A few months ago, we imagined “thriving” as leading our organizations to a better normal after the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet our responsibilities as leaders now are further compounded by concurrent challenges of racial injustices, climate change, and economic uncertainties. Getting to “Thrive” appears more arduous and lengthier than many of us imagined… or hoped for.
The first wave and recurrences of COVID-19 continue to plague many parts of the world. Seventy-six percent of companies and many geographies in our most recent analysis are still in the Respond and Recover phases of the crisis[i]. Even companies and geographies that have entered the Thrive phase realize that we are all in this long journey together, because our prospects are inextricably linked.
The future of each of our organizations, though, is not preordained. As resilient leaders, one of our most critical roles right now is to sustain: to sustain our people, many of whom are experiencing not only fatigue but more stresses than they ever have; to sustain our organizations in continuing to create value for all stakeholders; and to sustain society as it experiences multiple existential threats. But just as important, we must also sustain our own ability to lead so that we can continue to serve over the long journey ahead.
Sustaining our people
Our people are undergoing unprecedented levels of stress and uncertainty: workers who have suffered deep personal losses from COVID-19 and/or racial injustices; parents stretching to navigate childcare and major uncertainties over schooling responsibilities while still meeting work commitments; even the loss of basic grandchild-grandparent physical connections. It requires both empathy and courage on our part to lead them forward.
As leaders, we need to empathize with and acknowledge the myriad challenges our people are currently coping with, including feelings of ambiguous loss and toxic stress.
With both ambiguous loss and toxic stress, the better definition of an endpoint and a reduction in uncertainty are important ways we can support our teams. For example, Deloitte has hosted Zoom-based workshops where a cross-section of our people helped to inform return-to-the workplace programs—giving them a greater sense of control. Likewise, sponsoring projects that have a defined endpoint and outcome—where teams can declare that they are “done”—also helps to counter both ambiguous loss and toxic stress.
Additionally, having courageous conversations is at the heart of taking decisive, bold leadership actions, which are even more critical now to sustaining our people. Such conversations enable us to deliver truthful messages and real-time feedback amid the crisis, and require courage:
- To address difficult situations such as business closures, layoffs, and furloughs rather than ignoring them and hoping they go away
- To decide and implement a course of action, even when unpopular
- To speak the truth about the situation, why each decision was made, and acknowledge the implications
Sustaining our organizations
In the Respond phase of the crisis, most organizations’ leaders found they needed to play defense: keeping their values, their people, their customers, and their business at the forefront. But to thrive in the next normal, we will have to play both defense and offense, working to protect our people and our business, but also taking the longer view. We need to lean into the wind and make contrarian moves now so we can come out of the crisis with momentum and a competitive edge. Many companies will play defense, not offense. Winners will do both[ii].
Crises typically prompt major opportunities such as accelerating innovations, expanding ecosystem relationships, anticipating changing market structures, and creating new business models. Many of us watched silos crumble almost overnight in the rush to respond to COVID-19: Teams became more cross-functional, while ideas, experiences, resources, and expertise were quickly shared in ways that enabled organizations to take more informed, holistic actions. Leaders should consider which of those barriers can be permanently removed.
Sustaining society requires us as resilient leaders to take an even more active role in influencing social systems and structures for the greater good. Leadership for the greater good requires followership, and followership is engendered by trust.
Within society more broadly, trust is needed now more urgently than ever, particularly amid the uncertainties of social disruption and the changing role of institutions. As we consider the organizational and institutional changes in systems and structures, building trust will be essential to successfully guiding society.
Additionally, influence is one of the most impactful and lasting contributions. Where there is racial or economic injustice, it is often ossified systems and entrenched institutions that perpetuate the unfair status quo. Given each of our organizations’ vast web of relationships—with customers, vendors, ecosystem partners, governments, communities—how do we connect and leverage the full potential of these networks to reform social systems and structures?
Sustaining our ability to lead
We owe it to our people, our organizations, and society to be personally fit in mind, body, and purpose to serve them over the long haul. Facing what may be the most extraordinary leadership challenge in our lifetimes, the risk is that we will cross the depletion point before we recognize it. We must not only sustain others—we must sustain ourselves.
None of us know how long the COVID-19 crisis will last or the path the virus will take. Likewise, the major disruptions stemming from racial injustices, social inequality, climate change, and economic stress may further lengthen the path to a “better” normal. As CEOs, we are called upon to sustain through the crisis.
These sustaining responsibilities are akin to a stone dropped in a pond: The stone drops deep into the water, sustaining our ability to lead by looking inward; the ripples reach out to sustain our employees by walking alongside them, our organizations by courageously refining the strategy and playing offense, and society by investing in trust to make positive social change in institutions and systems.
To learn more about what it takes to be a resilient leader on the road to Thrive, please click here.
[i] Based on survey of Deloitte client service leaders, July 16–20, 2020.
[ii] The tension between defense and offense is similar to the tension within “ambidexterity” between optimization and exploration in Benjamin Finzi, Vincent Firth, and Mark Lipton’s Ambidextrous leadership: Keystone of the undisruptable CEO, Deloitte Insights, October 18, 2018.
Punit is in his 33rd year with Deloitte and became CEO of Deloitte Global in June 2015. Deloitte operates in more than 150 countries, with approximately 300,000 professionals. Punit is also a member of the Deloitte Global Board of Directors.
As Deloitte Global CEO, Punit set in motion a global strategy to achieve undisputed leadership in professional services. In his first term, he led efforts that resulted in double-digit aggregate revenue growth globally, with Deloitte becoming the largest of the professional services organizations. Currently Deloitte is recognized as the strongest and most valuable commercial services brand. Also, during his tenure, Deloitte advanced audit quality through significant investments and focus.
As a tangible expression of Deloitte’s commitment to its purpose of making an impact that matters, Punit launched Deloitte’s signature corporate responsibility program, WorldClass, to empower 50 million people to succeed in a rapidly changing global economy. Punit is also committed to advancing diversity and inclusion at Deloitte, including through measurable actions toward gender balance across Deloitte and within its leadership ranks.
In June 2019, he started serving his second elected term.
Punit has held several leadership roles within Deloitte, including serving as the chairman of Deloitte LLP (US) from 2011-2015 and before that, as CEO of Deloitte Consulting LLP (US). During his tenure as CEO of Deloitte Consulting, the practice experienced tremendous growth despite an ongoing recession, helping it become one of the largest consulting organizations according to leading analysts’ rankings.
Outside of Deloitte, Punit is a member of The Business Roundtable, The International Business Council of the World Economic Forum, and serves as the member of several not for profit boards including at the United Way Worldwide (chairman) and the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum (vice chairman). He was named an honoree to the 2012, 2013 and 2014 National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) “Directorship 100.”
Punit was born and raised in India. He moved to the United States after receiving a Rotary Foundation Scholarship to Willamette University. He has served on the board of trustees of Willamette University and was named among the 100 most influential business leaders who have graduated from schools accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International. In the spring of 2019, Willamette University conferred upon Punit an honorary doctorate. He is married and has a son.