In this transitional era, CEOs need to treat companies like living organisms.

As growing numbers of Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the nation works toward herd immunity, you might imagine that CEOs are beginning to breathe a little easier. After all, COVID turned their complex world
upside down as much as anybody’s, so a return to normality will surely lower their blood pressure, right? Wrong.

The problem with that superficial conclusion is that the organizations CEOs lead are human systems. And common sense tells us that as complicated, emotional, and often hard to predict as individual people can be,
a system of people is exponentially more complex. Particularly when the people in that system have been under great pressure for over a year.

Human systems have rarely been as stressed, in relative peacetime, as they’ve been by COVID. The toll on families, communities, and companies won’t disappear anytime soon, even if we reach herd immunity.

So as the pandemic eases, how is a CEO to lead a company back not just to normal operations but to new breakthroughs in organizational effectiveness?

Key to Success: Begin With People
My experience working with hundreds of CEOs over many years tells me the place to begin is with the human system—the workforce, the team, the collective. Why? Because the company is like a three-legged stool. People, technology, and processes are the legs, and the people leg is key because technology and processes both depend on it. If the CEO doesn’t focus enough care and attention on people, the most essential and delicate
leg will wobble, putting corporate results at risk.

That’s why CEOs should be spending nearly a third of their time on the people leg, on the employees who power their business. To be perfectly clear, in talking about people, I also have company culture in mind because people are at the heart of company culture, which also includes the vision and the mission. But let’s stick to people here and begin by looking at the present moment—the transition from COVID to normality. That’s where CEOs, like the rest of us, are now mired.

Before COVID, in most organizations people generally worked in close proximity. As teams collaborated, members could read each other’s faces, body language, moods. COVID-imposed remote work made that key aspect of communication go poof, into thin air. Zoom kept some of it visible, but only when the camera was running. Water-cooler talk also stopped bubbling, along with the give-and-take of meeting in a single room.

Then there’s the hybrid work environment—some people remote, others live. Someone heads for the bathroom just as they’re called on. Another one loses their internet connection. Meetings can hardly get more dysfunctional. Ground
rules have to be developed. 

What about accountability? Fred loves working from home, but he’s less productive than before. His boss knows Fred needs closer supervision, but Fred doesn’t think so. Today, it’s clear that however much dysfunction a company may have been experiencing before COVID, it’s now many times worse. I work with a lot of CEOs, and the hybrid workforce is driving them nuts.

The biggest people problem CEOs face is employee distraction. By nature, people are always easily distracted. The National Science Foundation tells us that people have between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts a day, 95% of them
recurrent and 80% negative. But the COVID transition era provides powerful new distractions: Fred fears dying of COVID. Fiona fears the vaccine. Hank is hiding his vaccination status and lying about it.

Why is such distraction the main problem? Because the heart of the CEO’s people responsibilities is to overwhelm all that outside noise and inspire the team, directing everyone’s focus to their role in achieving the company’s mission
and vision. To quell those distractions, the vision has to be big and the CEO must make it crystal clear. 

Inspiration’s Not Enough—the People Culture Must Be Strong
But CEOs must be far more than spokespeople and cheerleaders for mission and vision. Heading a company brings lots of additional people responsibilities. To run a smooth, effective organization, CEOs need to view their organization as a living system, much like an organism (or a purposeful, collective organism like a beehive).

Like all systems of people working together on shared goals, this organism, their company, requires care and feeding. The problem is that most CEOs are not paying enough attention to the people side of their organizations. Why?
Because it’s not easy. It’s messy. Lots of CEOs have neither the time nor patience for it. They’d much rather devote their energy to the two other legs supporting the company stool: technology and process. And, especially, to sales,
the direct line to the bottom line.

So CEOs need to focus more not just on their people, but also on themselves. Do they realize the degree to which they are accountable—and must be equipped for—inspiring and elevating people throughout the organization? Because that’s what will achieve breakthrough performance. But this requires devoting time, attention, and care to people.

Just think of some of today’s people challenges. Here’s one: vaccination reentry policy—a big hurdle on the road to bringing people back.

Here’s another: introverts. They’ve enjoyed working from home. Going back to the office makes them uncomfortable, maybe even afraid. And here’s the CEO’s own people challenge: dealing with employees. A third of CEOs admit to
weakness at that. Discomfort. “Now I have to start talking to them? That’s someone else’s job. It’s hard. I don’t have the time.”

But listen, CEO, if you don’t make the time, the company might implode on you.

To avoid such an implosion, can the CEO delegate people responsibilities? Perhaps some—and then only to the No. 2—but in the end, the health of a people system lands in the CEO’s lap. Because if the CEO’s actions make plain
that this is not a true priority, people will treat it as a mere flavor of the month. CEOs must always devote at least 10% of their time and energy to people issues.

In the old days, bosses often “managed by walking around.” (Some still do, at least until COVID.) They’d talk with people and look them in the eye. That provided a sense of what was going right and going wrong. In the Zoom or
hybrid-Zoom era, walking around to feel the company’s pulse is hardly practical. But dropping in on departmental or regional Zoom meetings can partially substitute for shoe leather.

In larger companies, the No. 2 and department heads can also drop in on Zoom meetings. And so on down the line. As the understandings gleaned rise up the chain of command, the CEO will get a sense of company morale.

Naturally, CEOs pressed for time can find themselves adrift in adrenaline, absorbed in fighting fires and plugging holes in the dike. Adrenaline bias is common among CEOs. Less common is mindful leadership that always keeps the
people-centric nature of the organization in focus. Such leaders can often discern a systemic fix to problems—which are so often people problems—on which others can only slap a Band-Aid.

In the end, mindful leadership that clears away the people-system tinder that fuels corporate combustion—even implosion—beats the whack-a-mole frenzy of a CEO running on adrenaline.