Lessons In Leadership From A CEO Who Started His New Job Right Before The Pandemic Outbreak

By Jack Kelly, Contributor
CEO looking out the window contemplating how he will lead his team through the Covid-19 outbreak. getty

Imagine, after working decades, building up your career and reaching the pinnacle of success, becoming the CEO of a fast-growing company. It must be a great feeling. Then, out of nowhere, a pandemic surges across the world. There’s not enough time to savor the moment, as Covid-19 hit and upended everything. This was the position Raul Villar Jr., the CEO at Paycor, found himself in. 

With Covid cases spreading, followed by the Delta and Omicron variants, Villar didn’t have much time to savor his new position and had to act quickly, in the face of uncertainty and chaos. A message made by the governor of Ohio, who said that he’d suggest, if possible, to have people work from home for safety reasons, inspired Villar. To bravely move forward, instead of being paralyzed by fear, leaders need to set forth clear priorities and guidance. The governor’s advice prompted the newly appointed CEO to take the business virtual overnight to protect his team.  

Paycor is a 30-year-old global leader in human-capital management that offers human resources software for leaders who want to make a difference. Its platform, which serves around 40,000 medium and small businesses, modernizes every aspect of people management—from the way you recruit, onboard and develop people, to the way you pay and retain them. But what really sets Paycor apart is the leadership and attention paid to its employees.  

Villar shared with Forbes what he did to keep his employees safe. It's a lesson in empathetic leadership. His first priority was taking care of his staff’s safety, mental health and emotional well-being. 

He believes that it all starts with leadership. Strong managers, coaches and mentors, directors and vice presidents make an appreciable difference in improving employee engagement, retention, job satisfaction and internal mobility. They are also critical to help enhance employees’ happiness. It only takes a few bad leaders to ruin a firm’s reputation, drive workers to leave and make it hard to recruit replacements.

He says that if we want employees to have better lives, we have to give them better leadership. A McKinsey & Co. study found that “relationships with management” is the top factor, not only of an employee’s job satisfaction, but the second most important determinant of their overall well-being. Managers have an outsized impact on two universal qualities of a productive culture: psychological safety (as no one feels motivated by fear) and good work organization, where everyone knows their value and enjoys areas of autonomy.

Villar and his management team provided employees with a sense of control over their lives, created a transparent and fair workplace and continuously motivates and inspires personnel. In a time that lacks future clarity, he feels it's important to provide people with a sense of  control over their work-lives. 

It's different for everyone and Villar respects that. Some people may decide that working from home is the best option. There may be people who desire to come into the office from time-to-time for a break in the monotony or meetup with colleagues in real life. 

It's important to offer transparency about what is happening so employees understand the direction the company is heading toward, and are aware of both positive and challenging issues that arise. He established routine real-time dialogues with employees, listening to what they have to say and then acting upon the feedback to make the necessary improvements.  

During the tough, frightening times, the job of the CEO is to continually motivate, inspire and lead by example. Villar reimagined work. With a remote-first program put in place, everyone is on an equal footing. It enables Villar to recruit people from across the country to find the best talent and enhance diversity. Online videos connect people for business meetings, support groups or just catching up together. If a person decides to relocate and live and work remotely from another city or state far from the office, that’s acceptable, as it fits the needs and wants of the employee.

Villar also offers a social recognition program. If a person performs well, they will be shown appreciation online to acknowledge their efforts in a show of gratitude. There are also prizes awarded for the person’s efforts and contributions. This helps keep people motivated during these tough pandemic-driven times.

Regular surveys are taken to gain a pulse of the employees. There is freedom and autonomy, as workers can work the way that’s best for them. Similar to the way the “siesta” offers a midday respite in Spain, Paycor employees can go for a jog, pick up and drop off their kids at school, attend plays and other events that most people missed out on in the pre-pandemic period. This flexibility makes people feel autonomous and in control of their day.

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