With a shirt tucked into his pants and a light semi-formal blazer, the CEO walked the aisle of his office towards his cabin.
He sternly gripped his laptop bag in his right hand while maintaining an arched back with a straight neutral look on his face as he walked.
Flanked on his right and left were his teammates going about their normal course of work. Its 4:30 pm in the afternoon, post-lunch, and a little before the customary informal evening break at the office.
As soon as the CEO settles into his cabin, the HR Manager checks in with the CEO’s EA from the floor above as she wants to discuss some urgent employee grievances and get final sign off on some new policies.
5:00 pm on the CEO’s calendar is marked as a recurring weekly meeting with the CFO and 6:00 pm onwards with the sales and marketing teams. Another team’s lead barges in meanwhile to check up on how the meeting went from which the CEO was returning. It’s a “startup” after all—checking with the EA for a glass door cabin in an open 3000 sq ft isn’t the culture many millennials care to follow (and well, rightly so).
Even though everyone was highly driven and responsible in the organisation, the CEO brought in an inexplicable sense of parent-back-at-home vibe with him as he had walked in. Not that he was strict and dictatorial, yet, ‘authority’ curiously tends to bring in some semblance of restraint with it.
Cut to early March 2020.
The month where the most punch-at-9am-or-half-day organisations were also forced to go remote.
The CEO would be back to his cabin in a few days, they thought. The team members would make Dalgona coffee, make ads on WFH, watch web-series, call up long lost relatives, and catch up on hobbies because the lockdown will lift in a few days, they thought.
People were just wrapping their heads around the infinite recitals of 'unprecedented times' during Zoom calls. McKinsey’s corporate communication department was regurgitating surveyed newsletters on the need for 'empathetic leadership'.
Movements of 'You’re lucky if your salary is credited in full' was further echoed by a breed of new storytellers on Linkedin (many of whom vowed to write a status-a-day for personal branding during the lock-down).
Polls by Silicon Valley VCs took over Twitter for consensus on the 'new normal'. Netflix almost crashed and had to reduce video quality to reduce bandwidth stress in India.
Weeks and months passed and finally, unlocking series started to take over as a trend. The lockdown started to lift but it technically never did—I mean; it did but things had changed.
The lifts were accompanied by the death of the CEO.
Looking at the descriptive, non-investigative, and literary flow of this “professional” article, a lot of you may have guessed by now that the CEO may not have died literally. He died metaphorically.
Allow me to explain.
Remote worked bred a new wave of CEOs. The team members. The ever-resilient team members who all worked no less than CEOs.
WFH could have been an open book exam for many but barely anyone cheated or took the easy way out.
They owned their responsibilities and jobs not only because of the fear of losing it; They did it because most collectively understood that the economy and the plight of their companies regardless of the sector. No-one had to tell them to pull up their socks, most did on their own.
A lot of them did 2x the work in 0.5x the cost paid by their clients.
A lot of them helped their founding product teams pivot.
A lot of them took on the charge of additional portfolios.
A lot of them supported cuts voluntarily without caring about ESOPs or even their own EMIs even when they had the option to switch to other companies.
Almost all of them came forward to help laid-off colleagues get jobs.
The definition of a founder CEO is someone who does selfless irrepressibly spirited work with a vision. CEO builds in the face of all odds. CEO carries on when family, economy, colleagues, friends, clients, investors resign like a fallen house of cards around him. CEO motivates those on his ship even when all doubt him when all mock him.
The lockdown saw the death of the concept of 'a CEO' and the birth of 'many CEOs' in organisations.
This piece doesn’t really support or glorify the maniacal and unfortunately unhealthy stretching of work some working professionals had to do in the last few months. But it definitely salutes the spirit of resilience of these mini CEOs when the entire world’s economy was coming down crumbling.
It raises a toast to team members understanding the other side of the table by supporting their companies and professional strangers alike.
The regular informal Slack messages, the Whatsapp group, finally doing a phone call instead–of-that-conference-room-meeting, etc broke down the mental walls of a cabined CEO further.
Decisions didn’t hover around waiting in queue to meet or talk to that cabined CEO. Teammates were empowered to take decisions without overhearing colleagues in a physical office space. They had to work and build relationships with new recruits on their teams without those chai-sutta breaks. They had to get out of comfort zones like a CEO is forced to, every day.
Some sustained burn-outs, many others fought/are still fighting real problems of erratic sleep and body schedules.
But still, all these pulled themselves up, pulled their colleagues up too, and kept working towards the light at the end of that declining economic graph.
Even when COVID shows no signs of slowing down today, the silver lining of this “horrible 2020” is making many discover strengths they never thought they had inside of them.
Here’s to a newborn breed of CEOs and a happy death of a concept of one central one who walked down the aisle.
The author is founder, 1702 Digital.