Lean on me: How CEOs are helping each other lead through the pandemic

Article from Fast Company by Todd McKinnon

Every CEO should reimagine the future with a fresh lens: We’ve already vaulted five years forward in digital adoption, and we can continue to accelerate it further.

In February, I attended a dinner with CEOs from Slack, Box, Zoom, and PagerDuty. We discussed business plans, roadblocks, and aspirations for 2020. COVID-19 did not come up once. But by early March, all of the shop we talked just weeks earlier became obsolete—almost everything about our plans changed as we faced a slew of difficult decisions that were never accounted for.

CEOs across every industry can relate—no business was left untouched by this generational pandemic. But one major learning in a year filled with them is that decision makers don’t need to be alone in sorting out what’s to come next. When the world turned upside down, I was in almost daily contact with other CEOs, and their insights were validating, eye-opening, and, at times, liberating. In the spirit of those shared experiences, here are a few of the lessons learned on leading during unprecedented change. 


Employees take their cues from the top. If you can lead by example, be decisive, and be clear when sharing critical updates, you will send a signal to your team that a well-thought-out plan is being executed. This is especially true when it comes to major updates like expected timelines.

In a conversation with Peter Gassner, CEO of Veeva, we talked about how to communicate important decisions more clearly. He talked about how every team has either a remote-first or an office-first culture. If your default is remote, employees who choose to go into the office have to dial into meetings from their desks to maintain the remote culture for everyone. If it’s office-based, the priority is to accommodate team members in the office. 

I realized that although we’d been remote at Okta for a few months, we were still in limbo: everyone considered working from home a stopgap. I needed to make and communicate a firm decision about our default environment. I sent an email to the entire company letting them know our new default was remote, and that my team of direct reports would commit to working remotely until there is a vaccine or medical treatment for COVID-19. Since this conversation with Peter, I’ve worked harder at making firm decisions, sticking to them, and communicating them early and frequently, often across multiple mediums to drive home those decisions.


Even when the pandemic is behind us, we’re still not returning to “normal” as we know it. Every CEO should reimagine the future with a fresh lens. At Okta, we’ve prioritized building our “Dynamic Work” plan—a strategy that allows employees to work when and where they want and offers more experiential office spaces. When our head of workplace services first proposed this plan, I thought it was too drastic. But after experiencing the benefits of remote work, I realized we had a unique opportunity to create a more inviting, flexible, and productive way of working. 

But ditching a return to “normal” isn’t just about how we work, it’s about totally rethinking goals and priorities. We updated all 2020 goals when COVID-19 set in and the world shifted to a remote economy. We re-prioritized more timely needs like doubling down on training to empower strong remote leaders across all teams. 

And just as you shouldn’t be afraid to rethink your goals, don’t shy away from bolstering your technology stack to power virtual business. Those who stay at a standstill awaiting a “return to normal” risk missing out on critical technologies that can help your team stay innovative and keep your customers engaged. As a society, we’ve already vaulted five years forward in digital adoption, and we can continue to accelerate it further. 


We are creatures of habit, but the past few months have called for new routines. While it can be hard to stray from the norm, don’t hesitate to give up what you know and embrace what your people need. During times of uncertainty, people want leaders who are present, engaged, and transparent about how they’re coping. 

In the past few months, I’ve worked more closely with my team than ever before. When we brought on David Bradbury as our new chief security officer in April, I met with him for at least one hour each day. Prioritizing these in-depth meetings with critical new hires can make it easier for them to jump on board and make a difference early. It’s also a signal to the rest of the organization, illustrating how onboarding in a remote environment requires more of an investment. It’s part of how we’ll attract and retain the best minds.

I’m also opening up more personally with the Okta community, whether that’s through leading a burpee contest (no gym, no problem!), engaging more on Twitter, or participating in a virtual cooking class with customers. We’ve always had an anonymous Q&A forum where employees can submit questions for me to answer during our weekly all-hands meeting, but we’ve taken that a step further. At the start of the pandemic, I hosted an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session about our response to COVID-19, and a couple of weeks ago, I held a “listening tour” to hear employees’ questions on Okta’s support for Black Lives Matter. By opening the floor for questions on critically important topics, you demonstrate the value of transparency, encourage your team to start hard conversations, and get the chance to answer good questions.

We still have a ways to go when it comes to uncovering how to best keep employees informed, connected, and productive at home. In addition to answering every question, sending out surveys frequently to gauge how your team feels about their productivity makes a big difference. And know that we’re in this together—no leader is an island, and we have a long road ahead. I plan to continue turning to the experience, guidance, and advice of others and sharing my own findings when I can to help collectively determine the best path forward.

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