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Leaders: Start by following (the data)

Recently, Ellig Group hosted a webinar to discuss the people impact of the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of a massive data analysis performed by its strategic partner, Culturintel. CEOs Janice Ellig and Lili Gil Valletta (of Ellig Group and Culturintel respectively) shared insights with leaders from a variety of industries. You can watch a replay of the webinar here.
Culturintel’s advanced algorithm harvested data from more than 100 million impressions of unstructured digital discussions from social media platforms, message boards, media site comments, and other sources. Once harvested, AI and advanced analytics were used to parse relevant conversations and identify patterns among groups of people. The resulting COVID-19 insights may help leaders better understand the behavioral, psychological, social, and economic impacts expressed by people as we collectively face these unprecedented circumstances. A few of those insights – and my take-aways – are shared here.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the discussions in the data set centered on the economic impact of the virus. People are clearly worried about their jobs and ability to maintain their life and lifestyle. Minority groups appear even more concerned about economic impacts than the general population. In total, however, more people of all categories were talking about how the virus impacts routines, relationships, and mental well-being. Many – especially Millennials and Gen Zs – expressed negative feelings about a loss of purpose, time wasted, or being “stuck” while the crisis continues.
Differences between generations emerged within the analysis of psychological “sentiments” of the individuals in the data harvest. When comments of each generation are considered against certain sentiments – optimism, denial, realism, and catastrophic – the differences are quite significant. Half of the Boomers expressed sentiments that would be considered “realistic.” Think of this sentiment as an acceptance of the severity of the situation tempered by a view that there is a future beyond the pandemic. Compare this sentiment with that expressed by Millennials and Gen X-ers who seem evenly split between several psychological sentiments. Younger people are almost equally likely to express feelings of denial, realism or a catastrophe.
Another interesting data point relates to what people are looking for from corporate leaders in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The top expectations are that companies will prioritize employee health and safety, presumably over profits, and minimize job losses. These two together make up more than half of the discussions in the data that was harvested. Other expectations include putting employees first, supporting the community, and transparent communication.
These and other insights shared in the webinar offer several lessons for leaders navigating the crisis.
First, while it is true that we are “in this together,” it is also true that people of different age groups are feeling the impact of the pandemic in different ways. The perspectives expressed by different generations may make it challenging to respond appropriately to the concerns of some without alienating others. In crafting communications, leaders need to be thoughtful in how they consider the mindset of workers or customers who fall into another generational segment. If a CEO is a Boomer, for example, he or she will need to stand in the shoes of the company’s younger workforce or customer base. Communications that minimize those feelings with a “this too shall pass” message may feel right to a seasoned CEO but fall flat with important groups.
Another take-away relates to our ability to act and have a meaningful impact on the psychological sentiments of our key constituencies. It is true that many of the factors that drive such sentiments are not in the control of corporate or other leaders. It is possible, however, for creative leaders to help their people regain a sense of purpose even within the context of social distancing. This may have an significantly positive impact on the psychological state of younger workers.
Think about how employee sentiment may have shifted within companies that announced plans to stop normal production in order to manufacture critical equipment for front line and healthcare workers. Consider how employees may respond to remote learning and professional development opportunities rolled out by companies – with or without the assistance of outside executive education programs. A progressive leader may also come up with ways for employees to collectively work towards a common community goal: a virtual food drive for local food banks; collection and delivery of letters or small gifts for elderly people in nursing homes or sheltering alone at home; fundraising to support a favorite charity, as a few examples.
Leaders may also want to reflect on their approach with the organization’s minority workforce. The data suggests that certain groups may be more concerned about the economic impact of the virus than the overall population. The timing may be right for a communication of support or encouragement, or even a special program, from the diversity and inclusion team. Retention of the best performers will be a critical driver of success when this is over. Helping your diverse workforce feel more secure will pay dividends later.
In short, the COVID-19 People Impact Meter offers a unique view into the minds and hearts of our nation and the world, a valuable asset as we face these unprecedented times.
-Nicole Sandford

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Tonie Leatherberry was at Deloitte for nearly three decades where she was the principal architect of The Board Leadership Forum and the NextGen CEO Academy, each of which has had a meaningful impact, ultimately placing more than 70 Black leaders into executive-level and board roles. As Chair Emeritus of the Executive Leadership Council, she created the Chairman’s Council of Academic Achievement to address achievement gaps for students of color in America’s educational systems, and as President of the Deloitte Foundation, the mission was to drive initiatives to develop future leaders through education. She is a passionate leader who has devoted much of her professional life to creating opportunities for women and people of color. Tonie is Lead director for Direct Digital Holdings, and a Board Director at Zoetis Inc. and American Family Insurance.

