7 minute read 12 Jun 2020
rainbow colors in the Barcelona city street stairs

How CEOs see the role of business in a COVID-19 world

By Mona Bitar

EY UK&I Vice Chair

Experienced business advisor for over 25 years. Amateur poet and historian. Brings multi-cultural perspectives as a proud Palestinian Brit.

7 minute read 12 Jun 2020

Leading with purpose has never been more important.


s leaders strive to steer their corporate ships through unimaginably stormy waters, there’s an understandable need to focus solely on the management of immediate, operational and financial issues. But in the midst of uncertainty, companies mustn’t let these unprecedented demands and strains divert them from the path towards a more sustainable future.

As COVID-19 continues to create uncertainty and concern for businesses, people and societies, the need for a more human and more purposeful conversation feels ever more important.

Only by putting purpose at the heart of actions and considering the needs of our people, our customers, our partners, our communities and our planet, can organizations create genuine, long-term value.

To consider the role of purpose further, EY recently brought together leaders from some of the world’s top companies on a special webcast — the first in a series. The discussion provided a valuable insight into the leader’s perspectives during this crisis.

There’s been a lot of talk about purpose, and now is the moment for businesses to show who actually means it.
Nigel Higgins
Group Chairman of Barclays Bank

CEO perspective — How COVID-19 is defining business purpose

Webcast: business leaders of major companies discuss shifting expectations of the role of business, its leaders and how people work.

Listen to the replay


(Chapter breaker)

Chapter 1

COVID-19 is restoring hope

Purposeful business behavior has come to the fore.

The world is gripped by concern and anxiety, but the response to COVID-19 could give us much to be hopeful about.

Technology has proved itself

Technology has stepped up to the mark to accelerate remote working and connectivity.

For years we’ve been talking about the promise of technology; this crisis has shown that we really can be productive from anywhere. Lockdown has also emphasized the ubiquity of technology as it has become a basic utility that everyone should have access to and none of us can do without.

Essential workers have been thrust into the limelight

Millions of people who were once taken for granted are now recognized as heroes, turning up every day to power our healthcare systems, transport networks, factories, banks, utilities, public services and supermarkets.

There’s a growing recognition of the importance of such roles, reflected in Unilever CEO Alan Jope’s comment that “Essential workers will hopefully be more highly valued after this. I think we’re seeing the true value that these people play in society.”

We are far more mindful of our collective, environmental impact

As we experience emptier skies and streets, and cleaner air it helps us to imagine a greener future. Our panelists reminded us that, while COVID-19 is acute, climate is chronic, calling for even greater commitment to transitioning to a low-carbon world.

The crisis has revealed our human sides

Think of how many video calls we’ve attended against a backdrop of children, pets and other symbols of domestic life.

This has helped us view our co-workers beyond their professional persona and created new bonds.

Conversations have become a lot more personal. There’s greater empathy, which is making companies more human.
Michael Dell
Chairman and CEO, Dell Technologies
(Chapter breaker)

Chapter 2

Companies must balance multi-stakeholder needs

Successful organizations will take a long-term view when nurturing relationships across their entire ecosystem.

In a highly interconnected world, the pandemic has forced us to think more carefully about our interdependencies — not just with other businesses, but with our end-to-end ecosystems.

A long-term view should reap rewards

The need to nurture and sustain stakeholder relationships with customers, suppliers, employees, partners, financiers and communities is critical to achieving long term value.

It takes courage to hold your nerve, but stakeholders will remember how you acted during these difficult times.

Purpose provides an anchor

Several of the webcast panelists observed how a strong belief system helps them navigate the stakeholder universe. Indeed, there’s a general feeling that a holistic outlook, based upon long-term value, actually leads to fewer trade-offs.

Bernard Looney, CEO of BP, noted that “What has helped us is clarity of objectives. Let’s not assume that every decision is a trade-off — I think many people want the same thing more often than we think.”

It’s a similar story for Unilever, which has a well-publicized commitment to make sustainable living commonplace. CEO Alan Jope believes in the circular nature of business relationships: “If we look after our people, they look after our customers. If we take care of our business partners, communities and environment, then our shareholders will be well rewarded.”

