Denise Kohnke

COGNITIVELY COVID: The CEO Guide to Acting Fast

The CEO Guide to Acting Fast

“Action is the antidote to despair.”  

– Joan Baez, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer


You’ve likely heard the term “first movers” in the context of new sector growth. Moving first to take advantage of opportunistic pathways thanks to COVID-19 is almost a new sector unto itself. One website we love,, is a global gathering of hundreds of new products, new apps, new wrinkles to existing services all in the name of the new world.

We’ve also all heard of the overnight retooling companies have done to add to the PPE and medical products supply. The old adage to focus on the important, not the urgent, is now a paradox because the urgent is the important. 

But not every CEO or senior staff is cut out for this start-up mindset. And there are plenty of cognitive biases that our brains just love to place as speed bumps to slow us down or derail us into saying “no, wait” rather than saying “yes, go, fast!” Keep in mind board members, senior staff and anyone implementing new strategies may also have these biases, making sell-in of acting fast as important as acting fast yourself.

Risk compensation can slow down a CEO or team’s ability to think quickly and outside the box if they think they are at risk for losing their job. Conversely, if they think they are safe, they’ll perform with speed and abandon. It’s the reason why people drive faster with seat belts, and football players hit harder with the newer helmets. If you want fast, innovative thinking, frame it in positive, safe terms rather than with “think for your lives” desperation. Truth, in doses. 

Escalation of commitment is familiar to everybody. It means not pulling the plug on an investment, commitment, path or process because you just have so much invested. Well, in order to move fast, you may need to divest and not look back. If it’s broke, COVID-19 gives you permission to discard it in the heap of experience and reinvent its replacement. Get rid of the past if it’s dragging you down. 

FYI, most of the biz thought leadership (McKinsey, Harvard Business Review) speak of change management as a process, and bookshelves (are there still bookshelves?) are lined with paper things with hard covers that also talk about methodologies for change management. Well, change has to happen fast now. Even McKinsey says most companies, if pressured, can come up with an agile plan in about a week for rapid reallocation of resources via scrum.

As you look to act fast, don’t forget that now is also the perfect time to invent markets that have never existed before. I don’t just mean more of whatever attribute you want to improve (speed, efficiency, engagement, profit, revenue, on and on and yada yada), but to actually invent a new market in your sector, based on what is now possible. 

Why is now the perfect time to be something no one has ever seen before? Because we’re not in Kansas anymore, and receptivity to invention and “first moving” has never been higher.  

Call it whatever you choose: despair-avoidance, first moving, or survival. CEO, it’s time to invent.


Denise Kohnke

COVID-19 CEO Survey

Back when COVID-19 was in its diabolical toddlerhood, circa May 2020, Merit asked CEOs from a diverse pool of sectors about their perceptions of COVID-19, and how they were tangibly handling its impact. These were not P&G, Google, General Motors CEOs, but CEOs of arguably the most important strata in the U.S. economy: small to medium-sized.

Denise Kohnke
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If our CEO survey is any indication, the “can-do” spirit is still alive and well. As cultural Venn diagrams representing now and the near future collide – COVID, FLU, ELECTION, BLM – resiliency seems to be many CEO’s medicine du jour.

Adam Vasquez

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Thanks to COVID-19, we're all relearning how to do the things we were once experts at. We’re relearning our relationships and how we interact. We’re relearning how to be a customer, teacher, CEO, marketer, sales executive, investor, ect. And with everything happening so fast, the relearning curve is extra steep.

Denise Kohnke

What might be the hardest part of being a leader? The expectation of fearlessness, as in the whole “fearless leader” facade. Crushing, isn’t it?

Denise Kohnke


Everyone defaults to denial at some point. It’s the brain’s way of lining up all of our implicit biases and testing them against harsh realities. Ironically, it’s because we’re trying to make sense of things with mental shortcuts. Now, in the time of COVID-19, as we all feel the need to move fast, CEOs might want to be especially mindful of biases, especially the biases that support denial and impede invention during crisis.

Adam Vasquez

The 10 Truths of the COVID-19 CEO

In the midst of loosening lockdowns and tightening restrictions, dropping infection rates and second waves, CEOs must adjust to new truths in changed industries. During many conversations with my peers, a few of those truths have surfaced time and again.

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