Leading through change (part 1)
02nd April 2020
Author Steve Ferguson
Leadership lessons in times of disruption and change
Olivia Gossage, Senior Manager Business Transformation, sits down (virtually) with Steve Ferguson, our GM Transformation & Consulting, asking him to share his experiences, insights and advice on leading at times when events force you and your organisation to think differently.
In part one of a two-part Q&A, Steve shares three formative personal experiences of change and how these have shaped him as a leader.
Olivia Gossage (Senior Manager Business Transformation) and Steve Ferguson (GM Transformation & Consulting)
O.G. Tell us about some of your previous experiences in leading organisations through disruption and change. What have these experiences taught you about effective leadership in times of uncertainty?
S.F. Some of my most formative leadership experiences have been informed by large amounts of change that has put me in situations where I’ve been forced to act differently. I’ve been in three very different crisis situations that have all shaped how I believe leaders need to act in times of disruption or sudden change.
I use the word leader very deliberately. Managers inform a practical way of doing business for specific teams, and leading is the art of inspiring and motivating people across an organisation. This is critical in times of change, as the key asset which keeps your business going is your people.
My first experience of leading through a period of uncertainty was when I was based for a time in Papua New Guinea, leading a change programme for a large bank. This was at a time when it wasn’t a safe place to be for expats, so we were regularly in enforced lockdown (albeit for shorter periods of time than we are now) and couldn’t walk down the street safely. I was working with around 50 staff – locals and expats – each with heightened concern for their safety, and differing reactions to the situation we were in.
In this situation, my role as a leader was to interact with our people and give them a sense of belonging. My focus was to provide people with confidence and safety. We did this by connecting one on one and in groups, building a family dynamic within the team and encouraging people to maintain connection with their families. This was where I first realised the importance of leaders demonstrating how important it is to ‘park up’ work and focus on protecting yourself and your teams.
The second experience that I’ll share involved a commercial lockdown when I worked for an energy company in the late 2000s. We were going through what we call a dry winter – where, for a number of months, there was a lack of available resources to supply energy to our customers.
My leadership role in this situation was to focus the efforts of the company to be able to service customers. At the same time, we needed to provide confidence to stakeholders that we were able to service the needs of everyday people, those who were elderly or at risk, and businesses.
This called for a different leadership style in order to boost confidence. We set up a different operating rhythm as a leadership team, including a daily ‘war room’ environment where we could test and learn quickly to identify what was effective. We changed many parts of our business, to focus on critical operations and customer care. We knew that in addition to providing confidence to our people, our customers needed continuity and confidence in what the company was putting in place.
We gave confidence to our people by focusing on providing a greater level of pastoral care. A lot of staff felt that the dry winter was going to put their jobs at risk, so I had a very high-touch approach with my Exec team around how we would operate. We had a daily walkaround – a face-to-face connection with each individual – which allowed them to see us operating and to ask questions. We also opened up some of our leadership meetings to the team, so that they could see and hear what was going on.
This experience taught me a leadership lesson in a context very different to my Papua New Guinea experience, where it wasn’t necessarily about looking after people’s physical safety but about the continuity of people’s roles and the continuity of services to ensure the public at large – the consumers for that company – had confidence in what we were doing.
The third experience I’ll share involved a different kind of lockdown (or lockout) scenario, while I worked for a large bank. After the 2016 earthquake, the bank’s head office wasn’t safe to be accessed by staff. We woke up on Monday morning with no office to go to, and everyone scrambling to figure out how to operate.
Banks are pretty good at testing Business Continuity Planning, and I’ve been involved with BCP over the years in various organisations, but that continuity planning typically assumes that you’ve got failover and you can run to another office. It hadn’t necessarily assumed that our whole office would be knocked out for the foreseeable future, or forever – as it turned out in this instance.
Our immediate focus was on how we could ensure we met pressing customer needs (such as information about their accounts). As a leadership team, we prioritised finding alternative premises for urgent operational staff only – typically our customer-facing contact centre. These people became the ‘point in the arrow’ around supporting our customers, so we focused our efforts on supporting our operational frontline staff and IT people to ensure we had continuity of services. Everyone else went into a mode of working remotely.
As an Exec, we had to ask ourselves, How can we support our frontline people to support our customers? Our people didn’t need complex strategies. They needed visible leadership, a clear plan, and support to do their job. This meant we walked the floors of the temporary office space every day, sharing our priorities and plans, and doing things which made people’s jobs easier – like delivering pizzas or making cups of tea. The hard part in this situation was that as an exec you are kind of useless in terms of your ability to help on the front line, other than taking a phone call here and there. So we did what we could to make it easier for our people to do a great job.
If I were to summarise what I’ve learnt from these experiences, effective leadership during times of uncertainty comes down to four key things:
- Engage with, and lead your people (your staff, your customers, other vendors you work with or anyone in your ecosystem). That’s essentially the key to doing good business. Management is just an element of that.
- Build connections with and between people, to give them a sense of belonging and safety. This means fronting up to questions, being open and honest, and reaching out to people in different ways to make sure they’re okay.
- Provide confidence that there is a way through the experience, and shape the vision for a positive outcome in the future (for customers and staff).
- Do whatever you need to do to support your people to deliver for your customers. In my experience that has involved buying pizza and making cups of tea, sitting down and talking through fears and concerns, and spending more time ‘walking the floor’ to connect with people. Now that’s obviously harder when we’re working remotely, but it’s not impossible with technology.
Leadership is at a premium when internal or external factors challenge how we operate, how we keep our people safe and focused, and how we meet the needs of our customers.
There are common leadership attributes which apply to any organisation who is leading and managing in times of change. If you’d like to know more about Leading through Change, we are pleased to offer a short one-hour workshop to help you focus on what’s important now.
Contact Steve or Olivia at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org to organise a free workshop where we will share views and discuss simple but effective ways to support your people, customers and organisation.
Keep an eye out for part two of Steve’s interview, which will be published here next week.
Steve Ferguson is Davanti’s GM Consulting & Transformation.
Steve’s leadership style reflects his passion for people and performance and is driven by core beliefs that a strength of vision, empowered people and the creation of an energised team will always deliver great results.