not about just being all happy and blowing smoke, it’s about really carrying for people and knowing we all have ‘stuff’ to carry and finding ways to help lighten their load.”

“On a personal level, the past year reminded me of the value of setting and respecting professional/personal boundaries for yourself and your team.”

“Personally, I am grateful for all who helped push us through this difficult time…I’m also grateful for the government’s small business assistance program. In the end, I’ve learned how to be even more resourceful (reaching out to friends, colleagues and advisors)…and that will no doubt help me down the road.”

About honest communication and communicating

“It served to only reinforce for me that consistent, honest, authentic and complete communication by the CEO and the leadership team is extremely valuable. In fact, I would say it is craved, critical, and expected by the team and is more critical and expected today than ever before. They want to know about you. They want to understand your values (as they represent the company), who you are and what you are thinking. They want to understand your character, how and why you make decisions. They want to understand your positions on certain issues, and transparently see your actions and behavior.”

“Informed – Employees want to be kept informed as much as possible. Their work is a big part of their lives.”

“As a 100% ESOP, we have always been very transparent with regards to financial performance. We share everything. The pandemic introduced a unique element to transparency, it became more personal. Instituting a daily health screening and sharing national trend data in attempt to keep everyone informed as to the health and welfare of everyone in the firm was a whole different type of communication and transparency.”

“It has been very important to communicate regularly with the team and let them know how and what you are thinking and why. We had so many major events and crises to wrestle with, messaging around each was very important.”

“Although virtual, the importance of communication is very clear to me.”

“Reassure your employees to the fullest extent possible that you are looking to the future while addressing the crisis in the moment, all while understanding what truly is important to people. As an employee-owned firm, I think this message really resonates…”

“I learned that I do not need to ‘be there to lead.’ Historically it was about being front and center, present to the offices and industry, it needed a lot of flight time and hotel stays. Once I understood the power of video and nascent movement toward virtual, and made modifications to how I interact with the teams I found that we could still develop and lead organizational excellence and even some change initiatives in the firm.”

“The care in which we took to make sure we communicated (which I did more Zoom ‘all hands’ meetings, video messages, blogs, emails, etc. than I could ever imagine doing in ‘normal’ times) the actions we were taking, the precautions we were advancing, and the additional support we were offering has seemingly paid off with our colleagues around the company. The feedback about the pro-active communication was overwhelmingly positive, of which I can’t take the credit as there was a team that was supporting me in getting those messages out.”

“I guess I knew this but it was even more important…I needed to communicate with everyone, especially in the early stages, very often. People were worried…were we going to make it?, Would they have a job?, How long would this go on? I did regular Zoom or Teams videos and was as straight as I could possibly be. I told them about our PPP loan and how that helped, about how our balance sheet was strong and we were in good shape, that we’re weathering the storm alright and that I thought we would be away from each other for a long time. I let them know that things were not as bad as they seemed, and, later, that they were actually pretty good. I realized again how much employees look to the CEO as a signal of what is really going on.”

“As soon as you make a decision or have information to share, do it. Be transparent. In today’s world communication flows very quickly and it was essential for employees to have one source of information as often as possible…”

“Honesty and transparency were key, and we focused on what we could control. I gave regular presentations to staff in March-July 2020 about our financials and steps we were taking to weather the pandemic ‘storm’. We were honest about our situation, including the potential of reducing our workforce, eliminating bonuses and shareholders dividends, and implementing other cost-cutting measures. We never panicked, though, and instead focused on serving our clients and executing our business plans. Our staff appreciated the honesty and were able to manage through the uncertainty.”

“I have also learned that communications is an art form that I am learning, and I have started taking classes to improve my abilities in this arena.”

“Our team is really craving the communication, reinforcement of values, transparency to character, values, decision-making, mergers, how we make decisions and understanding what I am thinking about, what I am excited about, what I am concerned about and what the future holds.”

About business travel

“I have enjoyed not traveling as much and have more of a routine.”

“Have a better balance of life ( travel) – Probably won’t travel as much as pre-pandemic. Travel takes time which can be used for other things.”

“Having flown somewhere three out of four weeks every month for the last 20 years, I learned to like not traveling and the hassles that come with it.”

On leading during times of uncertainty with no playbook

“I will note there were a number of pretty isolated times as the CEO where decisions needed to be made not only for the safety of the employees, but also about the overall health and future of the company. There wasn’t a historical benchmark to assess against, we had to make decisions based on the best information we had at the time, and at times it seemed that these decisions had the potential for lingering impacts down the road in the future, unknown or unintentional impacts.”

“I learned to be more comfortable with not having the answer. As a CEO, people naturally come to me with questions, and I’m expected to have the answer. I draw upon my experiences, training, and instincts to make decisions. However, during the pandemic, I literally had no similar experience to draw upon and did not have the answer to questions like: how long will this last, how will our business be impacted, when will the economy recover, or should we get rid of office space and go 100% remote? I had no more insider knowledge or wisdom than anyone else. My response was to simply be honest, admit that I don’t have the answer, and concede that we’ll figure it out together along the way.”

“I have learned that I have more value to my firm than I thought. When things are good and the economy is humming and work is plentiful, running and engineering firm is easy. But we earn our money when the crap is hitting the fan, people feel vulnerable, and need to be reassured, the future is uncertain, and people are mis-aligned. That is when leadership matters. That is when we earn our money.”

“I’m not invincible – Already knew that but it was reinforced. I had periods of struggles during the pandemic.”

“No problems, just challenges that need to be overcome.”

On the importance of projecting leadership

“This past year really highlighted for me the notion that employees are closely watching the behaviors and actions of the leadership team. With so many difficult decisions to make, there often times was a never a perfect solution, so actions needed to be taken in the context of what was best for the entire organization and in alignment with your core values…”

“…one thing I did observe is how much people looked to and for leadership in times of uncertainty.”

“At any event ( internet based or not) you had to show the utmost confidence in the company, the people and the vision/strategy of the firm. My behavior and expressions set the tone for whole meetings. The slightest wince or indication of uncertainty set the tone of any meeting or call and you could never recover.”

“I could motivate and inspire our staff by showing resilient leadership, staying in good health, communicating with them and being there when they needed to communicate with me.”

“If I stay calm and keep a cheerful outlook, it does rub off on others.”

“Each appearance had to show confidence.”

About being genuine and connected

“On a personal level, although I enjoy connecting with people it was not a natural part of my personality or skill set. The past year has really brought home the importance and value of personal connection. Certainly traveled a lot and had many interactions, but I questioned the quality of those interactions. There is real energy and impact from a quality connection. I may have taken it for granted up until last year.”

“Calls/written notes with family members outweighed any other method of saying thanks.”

“I need that face to face connection with people – Did not realize how much that gives me energy. My energy feeds off others.”

So, what DID we learn about our firms and ourselves? There are common themes and trends that emerge from our shared experiences this past year. They speak to the power of a shared sense of purpose and a culture that values responsible autonomy, trust, and a cohesive leadership team. They highlight the need for honest communication and the need to continuously dig deep to help others.


This article originally appeared on Morrissey Goodale’s websiteMorrissey Goodale is a CFE Media content partner.

Original content can be found at www.morrisseygoodale.com.