CEOs entered 2020 riding an economic high, completely unaware of the disruption ahead. Long-term plans were in motion, processes were firmly in place, and the biggest problem they faced was attracting talent amid a historically low unemployment rate.

Then March happened. In many ways, CEOs are still reeling from the initial shock of Covid-19’s disruption and the ensuing scramble to get employees and processes working remotely. For most of us, any semblance of normalcy went out the window in early March — a month that feels like it still hasn’t ended.

Previous downturns, like the recession of 2008, were easier to weather because leaders could replicate the successful strategies of their peers. However, the disruption of 2020 offered no such guidance. As we begin 2021, we should instead take inspiration from a different source — startups. If we want to emerge from the pandemic as better leaders and stronger organizations, CEOs need to get in the trenches with a startup mindset.


Infusing entrepreneurship and agility into the culture.


Most entrepreneurs are masters of agility; they’re comfortable operating without a playbook. They can teach us valuable lessons about facing adversity and operating at breakneck speed, and they remind us to become more empathetic and transparent leaders.

As I’ve steered my own company out of uncertainty, a startup mentality and a focus on agility were keys to our success. Here are some lessons I think entrepreneurs can teach CEOs about managing through disruption:

• Quick pivots win. Startups are notorious for pivots. YouTube was meant to be a dating site. Flickr started as a fantasy role-playing game. Despite their wildly different beginnings, both companies recognized an opportunity in their core product and shifted to monetize it. The pandemic is a reminder for CEOs that bold decisions are sometimes necessary — and luckily, they’re easier to make during a disruption. Short, calculated bets can help you pivot out of a slide when disruption happens.

Takeaway to consider: How difficult was your transition to remote work? Were you struggling to retool your product strategy because of disruption? These are signs that your organization could benefit from more agile thinking, processes and organizational structure.

• Reinvent the ‘office.’ Pre-pandemic, a trendy office with a high-end espresso machine and bean bag chairs earned bragging rights. The espresso machine and bean bag are now collecting dust. Startups can teach us something about the shifting culture of work: The future is decentralized. As CEOs, it’s critical to consider whether our current physical footprint is still a necessity. According to Monster, rural areas are starting to attract more developers, and analysis from The Wall Street Journal found that millennials are fleeing city centers at increasing rates. For some of us, the conclusion may be that offices are a relic.

Takeaway to consider: The average U.S. commute is about 26 minutes one way, but traffic delays add an additional 54 hours on average to commutes each year. Is this model sustainable?

• Bring transparency to the trenches: Most CEOs have found themselves more in the weeds of day-to-day business than usual. This is good. For us, it’s a chance to spend facetime with employees and reacquaint ourselves with processes. For our teams, however, it can be a valuable show of leadership. CEOs that roll up their sleeves and pull late nights along with everyone else set the tone for how employees will face disruption in the future. You can further help calm anxiety and boost morale by adopting the transparency and candor that the most successful small startups bake into their cultures.

Takeaway to consider: Small gestures matter — and so does showing you are a human being, not just a corporate executive. Borrow another time-tested startup tactic and buy your team a (virtual) pizza on a late night or consider making all-hands meetings less formal. In a stressful time, your team will thank you for these simple motivations.

2020 was proof that CEOs shouldn’t take anything for granted. After a difficult year, I’m a stronger, more prepared leader after infusing some entrepreneurial spirit into my decision-making. While operating in startup mode isn’t a long-term strategy, operating with a startup mindset can be.