Cloud Wars logo with text: Tech CEOs response to COVID-19
Cloud Wars logo with text: Tech CEOs response to COVID-19

COVID-19 Snapshots: 5 Tech CEOs Embrace Pandemic’s ‘New Normal’

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The COVID-19 pandemic that has turned the lives of billions of people upside-down in a matter of weeks has also provided some compelling moments for five of the world’s most-influential tech CEOs.

The global turmoil wrought by this novel coronavirus has underscored a vital point that we sometimes overlook: CEOs are, in spite of certain obvious differences, flesh and blood people just like the rest of us. 

In the past few weeks, as we’ve shifted the focus of Cloud Wars to encompass the profound and sweeping effects of COVID-19, we’ve had a chance to see tech-industry leaders confront a challenge unlike anything they’ve ever faced. And in that singular experience, we’ve seen many moments of grace, courage, humility, innovation and compassion.

This morning, as the world appears to be getting this wildly destructive pandemic under control, I wanted to share glimpses of how 5 world-class tech-industry CEOs have dealt with this new normal in ways that underscore not just their common humanity but also their uncommon ability to lead, to inspire and to lessen the uncertainty that wild upheavals always generate.

Before I start, two quick notes. First, one of the 5 CEOs I’ll mention here is Larry Ellison of Oracle. I fully realize that Ellison’s official titles are CTO and executive chairman rather than CEO—but I think de facto Oracle CEO Safra Catz would be the first to say that Ellison remains the #1 exec at the company. Second, in the previous paragraph, I used the term “new normal.” I want to emphasize that while that term has some short-term legitimacy, what we’re going through now might be new but it sure as hell isn’t normal. And while it will take some time, I think we all will indeed return to something very like the “normal” that existed before March 1, 2020.

No doubt, some significant things will change. But that reality was a fundamental part of life here in 2020 before COVID-19 and coronavirus and Wuhan become household words. Looking ahead, masks and physical separation and 22 million Americans out of work and elderly family members isolated in nursing homes—these are not normal, cannot be normal and never will be normal.

But in our 5 CEO snapshots, we get a sense of what is and should be normal among great leaders: great insights, great courage, great humility, and great commitment.

1. Marc Benioff of Salesforce.

Long regarded as a high-profile disruptor and leader within the broad confines of the tech industry, Benioff has begun stepping out into societal territory over the past several months. So when COVID-19 began to wreak havoc here in the U.S. several weeks ago, it was not surprising to see Benioff be the first to speak very openly and publicly to his employees about the seriousness of the pandemic, working from home and a no-layoffs policy.

But what truly revealed the match of the man and the moment was how Benioff became—overnight—a global force in procurement and logistics. The Salesforce CEO not only masterminded the acquisition and delivery of 50 million pieces of PPE to a huge San Francisco medical center, but also, in doing so, transcended the tech industry. You can read the full account of that here: Marc Benioff: The Extraordinary Ascendancy of a Global Leader.

2. Arvind Krishna of IBM.

Imagine the 30-year journey from research scientist at one of the world’s most-revered corporations to being named CEO at a critical time of transformation for the company. Imagine the impact both at IBM and for technologists across the world, to become the company’s first CEO to rise through the ranks of developers rather than from the sales side. And imagine the emotional journey for Arvind Krishna from the time his promotion was announced on January 30, when COVID-19 was still seen as some odd and faraway thing, to when he officially took over as CEO on April 4. In a Day 1 letter to his colleagues and to the outside world, Krishna displayed the courage and compassion that will stand him in good stead as IBM’s leader: 

I’m writing to you for the first time as your new CEO in the midst of a global public health crisis unlike any other that we have faced. This global pandemic is affecting everyone and has disrupted the rhythms of our daily lives.

