Show some love: leadership in COVID-19 and beyond

The leadership actions and decision-making of Australian business owners and executives during COVID-19 will become fodder for MBA and other students for years to come.

We are still close enough to the action that there hasn’t been enough time for reflection, and we’re still all playing catchup on an intense couple of months as we get our businesses back to more normal conditions.

This blog is designed to provide two things:                                                                                                                                                                                          
1. An early reflection on the key questions Clarity was asked during the crisis, and the advice we provided.                                                              
2. Provide some thoughts on a leadership pivot from the “immediate response” phase of COVID-19 to building a new strategy to lead along the so-called road out.

You might be asking why we’re sending out our COVID-19 leadership thoughts now, when the crisis has (at least for the time being) passed.

Well…

We give direct and fast advice to our clients when they need it most – for specific challenges.

Sending you a more general email wasn’t at the top of our priority list, nor on your reading list back a few weeks ago.

This is an opportunity to capture and share the learnings we had across a range of organisations and industry sectors, and reassure people that most of the steps your business took were probably the right ones for the times.

Most of the time good leaders’ intuition is right, even if the bureaucracy and protocols around leadership and communications do not perfectly fit the events.

A quick reflection on leadership in COVID-19

Across that intense March and April period we were frequently asked three broad questions that we felt went to the character, style and effectiveness of leadership:

1. Should I wait to see what actions others are taking or the Government is saying before I communicate?                                                              
2. Which of my leaders should be communicating – the CEO, Chair or leaders of teams?                                                                                                                           
3. I’ve got a hell of a lot happening right now, how often do I really have to communicate?

While COVID-19 has been unlike most events leaders have faced outside of a wartime situation, we all drew on experience and here are answers to those questions.

Should I wait to see what actions other are taking or the Government is saying before I communicate?

Ah, no.

What others are doing should not be a primary driver in your decision to communicate.

Government was providing signposts as to which way to head, which the most effective leaders could use to chart their own course based on what they anticipated was right for their organisation. Everyone else’s actions could simply be seen in your peripheral vision and filtered in or out as part of your decision-making.

Most of us were helped by the fairly clear and consistent communication process from Governments. We knew there would be a daily media conference and in WA we could inform ourselves each afternoon. However, if you needed to communicate urgently there was not much point in waiting because, in the early stages of the crisis, each day brought a new set of events. Those who waited for events to unfold fully could lose days, leaving employees and customers in limbo.

McKinsey & Company has summed it up well: “What leaders need during a crisis is not a predefined response plan but behaviours and mindsets that will prevent them from overreacting to yesterday’s developments and help them look ahead.”

With Clarity team members supporting executives and embedded in crisis teams, the most effective leadership we saw came from those who could rapidly digest what happened that day, and then move forward quickly by reasonably anticipating the next stage of the crisis. Not only were they fractionally ahead or on the game in preparing their decision-making, they could explain a probable road map to their employees and customers. In the process they demonstrated why they were leaders and won respect for it.

Which leader should communicate – the CEO, Chair or leaders of teams?

All of them. But with alignment and coordination and a consistent message.

Communications that focused on the audience and not the ego of the speaker were the hallmarks of success. With an event like COVID-19 it is of low importance if you are in the media rather than your competitor, the main concern is have your got your message through to your audience.

Every organisation has different leadership based on elements like their size, resources, location. Some leaders are good natural communicators and some aren’t. Choose the right woman or man for the job when you have to cut through. If you have an experienced and well-paid CEO, then communicating should be a critical part of their role. If you are a small not-for-profit then an experienced Chair may be a better person than a GM with less experience. A multinational with an operation in Western Australia should choose its most effective local communicator who has an empathy for local concerns.

The broad church of diverse businesses in WA means there is no right or wrong answer to this question. In many instances CEOs of organisations were communicating daily, with the Chair or key Directors being prepped and held in reserve in case the situation got really serious with substantial illness or loss of life. As long as everyone is clear and consistent about the message, it’s your intuition and decision on who is best to deliver.

I’ve got a hell of a lot happening right now, how often do I really have to communicate?

I’m pretty sure ScoMo and the Premier felt like this. The answer is as often as required. ScoMo and the Premier’s best decision was a structure for communication that delivered certainty of when information was being provided, even if we did not know what would be said. In effect they demonstrated that regular communications is critical.

One aspect of COVID-19 that was unusual was the need to communicate far more frequently than usual because of rapidly unfolding events – largely outside of your control. There was a fortnight period in late March where many organisations were communicating to audiences at least once if not twice a day. Often these communications were to audiences who might never receive a communication from the leadership or at least not regularly. So the frequency of communication was as much a surprise to the receiver as the sender.

In a typical operational crisis there is a pattern to communication: initial response; explanation and resolution of the problem; followed by recovery and investigation. With COVID-19 it felt like every day for weeks we were stuck in initial response without moving forward to resolution. This demanded regular communication on new issues on a daily basis. Some leaders wanted to wait until there was more or complete information before communicating. Effective leaders realised quickly that was never going to happen. Sometimes you just have to communicate with an incomplete picture, but part of a picture still shows you something, and it’s better than no image at all.

Show some love: time to pivot your leadership

The fourth question we were asked was: Do I tell people what to do or consult with them first?

During the crisis, there was a clear answer: a rapidly unfolding health crisis is not the time or place for collaborative leadership and decision-making. It is a time for authoritative leadership. Events are moving really fast and with teams of people in different locations there is not time to engage large groups of employees or customers in deliberations. This can be tricky for people centric sectors like community, education and health, where often there is a lot of deliberation before decision-making. Don’t underestimate how much people just want to be told what to do next in the first stages of a crisis. Most of us had plenty else on our minds with kids, elderly parents and general home life, let alone our work and financial worries.

Now is the time to pivot your leadership and communications style to create proactive change for your organisation out of COVID-19. It’s the time for leadership that is less about telling people what do, and is more interested in showing some love by seeking real input from your valued employees and customers about changes that could improve their situation and your organisation.

As we head back to more normal work patterns, now is the time to regroup with senior leadership or trusted advisors and start feedback and consultation about what COVID-19 really means. What is your return to work going to look like this week and in six months time? What ideas have people had while they were sitting at home? What efficiencies did we find and how can we capture them? Can you create proactive and positive change for your organisation before things lapse back to the way they were? What did we do in 2019 that we can probably let go of in the rest of 2020?

This is the time to display consultative leadership and we believe that having responded well to authoritative leadership over a period of weeks, Australians are now looking for an opportunity for input and consultation about their future workplaces.

During early 2020 Australia’s leaders and individuals across the nation showed their character and did a largely outstanding job of guiding us through the first stages of COVID-19. In a confusing, chaotic and uncertain time people stepped up their communications and successfully took their employees, customers and stakeholders on difficult journeys. For this reason alone, we are well prepared for further outbreaks and challenges from COVID-19.

Author


Anthony Hasluck
Managing Director

Anthony is the majority owner of Western Australia’s largest independent public relations agency, Clarity Communications. In addition to his managerial and consulting activities connected with Clarity, Anthony is a Director of Racing and Wagering WA (RWWA).