COVID-19 is the largest leadership challenge in a generation. Whether you are an experienced or emerging leader, it’s a testing time. To that end, Berwick Partners hosted an online forum, led by Rob Fenwick, Chief Risk Officer at Howden PLC, for our 2020 cohort of emerging leaders and mentors. During the session the participants were able to share experiences, lessons learnt and advice, as we navigate our way through the crisis.
Leaders will face unexpected challenges
Like most businesses globally, the attendees had risk management and business continuity strategies in place, but not for a pandemic. One participant described leading at this time as ‘trying to lay the rail track, whilst the trains are already moving’. Indeed, a quick straw poll showed that 50% of the attendees felt overwhelmed at some point during the early stages of the crisis. It was noted that, when people are severely stressed or overwhelmed, they lose peripheral vision, which can result in leaders micromanaging.
Rob Fenwick highlighted that it is a critical time for leaders to take a wide strategic view, using his adage of ’being on the balcony’ to enable leaders to survey the room and ensure you can spot problems and pinch points. To be an effective leader, whether through COVID-19 or other challenges, you need to develop the ability to step back and look at the bigger picture.
Lockdown, ramp up and identify the opportunity ahead
60% of our attendees had started planning for the opportunities ahead within the first week of the crisis hitting. As one participant described it - ’what’s the crisis after the crisis?’ Many had seen COVID-19 as an opportunity to interrogate their existing business strategy rather than just implement an additional strategy to support the business during this time. The crisis has given leaders a platform to assess whether their model is fit for the future world. Critically, it has also given our leaders and their teams the determination and opportunity to drive through change. For instance, Howdens has quickly switched to an online presence with designers working remotely with clients, resulting in a new ’call and collect’ service launched in a matter of days rather than months.
Communication – how much should you do?
Good leaders were cited as the ‘glue in a crisis’. Regular communication with their teams gives leaders the space to set the company’s vision through the crisis, provide assurance and listen to problems. Providing clarity on difficult issues helps leaders to establish trust, whilst communicating the mission inspires confidence. Frequent communication also provides the opportunity to spot people who need help. Communication provided one participant with the opportunity to provide a solution to a struggling exec member which garnered good will and may well help his career in the future.
However, it was pointed out that there is a danger that too much communication could be perceived as insincere and unhelpful; as time goes on, constant communications may be counter-productive and frustrating. Therefore, leaders should review how often they are calling their teams on to video conferences. The regularity and nature of communications increasingly needed to be tailored to individuals and their circumstances.
Communication and collaboration have not only been encouraged internally within organisations, but also externally with key stakeholders. One participant’s organisation had reached out to competitors, creating a regular forum for networking, sharing of best practice and innovation, resulting in a future collaboration that will benefit all. Obviously, forums such as these won’t work in all sectors, but ultimately, it was agreed that better relationships lead to better results.
To make decisions or not make decisions? That is the question
Rob posed the question to the group: ‘should leaders be involved in more, or less, decision making?’ Whilst views were mixed Rob gave sage advice - ‘knowing what decisions not to take is just as important as knowing which ones to take.’ This was echoed by John Henderson, CEO of Staffordshire County Council, who suggested that leaders should ask themselves three questions before making a decision: Was it your decision? If not, whose was it? What can you do to support them?
It was noted that empowering employees to make decisions can bring several benefits, not least the opportunity to be creative, which has seen innovation flourish across a number of organisations.
Remaining resilient and decompressing
Rob rounded up the session by asking the leaders what they had learnt about themselves during the crisis. One leader, who had initially felt overwhelmed, had learnt that she was far more resilient than she had imagined, emerging a more confident and assured leader as a result. Many of the attendees had thrived under the pressure of the crisis, seeing improvements in their ability to lead, and to drive through change. However, all acknowledged that moving from the initial adrenalin fuelled early stages of crisis management to a sustained period of rebuilding their businesses would require a different approach. John Henderson drew on his military experience, explaining the importance of giving people the opportunity to decompress in order to build resilience in your team.
Drawing the event to a close, Rob explained how, in a human crisis which affects people personally, it is essential that leaders remain empathetic, but also share and celebrate success.
Get involved in Emerging Leaders
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