Our first priority is your physical health and mental well-being. We are also cognizant of the impact COVID-19 is having on IBMers’ families, friends, communities as well as our clients. During this challenging time, we all need to have empathy, solidarity, and understanding for each other… I’m writing to you for the first time as your new CEO in the midst of a global public health crisis unlike any other that we have faced. This global pandemic is affecting everyone and has disrupted the rhythms of our daily lives…

If there’s one thing that this public health crisis has brought to light it is the ever essential role of IBM in the world. We are the backbone of some of the most critical systems of the world. Our technologies and services help banks run credit card transactions, businesses run supply chains, telcos connect customers, healthcare providers improve patient care, and companies and cities tackle cyberthreats.

3. Jennifer Morgan of SAP.

As with Krishna, Morgan had barely settled into her new role at SAP as co-CEO along with Christian Klein before the coronavirus struck. So during her first on-air interview with Mad Money’s Jim Cramer, Morgan took a very different tack then she might have in “normal” times. She spoke about the importance of understanding and staying in touch with how your employees are feeling. Not how they’re producing, but how they’re feeling. Noting that SAP’s pledged not to do any significant layoffs for at least 90 days, Morgan described the new solution SAP Qualtrics has released to help companies monitor the well-being of their people working from home:

So one of the first things we did was launch something called Remote Work Pulse. We got over 5,000 [now more than 8,000] companies to jump on board, using this for free and it’s a way to really listen to what’s going on with your employees because this is really changing every single day. It goes from connectivity, to how do I work with other people from home with my kids at home and learning at home.

And Jim, what’s really interesting is when you ask people ‘Are you okay? What do you need?’, you get the real, honest truth. And there’s a lot of people who are alone and are isolated at home, so mental health is something that has to be on the minds of companies today because making sure your employees are healthy and that they have what they need is going to be critical to anything before they can be productive.

Check out the full story at 7,600 Companies Pounce on Free SAP Solution to Help Employees Manage COVID-19 Stress.

4. Satya Nadella of Microsoft.

Now into his seventh year in the position, Nadella is widely recognized as one of the world’s top CEOs. (I’ve argued that he very well belongs at the top of that list.) The company he leads—in spite of the global economic slowdown—has a market cap of about $1.35 trillion (“trillion” with a T). So, surely Satya Nadella must have some fancy-schmancy setup that lets him work without limitation or disruption, right? Here’s a reality-check from Nadella’s March 21 open letter to his colleagues and the world:

Please know that the senior leadership team and I are thinking about you and prioritizing the health and safety of you and your families first and foremost… It is in times of great disruption and uncertainty that our ability to stay grounded in our sense of purpose and remain true to our identity is of the utmost importance… There’s no doubt that the workflow of our jobs is changing fast, with many of you doing so much of your work remotely for the first time, some while also caring for children at home. I myself am learning, as I’m sharing a home office with my two teenage daughters and juggling between their eLearning schedules and my Teams meetings. [Emphasis added]

Does the CEO of Microsoft in fact share an office with his teenage daughters? I’ll bet he does—and much more important, I’ll bet most Microsoft employees think he does. Read the full story at As COVID-19 Rages, Microsoft & SAP CEOs Share Messages of Gratitude, Empathy, Hope.

5. Larry Ellison of Oracle.

Here’s a guy who’s accomplished just about everything imaginable in his 40+ years as the leader of one of the world’s most enduring and successful technology companies. Ellison is one of the wealthiest people on the planet, he won a legendary America’s Cup competition when most people gave up on his team as finished, and he’s often said that if people aren’t calling you crazy, then you’re not innovating aggressively enough. But now, like us mere mortals, Larry Ellison’s working from home. And he recently answered the call of duty by making a 50-second YouTube video extolling the accomplishments and value of Zoom, which is using the Oracle Cloud to help keep the world connected during this pandemic.

Ellison’s video might not make him an overnight YouTube sensation, but I’ll bet it will make every Oracle employee wonder, ‘If that’s what Larry’s willing to do, then what breakthrough new things should I be doing?’ Get the full story at Larry Ellison Accelerates Zoom’s Boom with Huge Endorsement on YouTube.

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