One of the many lessons of this awful pandemic is that you can’t tell a leader from the letters in their email signature. You can tell a leader because they’re the one we all turn to when we’re scared and confused.
But when the leader themselves falls victim to the coronavirus, such fear and confusion multiplies. When you hear the news that Boris Johnson has been taken to intensive care with COVID-19, you want to know rather urgently who has their hands on the wheel.
Businesses face this risk all the time, that they rely too heavily on one person to provide the vision, expertise or inspiration, or to hold together disparate personalities. Most will have a strategy for dealing with their leader or other senior figures becoming incapacitated, but rarely will it be designed for a situation as extreme as this, where large segments of the workforce could be out of action at any one time.
We’ve spoken to three leaders who’ve themselves caught the virus about how their teams managed and the lessons they’ve learned.
Andrew Dunbar, General Manager EMEA, Appnovation
"I started to experience flu-like symptoms during the weekend of 14/15 March. By then, there was enough information for me to strongly suspect that this was coronavirus. I informed everyone I had been in contact with recently of my symptoms, and self-isolated at home, but with a young family that's next to impossible.
“I oversee a team of around 60 in the UK, Holland and Belgium. My main concern was that I was sick at a time of huge uncertainty and fear. I wanted to be there to reassure clients it was business as usual but most importantly if I wanted to let our teams know that we would do everything to support them personally and professionally during a really challenging time.
“Luckily I have a strong senior leadership team who collectively are ready and able to take over the day-to-day running of the business both in terms of client relationships and people management, allowing me time to recover. I was also lucky, that although at its worst I felt really unwell, I was still able to check in regularly with the team. I kept my engagement to a minimum and tried to rest as much as possible between the more critical day to day activities.”
“For the senior leadership team and any other business critical roles including finance director, key account handlers, payroll, make sure that each function can be covered by at least two other senior people in a crisis. In the immediate term that means ensuring that the team has the decision-making ability, empowerment and the right routes to information to keep things operational.
“Also, develop a plan for communicating with staff and clients if the CEO or team leader is sick. Be open and upfront about what's going on, including naming the person or team that will handle things in the meantime. But make sure the company culture cares about everyone who is sick - have a plan to check in with all members of staff who have reported in sick to ensure they are OK.”
Emma Harris, Chief Marketing Officer, The Social Element
“I was fortunate not to suffer with the cough and bad chest. My symptoms were headache, ear pressure, complete loss of smell and taste, dry eyes, achy back and complete fatigue. I had my first symptoms 20 days ago and I am still not 100 per cent there.
“I (stupidly) didn’t take any actual days off, I generally worked until about 3pm and then had to rest. As well as being CMO for The Social Element I also run a brand engagement agency, so it’s hard to completely switch off. On top of this, I am also now home-schooling three kids so I was absolutely in the eye of the storm.
“The three biggest priorities since lockdown have been firstly to stay connected with the team, secondly to stay close to our clients in a way that offers them help and guidance without appearing to be salesy and thirdly to make sure we’re using the time wisely to rethink and plan ahead."
“Make sure processes are well established so that the team can continue without you. Good leaders shouldn’t be in the detail anyway and if the team has clear direction and is bought into the strategy and plan, then it should never be a problem to check out of the business for a period of time.
“I once heard of a practice they used to follow at Goldman Sachs when they had two strong candidates for a promotion - they would send them both on immediate leave and whoever’s team coped better without them got the promotion.”
Andrew Mawson, founder and MD, Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA)
“I caught the virus a couple of weeks ago. It made it impossible for me to work. I couldn't think. I was exhausted. I had a fever. I ached incessantly. I completely lost my appetite. When I forced myself to eat, I couldn’t taste anything. You’re encouraged to drink as much as you can but even that’s an effort. It wiped me out, so I basically put the tools down and slept, slept, slept.”
“My view is that if you get this thing, you have to devote your entire being to fighting it. Trying to do any work, let alone attempting to make business critical decisions, wouldn’t just be near impossible, it would be stupid. Fortunately, because we've got a very strong team, people stepped up to the plate in my absence and just kept things going using their own initiative. We have a very distributed organic organisation model, so we don’t rely on any great command and control structure."
“CEOs should also use this ‘down time’ to consider how the world may change even when the pandemic settles. People have already begun to realise that there are other options than having central London offices with huge costs. For most chief executives, this would be a good time to think deeply about your cost base to make sure that you're not wasting energy and resources on activities or business pursuits that are not going to be of value.”
Shamus Rae, CEO and founder, Engine B
“We’ve had a couple of people on the team personally impacted by COVID but we have a ‘health and family comes first’ policy at Engine B so giving all team members space to recover or deal with family issues as a result of the crisis is paramount. That includes me.
“I was personally affected for a couple of weeks, with the peak of the illness being a few days, but with the nature of the virus – that it seems to go for a day and come back again the next – meant that I was able to engage with the team quite often.
“My business partner and COO, Donne Burrows, is very supportive and ensured I could take the time I needed to recover without impacting everyone else. We’ve been having daily calls not only to check in with each other’s well-being but also to ensure that we keep all the balls in play. Sharing leadership with Donne means that if anything takes one of us out, the other seamlessly steps in.
“Ultimately, though, trusting my team to work autonomously whether one of us is off sick or not, means that they all continue to deliver and be the best version of themselves under any circumstances.”
“When you are faced with an extraordinary situation like this it calls for highly creative solutions. There's no such thing as a stupid idea. Create an open, inclusive and entrepreneurial culture and you will be amazed at the imaginative solutions that will come out of your team. You cannot respond to an unusual situation by using business-as-usual thinking.”
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