Cindie Jamison was elected Chair of the Darden Restaurants Board (NYSE: DRI) in September 2023, having served as a Director since October 2014 as part of a complete Board replacement slate through Starboard Value’s proxy fight. Since 2013, she has also served on the Office Depot Board (NASDAQ: ODP) where she Chairs the Audit Committee and is a member of the Compensation Committee. In May 2015, she joined the Big Lots, Inc (NYSE: BIG) Board, and became Chair in May 2022. In May 2023 Cindie stepped down from the Tractor Supply Company Board (NASDAQ:TSCO), a position she has held since 2002, where she was Chairman of the Board, after serving as Lead Director, and Chair of the Audit, Compensation & Corporate Governance Committees. Cindie joined the Board of Save the Children in February 2024.

David Chun, Founder and CEO, Equilar, Inc., has led Equilar since its inception to become one of the most trusted names in the corporate governance community. David has been recognized as one of the “100 Most Influential Players in Corporate Governance” by the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD), the Disruptor Award by 2020 Women on Boards and Outstanding 50 Asian Americans in Business. David speaks publicly on corporate governance and board diversity matters, including events hosted by The Conference Board, Deloitte, EY, HR Policy Association, KPMG, NACD, NASDAQ, NYSE, The Society for Corporate Governance and Stanford’s Directors’ College. Prior to founding Equilar, David was a Vice President in the Investment Banking Division of Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette, a global investment bank that has since merged with Credit Suisse. Before DLJ, David was a management consultant with Bain & Company and also Kenan Systems, a telecom software developer acquired by Lucent Technologies. David serves on the boards of the Commonwealth Club of California, PGA Reach, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG). He is on Nasdaq’s Center for Board Excellence Advisory Board and Catalyst’s Women on Board Advisory Council. David is a member of Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), Past Chair of the SF Bay Chapter, a founding member of the Council of Korean Americans (CKA) and a former board member of the Wharton Center for Entrepreneurship and the Asian Pacific Fund Community Foundation of San Francisco.

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Priscilla Sims Brown serves as President and CEO of Amalgamated Bank, a full-service bank, lender and investment manager with a century-long commitment to advancing positive social change. Amalgamated Financial Corp., the holding company for the Bank, is the first publicly traded (NASDAQ: AMAL) financial institution to be a public benefit corporation. Priscilla guides Amalgamated Bank in championing social responsibility through values-based banking, customer-centric services, and mission focused lending, serving individuals and organizations, including climate groups, foundations, labor unions, advocacy groups, political campaigns, and other socially responsible businesses, who care that their deposits are put to work for good. Priscilla is also dedicated to addressing environmental and social justice issues at Amalgamated Bank. More than 60% of the Bank’s lending and select balance sheet investments are high-impact through affordable housing, nonprofits, and climate solutions. Named one of the Most Powerful Women in Banking in 2023 by American Banker, Priscilla has been featured in The New York Times, TIME Magazine, PBS, and CNBC Changemakers, among others.

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Myra Biblowit is the President Emeritus of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the nation’s highest-rated breast cancer research organization with a mission focused exclusively on funding the world’s most promising research. Myra took the helm as BCRF President in 2001 and, after 22 years, retired in April 2023. During Myra’s tenure, BCRF funding enabled breakthroughs in breast cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, metastasis, and survivorship. Myra was widely recognized for leading one of the most impactful, financially efficient, and transparent nonprofits in the United States. Prior, Myra was Vice Dean for External Affairs at NYU Medical Center where she headed the Development, Alumni Relations and Public Relations departments. Previously she led the capital campaign as Senior Vice President of the American Museum of Natural History. Earlier, Myra served as Executive Vice President of the Central Park Conservancy. Myra is a member of the Board of Directors of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, the Housewares Charity Foundation and the Historic House Trust of New York City. She is a member of the New York Women’s Forum, the Yellow for Pink National Council, Extraordinary Women on Boards and serves on the Advisory Board of Project Hope for Ovarian Cancer Research & Education.

