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‘The Pandemic CEO’: Why COVID-19 changed who got the top job

Jessica Yun
·4-min read
Diversity among global CEOs took a hit during COVID-19, but research has shown women leaders generally handle crises better. (Source: Getty)
Diversity among global CEOs took a hit during COVID-19, but research has shown women leaders generally handle crises better. (Source: Getty)

Global CEOs hired during the pandemic tended to have more C-suite experience, but this has come at the cost of female representation and diversity, new research has revealed.

A recent report by executive recruitment firm Heidrick & Struggles (HSII) revealed chief executive appointments slowed down across four major economies during the pandemic, with fewer CEOs hired between 11 March and 30 June 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.

(Source: Route to the Top 2020 report, Heidrick & Struggles)
(Source: Route to the Top 2020 report, Heidrick & Struggles)

Of these appointees, there were fewer women and less diversity with cross-border and cross-industry experience.

(Source: Route to the Top 2020 report, Heidrick & Struggles)
(Source: Route to the Top 2020 report, Heidrick & Struggles)

Around 63 per cent of the ‘pandemic CEOs’ had previous C-suite experience, especially as a former CEO, compared to 44 per cent between October 2019 and 11 March 2020.

According to the Route to the Top 2020 report, fewer risks were being taken in appointing ‘pandemic CEOs’ last year.

“Our findings indicate that companies have returned to the more traditional comfort zone of candidates, appointing more executives with prior CEO experience and a successful leadership track record,” it said.

But this has been a step back for women in executive positions, as well as those from diverse backgrounds.

“[Companies have] deprioritised, for the moment, advanced education and racial and ethnic, gender, or industry diversity; as well as, to a larger extent, choosing external appointments over internal ones,” said the report.

“Though understandable in a crisis, this preference is likely related to the drop in gender diversity, since there are far fewer women who were formerly CEOs to choose from.”

Female leaders shine during COVID-19

Research has shown that women in charge tend to do a better job than men in a crisis. One study from the University of Liverpool and the University of Reading analysed the performance of 194 countries and their fight against COVID-19, and found women-led countries were generally more successful.

A study of 820 leaders from Harvard Business Review found that women leaders’ effectiveness ratings were higher than men’s to begin with – but this rose even higher in the first wave of the pandemic.

“Women were rated more positively on 13 of the 19 competencies in our assessment that comprise overall leadership effectiveness,” the study said.

Susan Metcalfe, CEO of the Australian chapter of Chief Executive Women, an advocacy group that aims to improve gender balance among leadership positions, isn’t surprised that women lead better in crises.

“It’s no coincidence that many of the nations and states that have responded most successfully to the crisis have been led by women,” she told Yahoo Finance.

The pandemic has demanded that leaders show skills of decisiveness, honesty, and connectedness to their teams, clients and stakeholders, she added.

“Many women leaders have demonstrated leadership skills in abundance – from front-line staff, to the most senior ranks of business and the wide reaches of government.”

“We need to embed the not-so-unexpected lessons highlighted during this crisis. Businesses with balanced leadership perform better.”

These sentiments are shared by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Speaking at Yahoo Finance’s 2020 All Markets Summit, Rudd praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen, whose handling of the pandemic he described as “first class”, “very good” and “remarkable”.

“So is it a gender-laden comment? I’m not sure. But I'm just pointing to the data. The data does or has shown that female-led countries have fared better throughout all this,” Rudd said.

This year, leadership skills of empathy, courage, and constant learning – or reading – have been highlighted as significant for the modern CEO.

Chinese tech billionaire Jack Ma, whose whereabouts appear to be unknown, has previously flagged the importance of ‘LQ’ and ‘AQ’, the ‘love’ quotient and ‘adaptability’ quotient.

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