CEOs are reimagining the firm and fighting a snap back to old ways of working.

Spring is emerging. Some curves are bending. In parts of Asia, lockdowns are easing. Yet under those curves, families are still suffering and much of the global economy remains frozen. With each difficult new week of the pandemic, CEOs are gradually moving their focus from protecting the business to recovery to retooling, and asking: “How do we learn during this crisis and retool our business so we emerge as clear future winners?”

For the past few weeks, we’ve tracked the lessons of leading CEOs on this journey and uncovered three major ideas:

  • They view the Covid-19 crisis as a dress rehearsal for a more turbulent world to come.
  • They are looking back to the CEOs at the beginning of World War II who faced the last great global supply and demand shock. In the 1940s, leading CEOs recognized the “big idea” that emerged from the war: marrying mass production with a global mindset. They envisioned new boundaries for the firm: Most notably, the role of public-private partnership became a critical source of competitive advantage. They understood that after the war, new customer segments would emerge with radically new needs. The leaders that retooled their companies based on these lessons outperformed their competition.
  • Today’s CEOs are exemplifying the ethos of their 1940s counterparts. To transform their business into a winning firm of the future, they are sharing three main messages with their people: Talk with the most important customers now. Avoid a bounce back to old ways of working. And let the company’s values and principles guide all decisions.

This week, we held dozens of conversations with CEOs about the big idea, or the major theme, that will frame all strategic and organizational changes to come. Most CEOs agree on the big idea emerging from the current crisis: “We can’t go back to the way we were. Instead, we must become a more adaptable, learning organization, competing not only with scale, but also speed. We must rediscover business building—to disrupt the status quo and step confidently from this crisis into a much-changed, new world.”

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