Truett Tate is Chairman of a number of Boards, including Reference Point, TLC Lions, Thinkably and the recently retired Chairman of QBE, NA. Truett Tate is also Director of the DEVClever board. Truett has a long and esteemed global executive history including most recently as CEO of ANZ USA, Europe, Japan, Korea and the Middle East. Immediately prior, he was Group Executive (and Board member) at Lloyds Banking Group, responsible for Wholesale & International Banking (Including Global Wealth and International Retail) across the United Kingdom, the Americas and worldwide and prior spending 27 years at Citigroup where he held a variety of senior roles including corporate banking business across each of its regional geographies. Truett’s long board history includes Virgin Group, Ten Group, the BITC, BAB Inc along with many other charitable and academic organizations. A speaker, guest lecturer, philanthropist and professional coach/mentor, Truett has seemingly bottomless energy and passionate interest in a safer, more just, more humane and more sustainable world.

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Janice Reals Ellig

Chief Executive Officer

As the head of the Ellig Group, Janice is dedicated to increasing the placement of women and diverse candidates on corporate boards and in C-suites by 2025. Janice joined the legacy firm in 2000 and became Co-Chief Executive Officer in its transition to Chadick Ellig in 2007; she assumed sole ownership of the company as the Ellig Group in 2017 with a new focus on Reimagining Search. Prior to her career in executive search, Janice spent 20 years in corporate America at Pfizer, Citi and Ambac Financial Group, an IPO from Citibank, where she was responsible for Marketing, Human Resources, and Administration.

Heralded by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of “The World’s Most Influential Headhunters,” Janice is often consulted for her expertise and her commitment to gender parity, inclusion, and diversity. She frequently appears at speaking engagements and as a media guest, and she has penned multiple articles for outlets such as Directors & Boards, Directorship, Corporate Director, The Huffington Post, and Forbes.com. Janice also co-authored two books: Driving The Career Highway and What Every Successful Woman Knows, acknowledged by Bloomberg Businessweek as “the best of its genre.”

A tirelessly active member of the industry and champion of her causes, Janice is Founder of the Women’s Forum of New York’s Corporate Board Initiative and its signature event, Breakfast of Corporate Champions. Since 2011, Janice continues to spearhead this event to honor companies committed to board diversity and to encourage CEOs to sponsor board-ready women for the Women’s Forum database. (LINK: www.womensforumny.org).

Janice is personally committed to several NFP organizations: Board Director of the National YMCA and Past Chair of the YMCA Board of Greater New York; Trustee of the Actors Fund and Committee For Economic Development (CED); Incoming Chair, University of Iowa Foundation; Women’s Forum of New York Past President and Chair of the Corporate Board Initiative; member of the Steering Committee, US 30% Club and The Economic Club of New York.

In recognition for her many philanthropic activities, Janice received the University of Iowa Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011 and the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) Eleanor Raynolds Award for Volunteerism in 2008. Named one of the “21 Leaders for the 21st Century” by Women’s eNews, she was also a recipient of the Channel 21 Award In Excellence for her contribution to “Excellence in the Economic Development for Women.”

“Listening to our clients’ needs, learning their business and understanding their culture is how we present the best talent and provide  a competitive advantage. We place candidates with the character, competencies, commitment, (intellectual) curiosity and courage to make a difference. Our goal is always to go beyond the expected and deliver valuable advice, measurable results and great talent!”

– Janice Reals Ellig

  • Champion of gender parity, diversity, and inclusion
  • Industry expert, speaker, and author
  • Founder of the Women’s Forum of New York’s Corporate Board Initiative
  • Committed board and committee member and philanthropist

T: (212) 688-8671 ext. 226
E: Janice@ElligGroup.com