How the CEOs of Okta, Zoom, Slack, and Box are leading through crisis and creating a new normal

Box, Okta, Slack, and Zoom

Between COVID-19, overdue conversations around racial injustice, and businesses transitioning to distributed work, this year has presented us with multiple crises, but also opportunities for change.

Navigating through these crises towards a “new normal” demands steady leadership. Technology leaders today find themselves sharing responsibility for safeguarding the well-being of employees and their loved ones, while redefining their role in marshaling resources that help customers thrive in this evolving business environment. 

That’s why Okta co-hosted a unique event last week, moderated by Bloomberg‘s Emily Chang. Okta’s CEO Todd McKinnon joined Eric Yuan, CEO & Co-Founder of Zoom, Stewart Butterfield, CEO & Co-Founder of Slack, and Aaron Levie, CEO, Co-Founder & Chairman of Box, in an exclusive virtual event. These executives discussed how companies can drive meaningful leadership in difficult times across their ecosystems, to impact employees, customers, and partners.

This wasn’t a “present your slides” kind of event. It was a frank, moderated, open conversation among Todd, Eric, Stewart, and Aaron who, over the last few years, have become friends, colleagues, and strategic collaborators. They don’t agree on everything, which made for a lively conversation where they each shared hands-on guidance directed towards helping CEOs and CxOs lead through this crisis. 

In this post, I summarize the top four themes from the event. (For the entire talk, watch “Leadership through crisis: Perspectives as we create our new normal”, right here.)

1. Be grateful, show up more, engage proactively 

Emily asked what it’s like being a CEO in this moment. The panel agreed, these are trying times for all, with particular acknowledgment of the challenges of front-line responders around COVID-19, and all those impacted economically. They expressed their gratitude for the health of their employees and loved ones. The panelists also agreed that the technology industry hasn’t been as hard-hit as others, as our jobs can be easily and safely practiced in remote environments. But the upheaval has also forced change in how they think about their roles as leaders.

“With shelter in place, I amped up my visibility and activity on social media to communicate more, and proactively, with our employees and customers.” 

—Todd McKinnon, CEO, Okta

Todd mentioned that, as the CEO of Okta for 11 years, he previously did not have to make decisions that would impact the basic health of his employees. Each of the panelists agreed that they’ve found counsel and support from each other–as well as other technology leaders–invaluable during these times. 

2. Deliver user happiness, optimize time better, allow WFH flexibility 

 As the CEOs exchanged stories, some patterns of change became abundantly clear. In this “new normal,” companies are hiring people without ever meeting them in person; sales teams are closing deals without the typical in-person workshops with clients, and marketing teams are evolving from in-person events to physical ones. 

With a relentless focus on best-of-breed experiences at Okta, Zoom, Slack, and Box, we enable organizations to work remotely while being productive. For example, at Zoom, Eric’s teams are building more connections with users. Zoom is working on ways to enhance user experience, like providing controls for lightening the background or retouching your “quarantine face,” or optimizing noise reduction when you are secretly eating during a call.

 “We do all we can to truly deliver happiness to our users, even under pressure.” 

    —Eric Yuan, CEO, Zoom

Distributed teams are also finding that they can optimize work differently with remote work. An example Stewart shared is that Slack’s traditional “all-hands” team meetings used to be carefully choreographed affairs. Since quarantine, they have become informal, 20-minute-long, content-only sessions, and employees appreciate the candor. It’s an improvement that might never have happened if quarantine hadn’t forced it on them. Similarly, teams used to have to weigh the opportunity cost of traveling out to meet an important client. Now, they can optimize the day differently: be on a video with one customer, then another, then spend an hour doing crucial home tasks. This new kind of flexibility is fundamental and valuable.

3. Dynamic Work is here to stay, so embrace it

The panelists agreed that decades of old practices of what constitutes “work” have been challenged—in a very short span of time. They discussed that before COVID-19, big decisions were made by whichever stakeholders could fit in your conference room.

Now we’re forced to reconsider that, and it’s a unique opportunity. We can easily support Dynamic Work that ignores the old restrictions of physical space by using a 100-person Slack channel or a 30-person Zoom call where everyone can contribute ideas. And because we can, we must.

“Now, teams are not limited by the people that they sit by to get the best ideas flowing. We can engage our entire workforce in our company-wide interactions virtually; we can easily reach and connect with more customers over video; and more voices, at all levels of the organization, can be heard in every meeting. By leveraging a modern tech stack with best-of-breed technologies allows teams to easily and securely work from anywhere.”

    —Aaron Levie, CEO and cofounder, Box

“The holy grail we've all talked about for years is here” said Aaron. He spoke about re-looking at concepts like resilience, not just from a view of high performing individuals, but across teams that collaborate differently to drive innovations. 

4. Remember your north star, then take a conscious stand 

The panelists also agreed that this is a time of global reckoning with broad repercussions for years to come. But through it all, leaders have an opportunity to resist the comfort of reverting to old habits and ask what their companies really stand for. 

“Everyone's been in such a scramble just to continue operations in this new environment — but what do we want to change?”

    —Stewart Butterfield, CEO, Slack

Stewart also pointed out how the boundaries of discussions have shifted positively on fundamental human rights issues. All the leaders agreed that not taking a stand is not an option for CEOs in this new world, but that a stand must be taken, consciously and consistently. 

Final thoughts on tackling the future 

We can’t predict exactly what the outcome of this ever changing landscape will be, but we’re excited to partner with Zoom, Slack, Box, and countless other organizations to support the new future of work. We’re all striving for a future that supports distributed work, and enables businesses to be strong and resilient. This panel discussion was a rare opportunity for our company CEOs and teams to come together to share best practices. We’re hoping it can help every leader and changemaker interested in shaping a positive new normal in the 2020s. 

If you missed the webinar or want a refresher, take a look at the Leadership through crisis: Perspectives as we create our new normal recording.