In the past, at big company moments, it was often the CEO and CFO breaking the news to employees, shareholders, and other stakeholders. A distinctive feature of the coronavirus pandemic has been to elevate the role of the CHRO, who is often visibly helping CEOs manage the present and lead their companies into the future.
At Verizon, for example, since March 11, CEO Hans Vestberg and CHRO Christy Pambianchi have led a daily all-hands for the company’s 135,000 employees. At Accenture, Chief Leadership and Human Resources Officer Ellyn Shook now meets virtually with company leaders twice a week — instead of in-person once a quarter — to discuss key people and operations issues. And at Cisco, Chief People Officer Fran Katsoudas is leading, along with CEO Chuck Robbins, a weekly meeting for all 75,900 employees. This meeting, which used to be monthly, is an example, as she told me, of how “the workplace is becoming the new definition of community….Sometimes our employees bring in their families. We talk about business updates. We talk about mental health and wellbeing. We laugh a little about seeing each other’s homes, kids, and pets on WebEx.”
Thrive Global is working with many CHROs and their teams — from Accenture and Walmart to Verizon, P&G, and Levi’s — and we are seeing the burdens they carry for the whole organization.
CEOs are leaning on their CHROs to ensure their workforces are feeling supported, because they know the future success — and in many cases, the survival — of their businesses depends on it. According to research by State Street, “companies seen as protecting employees and securing their supply chain experienced higher institutional money flows and less negative returns, especially when those practices garnered significant public attention.”
CHROs are helping employers and employees navigate this new era together. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found that employer communications were the most credible source of information — across 10 countries, “my employer” was trusted by more people than the government, media, or business in general. According to the Qualtrics Remote Work Pulse, 80% of newly remote workers said that communication from their company helps them feel more confident in the actions they can take for themselves during the crisis. And according to Thrive Global’s survey of 5,000 Americans, nearly 90% say workplaces need to do more than implement work-from-home policies to address people’s challenges.
It is CHROs who are stepping up to create agile cultures, not only responding to employee needs but seeing around the corner — giving permission and support, and role modeling empathy, compassion and inclusive leadership. Agility is not just about process or infrastructure — it’s helping people adopt resilient mindsets and navigate ambiguity and uncertainty: How can I be productive while homeschooling my kids? Are we ever going back to the office? Am I allowed to tell my manager about a loved one I’ve lost, or about a fear I have? These and a thousand other questions, existing at the intersection of work and life, are creating unprecedented stress, taking a toll on individual and organizational resilience.
Of course, in many companies, CHROs are also at the center of the really difficult cost-cutting conversations that have led to unprecedented job losses. And when the pandemic ends, organizations will face entirely new difficult discussions around inclusion and belonging. Women and minorities will continue to be disproportionately affected. Extroverts forced to work from home and introverts exhausted by the social demands of remote work will struggle to connect with others and with the company’s larger purpose. These challenges and more will directly affect our organizations’ agility, productivity, adaptability — and they will chiefly be the province of CHROs.
When CHROs and other leaders don’t take care of themselves, innovation, creativity, resilience, empathy, decision-making, and team building all suffer, with consequences for the whole organization. That’s why it’s so important for these leaders to be the carriers of the culture they wish to instill. Yet in all my conversations with the CHROs we work with, I have never experienced them more burdened by the huge responsibilities they are now shouldering. Here are three essential ways we have found that support them in being most effective in fulfilling their new dominant roles.
- Put on your own oxygen mask first.
There’s a reason why airline attendants always instruct us that, in the case of emergency, we’ll be most able to help others if we secure our own oxygen masks first. To help your organization build resilience, you need to first build your own.
Even small steps — a daily walk, a short morning meditation, a 60-second break to focus on gratitude — can help leaders build their own resilience, which will help them recognize the icebergs ahead and the hidden opportunities. It can get them into the metaphorical eye of the hurricane — that centered place of strength, wisdom, and peace which we all have inside ourselves. This was the place that Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of Rome for 19 years — facing plagues, invasions and betrayals — described as our “inner citadel.” Because only from that place can leaders come up with their most innovative and creative ideas that the times demand.
- Role model healthy habits through microsteps.
CHROs and the leaders on their teams are role modeling behavior. As their profiles are elevated, they can seize the opportunity to role model healthy behaviors and talk about the new mental and physical habits they are adopting. So taking some of what at Thrive we call “microsteps” is key to establish healthy practices across the organization. In the next normal, when CHROs are more prominent and influential across organizations, these practices will become markers of leadership and success as never before. Here are a couple of microsteps we recommend at Thrive.
- Set a news and social media cut-off time. While being informed can help us feel more prepared in a public health crisis, setting healthy limits to our media consumption can help us have a restorative rest and put the stressful news into perspective.
- When you wake up, don’t start your day by looking at your phone. Take at least one minute to focus on your intentions for the day, what you’re grateful for or simply taking some conscious breaths instead of checking the latest headlines or work emails.
- Relentlessly focus on your people’s needs.
For leaders, how we communicate and lead needs to reflect the realities of what people have experienced. Many employees are reeling from financial losses and layoffs in their families. Some are grieving the death of loved ones. Many have been sick themselves or have struggled with mental health challenges.
Compassion and empathy can no longer be seen as extra, nice-to-have qualities; they are essential. CHROs and HR teams must lead by example, starting every conversation with simple, direct questions, like, “How are you?” “How is your family?” “Are you ok?” We must give people room to share what otherwise might be kept private — and respect when people decide not to share what they’re going through. Before we even begin to talk about business, we need to open the door to these conversations in authentic, compassionate ways, and keep that door open.
This elevation of the CHRO is going to outlast Covid-19 and permanently change the way we do business — for the better. Because the pandemic is dramatically proving what many forward-thinking CHROs knew long before anyone had heard of the coronavirus: Organizational resilience — the ability to adapt, innovate, and succeed — is directly tied to employees’ individual physical, mental, and emotional resilience.
Right now, CHROs have the wind at their back. We have been talking about putting people first and bringing our whole selves to work for a while now, but these are no longer abstractions. CHROs have an immediate opportunity to move these values from the periphery to the center — not just to get their companies through the pandemic, but to ensure they emerge from it with a stronger, more inclusive, compassionate, and resilient culture. This is their moment to help their companies become what they always claimed they wanted to be.