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The seismic shifts in leadership in a post-COVID world (and how to hire for the future)

There has been a mass exodus of high-profile C-suite executives in the tech world over the past 12 months – and most notably CMO’s. Why?

The convenient catch cry, of course, is “the pandemic”. But that blunt blanket statement misses the underpinning point: that the industry, and its relationship to operationalizing the use of data, has fundamentally shifted.

The traditional role of a CMO has been transformed in some brands and obliterated in others. The CMO’s role of being the custodian of the brand (the connoisseur of taste) and to lead on marketing plans to tell the story of the brand hasn’t changed, but the way it is achieved and the methods that success is measured have.

The traditional kings and queens of the marketing world, with their high-flying networks, gut feelings and market knowledge, are being replaced with data-driven, whole-growth marketing CMOs who place their trust not on what, or who, they think they know – but on what can be measured, analyzed and optimized.

Marketing is customizing before our very eyes. Personalized messaging is becoming the norm, while the rise of the creator and micro-influencer means that TikTok is the new black. The eye is being replaced by the scoreboard. The world has moved from “trust me” - to - “track me”.

The pandemic facilitated a heavier reliance on the digital impact required during remote times - accelerating the “great CMO transition”. Also, the second year of the pandemic saw the emergence of the Metaverse, NFTs, Crypto and Web 3.0. Collectively, they are a natural extension of marketing, reaching into new worlds of immersiveness with the possibility to educate, entertain and transact.

This pitch away from a traditional CMO approach began pre-pandemic. In 2017, soda giant Coca Cola ditched its global CMO in favor of a growth officer – and it wasn’t alone. Colgate-Palmolive, Coty, and Mondelēz did the same, alongside European Airline EasyJet, who made an even bolder statement switching letters from CMO to a CDO (Chief Data Officer).

Additionally, there has been a power shift back towards the consumer and what they want – or, in many cases what they don’t want. Cue sustainable and ethical sourcing and a call for transparency and privacy.

C-Suite Tagalong Effects

But it’s not just CMOs who need to worry about their roles transforming. It’s the whole leadership suite. And it’s not just digital that is shape-shifting - it’s the whole plan around staff management. Three years ago, leaders – regardless of the sector they worked in – were primarily worried about brand management, strategic direction and delivering growth. In short, the “big picture” stuff.

Today, the concerns center on finding and keeping great staff, hybrid and remote working, culture and engagement, integrating DEI practices and mental health support, and the need to be able to work across multiple platforms, markets and verticals. Less big picture and more about specific integrated and inclusive operating systems.

The market has slowed down around us. House prices are at a two-year low, underwhelming Q2 earnings have been posted from titans like Meta, and significant layoffs reported in our sector by Peloton and Hydrow, Whoop and F45. And some of the big brands Ford, Microsoft and Apple have slimmed down. And yet a strong labor market endures.

This is partly down to the reverberations still felt from the pandemic, but also the economic turmoil in which the global economies find themselves in. Since March 2020 we’ve ridden the emotional rollercoaster personally and professionally - confusion, fear, scarcity, innovation, and graduated from ‘unprecedented times’ to ‘uncertain times.’

The volatility of the raw materials market, supply chain issues, political unrest and now a market pullback after hyper-growth in some sectors has exposed the need for three different leadership styles.

  1. A war CEO to offer strong guidance during the initial period of upheaval

  2. An opportunistic CEO to identify and innovate as the new path became clear

  3. A cautious CEO to ensure the right resources are allocated in the buildback.

Regardless of whether this is a reset or a recession*, we are experiencing recessionary behavior in businesses. Resources are being reserved, organizational structures are being streamlined and we are seeing ‘shrinkflation’ in the grocery aisles - package downsizing by companies to reduce the quantity or quality of a product for the same price.

When it comes to the all-important consumer confidence, there are huge pressures on the cost of living as inflation and interest rates rise at a rapid rate in response to the money-printing activities by the Federal Reserve to ease the downward pressures of the pandemic.

Yet, despite all of this, the employment market is going strong. The US unemployment rate for June 2022 was just 3.6 percent – the lowest it has been since February 2020. And the trend looks to continue to improve despite layoffs in. During June 2022, the number of unemployed people decreased by 38,000 to 5.912 million. Usually this means that GDP drops and unemployment rises. And we are not seeing this perfect storm yet.

So what does Michael Burry, played by Christian Bale in The Big Short, who predicted the 2005 housing market collapse would lead to the 2008-09 global financial crisis, think about it all?

Burry is of the opinion that inflation won’t remain elevated in the short-term and there will be a “bullwhip effect” - the deflationary effect of retailers holding too much stock, which they have piled up due to the supply chain issues we have all seen over the past two years. Burry says that, as inflation will cut consumer spend, retailers will have to start dropping prices and scale back on their orders to relieve themselves of the goods they have stockpiled.

If this is combined with the Fed cutting down on their money-printing activities, it is likely that the cost of raw materials will start falling too. Ultimately, this could lead to pressures on both GDP and jobs. And if that happens? What kind of leaders do we need then? The return of the war-CEO mentality to get us through?

It’s impossible to predict. But what we do know is that certain leadership skills will always be needed - regardless of the market forces that they need to be deployed in.

  1. Integrity and transparency in the face of crisis.

  2. Crystal clear communication through chaos.

  3. Setting achievable, tangible goals under pressure.

  4. Agility and/or stability prescribed in the appropriate doses at the right time.

Seeking a good soul to lead your brand through these dynamic times? Reach out here:

* A recession is best described, by National Bureau of Economic Research, as a “significant decline in activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, visible in industrial production, employment, real income, and wholesale-retail trade”.



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