I believe a strong purpose is the key to long-term value. We should not be forgetting what's important as we get through this crisis.
Carmine Di Sibio
Global Chairman and CEO, EY
(Chapter breaker)

Chapter 3

Creating new conversations

When developing the “new normal” in response to the disruption caused by COVID-19, organizations have the opportunity to shape a better future.

A global crisis like COVID-19 threatens business models and tests organizations’ resilience and adaptability. It also creates a different future for how we work, live and indeed communicate. So what new conversations are we having?

A change in the way we work

With the success of remote working, leaders everywhere are rethinking the balance between home and office. By commuting less, we reduce the strain on transport infrastructure, improve air quality and enhance work-life balance.

As Barclays Bank’s Chairman Nigel Higgins commented: “People on this call are running oil companies, tech companies and banks from their kitchens!”

But the lockdown has also shown how people still crave the intimacy and social nature of the workplace. The new normal for work is, therefore, likely to be a hybrid solution, with a permanently increased amount of home working and significantly less business travel.

Accepting fiscal stimuli and grants

Governments around the world are offering varying levels of grants, tax credits and other packages to support companies through the crisis. Our panelists questioned whether larger corporations — at least those that are well-capitalized and robust — should apply for such stimuli. A debate being had in many board rooms at the moment.

An interesting change for us, is whether or not in fact we should go after a government stimulus that we would be entitled to.
Alan Jope
CEO, Unilever

A reinforced interest in mental health

Experiences of stress and anxiety are common as many of us remain concerned for our families, our livelihoods and our future. In the past, we may have been hesitant to discuss such fears, but COVID-19 is opening up the conversation.

Bernard Looney, CEO of BP and a strong advocate of addressing mental health, argues that “Not everyone will be infected by the virus, but everyone is affected by it. This is as much a mental health crisis as it is a physical health crisis and I hope we can now make mental health mainstream.”

Such comments remind us that, arguably, the most important conversations we can have at this time are with each other.

(Chapter breaker)

Chapter 4

How will the future judge us?

In the decades to come, organizations will be remembered for their actions during this crisis.

COVID-19 is a decade-defining crisis. It’s also a unique opportunity to reimagine a future where every company acts with a deep sense of purpose. If we fast-forward to 2030, how would the business world want history to view its response to the pandemic?

We focused on the world’s big challenges

In addition to facing immediate challenges, the CEOs taking part in the discussion unanimously urged all businesses to renew their focus on tackling health, climate change, inequality and diversity. This calls for a strong nerve, to stick to their principles when making key decisions; experienced leaders may have to support their younger peers through these stormy waters.

As Carmine Di Sibio, EY Global Chairman and CEO, explained, “Maybe we lost sight of the importance of large businesses helping their communities, and that's incredibly important.”

We acted with care and compassion

Chairman and CEO of Dell Technologies, Michael Dell, commented that “Employees, customers, partners and communities will remember how we treated them during this time.”

Leaders must remain compassionate and caring towards their employees and they will respond best to empathetic leadership and a human approach. And don’t forget that stakeholders — such as suppliers and customers — they may also need personal support in addition to business solutions. It is important for business to show its caring side at this time.

I'd like to look back and say we helped people when they needed help.
Bernard Looney
(Chapter breaker)


Leading with purpose

Organizations should use purpose to create long-term value and build a better world.

Many businesses continue to struggle to manage through this crisis and may do for some time.

Leading with purpose in the weeks and months to come will mean:

  • Working together to help each other and our communities
  • Acting with empathy and compassion
  • Remaining committed to a future where business, people, society and climate goals are closely aligned

COVID-19 presents an opportunity for us to live our purpose and through doing so, we can create long term value and a truly sustainable future.

Listen to the webcast on-demand.



In this time of unprecedented change, business purpose has never been more vital. Only by putting purpose at the heart of actions and considering the needs of our people, our customers, our partners, our communities and our planet, can we create genuine, long-term value. To listen to some of the world’s top companies provide valuable insights into this topic, listen to the CEO perspectives webcast here.

About this article

By Mona Bitar

EY UK&I Vice Chair

Experienced business advisor for over 25 years. Amateur poet and historian. Brings multi-cultural perspectives as a proud Palestinian Brit.