Leading through the unexpected


Carol-Ann White

I don’t think anyone can say that 2020 has turned out to be the year they expected. As a people leader in a global organization, I have found this the most challenging period in my career to date. How do I make a large team of people, across many geographies, facing the same global situation, feel safe, connected, and engaged? Well, there certainly isn’t a definitive right or wrong answer to this. I personally, have been on a huge learning curve over the last 4 months and I am definitely the better for it.

From my perspective, there are a few key areas to focus on.

Making people feel connected
whilst working remotely

Whether it is a single person alone, a caregiver trying to balance work, kids or elderly parents, a house sharer sat in a small bedroom day in day out, this has been consistently at the top of my mind during this period. We all get our energy from different ways of working, but ultimately, face to face human interaction plays a big part here. If we aren’t able to get that, how do we stay connected and energized?

It is easy to forget how much time we spend together physically as work colleagues, often more time than we do with our own families. As leaders, we naturally encourage our culture to be close-knit and ‘family-like’ to help our teams feel they are in a supportive environment that allows them to communicate and collaborate better. Ultimately creating better work for our clients. The old phrase of ‘leaders working the shop floor’ is still massively relevant today. Those casual conversations by the coffee machine with the newest recruit or a quick random chat as you stop by someone’s desk keeps you dialed in to what’s really going on. It makes you accessible and ‘normal’. How do you replicate that on Zoom or Teams call without it becoming a structured and formal conversation?

For me, regular check-ins are a must. This should be a shared activity across the entire company as well. All leaders and managers should be checking-in frequently with their teams. We all know that mental health during this period is a huge concern, now more than ever is the time for leaders to show empathy and compassion, even vulnerability. It’s essential that our people feel that ‘we are in this together’ and that it’s ok to be anxious or uncertain, that collectively we will all get through this. Don’t underestimate the impact of a 15 min check-in conversation with someone just to see “how they are doing’!

Repeat, repeat, repeat

We know these are stressful times for many, as they grapple with fears of job security, family challenges, and general uncertainty. Frequent, honest, and transparent communications continue to be a priority for me. It’s about giving people what they need and when they need it…and repeat, repeat, repeat. As I see it, each stage of this global crisis requires a different response. In the initial stages, it was practical communications on safety, technology for remote working and staying connected as a team, moving to, simple and clear business updates to help people feel informed. More recently it is, laying out our purpose and vision for the future. It’s also about giving people the opportunity to ask questions and feel comfortable doing so; whether it’s anonymously on a Teams or Zoom broadcast, openly on an online group session, or directly via emails…creating a company-wide conversation is hugely important for any leader at any time, but even more so during a crisis.


Go beyond the job spec

Such an unexpected situation has made us all go beyond the job spec. We have had to put our normal responsibilities to one side and are doing things that we would never normally imagine to be part of our role. Who knew that I would learn so much about PPE supply chains or configuration of office spaces or ‘deep cleaning’ protocols?

As leaders, now more than ever do we need self-awareness and an understanding of our own strengths as well as our team’s. We can often feel that we have to be the ‘fixer’ of everything within a business, and a crisis obviously exacerbates this need to ‘fix stuff’. Clearly, we don’t have all the skills to do this alone, but we have a team of people around us who are also reacting and responding to new challenges outside their normal roles. Some will thrive in this situation, others will struggle with the ambiguity, but navigating through such uncertain times with a team of people with different skills and strengths will make it a whole lot easier to get to the other side.

It can be lonely being ‘a leader’ and at a time like this, we really do need our teams around us. To share the load and go above and beyond their normal day jobs, hopefully having a few laughs along the way…because blimey do we need a few of those right now!