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The Inside Track — The uncertainty gap

September 16, 2020

The only constant is change. 

Before the pandemic, that statement was a cliche. Now, our country’s top executives are realizing it’s a truth, for the foreseeable future. 

Inside Track09- The CEO Uncertainty Gap

We are now six months into a crisis that has lasted way longer than most of us anticipated, and we don’t know any more about when and how we will get out of this than we did back in March. Historically, that would spell devastation for C-level executives, who have typically responded to uncertainty in two different and equally unhelpful ways: paralysis or brashness. 

“Recent business history provides many instances of giants toppled by misunderstandings of uncertainty – whether they be financial players taken by surprise during the last financial crisis, phone manufacturers failing to anticipate the smartphone revolution and, later, the iPhone’s potential to rewrite the industry, or computer manufacturers that missed the PC market’s bullet train in the 1980s,” according to a recent analysis from Deloitte. “Misinformed bullishness and complacency caused these organizations either to overlook a firm-diminishing downside or to completely miss a significant upside opportunity.”

In those instances, market uncertainty was targeted toward a few specific industries, sparing the rest of the economy from the same fate. In the era of COVID-19, no industry has been spared rapid rates of change, and a collective swing and a miss in response is just not an option. 

The first step in taking a different path forward is acknowledgement, and that’s where we have some good news. As our editorial team reviewed the latest round of earnings calls, we noticed a widespread understanding among top executives that there really is no end in sight to the crippling uncertainty under which they are operating. 

As David Abney, CEO of UPS, put it: “We don’t know that we’ll ever get back to what we’d call the old normal, but we’re not ready to declare what we see today as a new normal either.” 

Randall Stephenson, the former CEO of AT&T, said the company brings in the “smartest and the most genius economists in the world, and you can bring a dozen of them in, and the range of possible outcomes… is unbelievably wide.” 

And Brian Cornell, CEO of Target, acknowledged it’s hard to understand what’s going to happen next week, “let alone three or four months from now.” 

The second piece of good news is that many CXOs are now on a quest to fill this uncertainty gap. They’ve been spending more time talking with peers from other companies in search of information and effective strategies and best practices. They’ve been connecting frequently with customers, partners and suppliers. They have also been collaborating and strategizing, not just across their own corporate silos, but across organizations: What started out as crisis task forces have matured into agile brain trusts of business units and functional leaders for the purposes of sharing information and making quick decisions.

This is the general CEO mindset six months into COVID-19. Now, what does this mean for you if you are trying to engage and support these leaders?

First of all, make sure you are using an appropriate tone. While we all want to appear upbeat and optimistic when doing business, you don’t want to appear clueless or callous. Keep in mind that some of these leaders might have experienced illness or even loss among their families and friends. Their businesses and employees may be under more financial and emotional stress than you know. 

Our current environment is also a social and political minefield, so be wary of polarizing topics and broad-based assumptions. You never know what side of the aisle someone occupies, so, while it can be challenging to avoid the state of the world, focus on the person first. Start your conversations with check-ins. Ask how your customers and prospects are doing, how their families are feeling and how their businesses are faring. Acknowledge the gravity and the difficulties of our current reality with humility and authentic empathy. 

Then, offer solutions.  

If uncertainty is their biggest pain point, consider how you can help fill that gap in some way. Every company has data, research, subject matter experts, and tools; what can you bring to your customers that would help them develop more certainty around some aspect of their business? Could you offer up one of your own executives as a subject matter expert? Do you have a piece of research or a case study that could be relevant? Or do you have a tool that could help ease communication and collaboration with peers? 

Slack is a great example of a company that is doing this brilliantly. Just as COVID-19 hit, Slack was introducing a new product feature that allows people to create private collaboration networks across multiple organizations. Early in the crisis, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield set up one of these networks with the CEOs of 15 other SaaS companies so they could have a continual conversation to help each other navigate the COVID-19 crisis. Soon, shared networks for CFOs, CMOs and CHROs followed. Slack leveraged this intense need for executive-to-executive communication to get its tool in the hands of C-suite leaders, many of whom had never used the tool before. These networks — many of which continue to operate — delivered tremendous value to the participants. 

They also converted 1,000 new paid customers to Slack in a six-week period.

At Boardroom Insiders, these videos are our way of lessening the uncertainty gap for sales and marketing teams as you strategize how to focus your communications and outreach to the C-suite executives who are leading your most important customers. Our insights stem from the power of our in-house editorial team and our database of 21,000+ profiles on Fortune 1000 executives. If your company is focused on selling and marketing to the C-suite, the Boardroom Insiders platform is the competitive advantage for executive engagement. Request a demo, and find out what we can do for you.

What they’re saying 

“Recent events have redefined the concept of uncertainty…” 
— Scott B. Salmirs, President, CEO & Director, ABM Industries Incorporated

“We are reinventing our business on the fly… There are going to be some issues we are dealing with now that are temporary. There will be a lot of things that will be more permanent.” 
— David Gibbs, CEO, YUM! Brand

“What is certain is uncertainty.” 
— Karen Carter, Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Inclusion Officer, Dow Chemical Company

“To recover to pre-COVID levels, we will need to have a vaccine or effective treatment, which will take time to produce and distribute globally at the scale needed.”
— Glenn Fogel, CEO, Booking Holdings

“The only view of the post-pandemic landscape will be in hindsight.”
— Dr. William Klepper, Adjunct Professor of Management, Columbia Business School

“It’s our duty as a trusted advisor to find ways to use our insights and mission-critical data and analytics to help businesses manage risk and turn uncertainty of the moment into confidence in the future.”
— Stephen C. Daffron, President, Dun & Bradstreet 

“CEOs need a microscope and a telescope to figure it all out. The microscope to understand the here and now...and the telescope to work out what the ‘new normal’ will look like in the longer term.”
— Sven Smit, Director, McKinsey Global Institute

“We will, of course, all be living with considerable uncertainty for some time yet, and we are running the business on that basis.”
— John Fallon, CEO, Pearson PLC 

Your Next Steps 

We all need to be aware of what’s changing in the C-suite. Marketers should be focused on bringing the latest information to their account teams as it develops. Given that we employ a small army of really smart people to read and parse corporate earnings call transcripts, CXO interviews and emerging C-suite trends all day long, we can help by feeding you the latest. 

What do you do with this information? Do what you have always done — align and support. Here are the four questions you should try to answer about all of your top accounts:

  • How has their strategy/priorities shifted post-COVID-19?
  • What are they cutting?
  • Where are they investing — or doubling down?
  • What can you offer that supports their current focus?

Now we want to hear from you. What’s keeping you and your team up at night, and how can Boardroom Insiders help? Let us know at info@boardroominsiders.com, with the subject line “INSIDE TRACK.”

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Sharon Gillenwater

About the Author

Sharon Gillenwater

Sharon Gillenwater is the founder and editor-in-chief of Boardroom Insiders, which maintains an extensive database of the most in-depth executive profiles on the market, from Fortune 500 companies to independent non-profits, to help sales and marketing professionals build deeper relationships and close more deals with clients. Gillenwater is a long-time marketing consultant with expertise in marketing strategy, account-based marketing, and CXO engagement programs.