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Middle Eastern CEOs Remain Centered to Generate Trust Amid COVID-19

Highlights from a recent digital gathering with CEOs from various industry sectors in the Middle East, hosted by Egon Zehnder’s Dubai office

  • June 2020

Different elements of Middle Eastern CEOs’ personalities are coming to the fore right now as leaders fight the various challenges presented by COVID-19 and work to regain customers’ and employees’ trust, they reveal to Egon Zehnder in a recent digital gathering.

Essentially, our personalities are composed of different and sometimes conflicting parts, which are more dominant at different times - for example the part driving decisions when the heat is on. For a truly successful leadership approach, however, leaders need to connect with their true sense of self and allow this grounded, centered self to take the lead during this crisis, as summarized by Jill Ader, Chairwoman of Egon Zehnder.

One CEO tries to follow the philosophy of managing with “a cool head, warm heart, and busy hands” to achieve internal balance, while “giving people someone they can trust”. Generating trust has not been easy in an environment where cutting jobs has been inevitable. “For the first time, I’ve had to let go of people in the middle of a crisis, an unprecedented crisis, where people will struggle to find a new job.”

The past few months have also worn down his patience, which may have prevented him listening better and taking on board good ideas.

Firefighting risks burnout

The crisis has made another leader regress to “my command and control side: I wanted to create some level of certainty for myself and for employees. I quickly took charge and made the organization’s priorities clear”. He concedes that continual firefighting and having to take charge all the time is hard, placing leaders at risk of burnout. On a personal note, he felt anxious when separated for a few months from his family, who had to remain in his home country. Now reunited with his family and seeing the lockdown ease, he feels overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude, which he wants to pass on to his employees. “The firefighting won’t stop but if we keep hold of that gratitude, then I think that optimism will be there.”

Meanwhile, the crisis immediately launched the CEO of a food company into “warrior” mode, namely one where he has to take tough decisions and get things done. “We’ve been constantly firefighting over the last few months - I’ve never had to do so much firefighting during my 30-year career. We’ve been trying to deliver products every day and deal with curfews and government restrictions while keeping the whole operation running.”

Working hours might be longer than ever for the employees of a media production business, but their CEO stresses the need to keep the bar high as he praises them for keeping millions of dollars of TV and film production going throughout the crisis. “If you treat people like children then you’ll get infantile behavior. If you set expectations high, they will rise to the challenge. I believe the CEO’s job is to get the culture right, the strategy right, get people on board, and then get out of the way so that they can get on with it.”

A durable consumer goods company feels “blessed” by the recent boost in demand for its products brought the crisis. But their leader stresses the need to constantly monitor changes in consumer behavior. “If you don’t look at how customers are changing, when you stop firefighting the consumers will be gone or changed, and you’ll not only have fires to fight, you’ll also have diminished business.” And right now, it’s important to recognize that there are still “lots of opportunities despite the fires that exist”, he adds.

Regaining essential trust

CEOs throughout the Middle East expect to battle a further series of challenges over the next few years, including localization. “The cost of localization will be a big burden for the next couple of years,” explains one leader. This is exacerbated by high costs of living, accommodation and schooling in the region, he adds.

But one of the key challenges will be how to foster that elusive element of trust, they tell Egon Zehnder. Once consumers’ trust is lost, it’s hard to regain again, says one retail chief. “COVID-19 doesn’t remove the ability to ask, ‘where is my order?’ If it happens once you’re forgiven, but a second time, then you lose a customer.”

Trust is particularly important for the online business, where customers can’t touch and feel products, he adds, predicting a mixture of about 50% physical and 50% online sales in future. And while it’s important to ensure consumers’ safety in physical stores by following government guidelines, there is no need to overdo it by introducing excessive safety measures. “We need to keep people safe, not scare them. If COVID-19 were a human, he’d be the devil himself.”

When shopping in supermarkets, there are only certain products that customers trust right now, and these tend to be standard products and big name brands – they don’t want to try new products, regardless of any promotion or offer. One retail CEO reveals that one brand of disinfectant has been flying off the shelves, whereas he simply can’t sell lesser-known brands.

Trust is more important than ever within organizations at the moment: managers need to trust employees to work effectively from home. Moreover, staff need to trust that it’s safe to return to the office and that “we’re not hiding anything from them”, says one financial services CEO. Banks also need to ensure that they keep the trust of customers who are “flooding back” to branches.

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