Using Covid-19 as an opportunity to reinvent yourself as a leader

As part of Google’s Agency Leadership programme for the top UK independent agencies we had the privilege of joining a select few in attending an insightful session that focused on resilience and how to lead during uncertain times.

This virtual program was hosted by Dr. Stanislav Shekshnia (Senior Affiliate Professor of Entrepreneurship) from INSEAD – the world’s leading and largest business school.

Here are some of the key findings from the session…

In the early days of the Covid-19 crisis in the UK you could be forgiven for underestimating the severity of the pandemic. There was an expectation amongst some that there would be a swift entry into – and a swift exit out of – the crisis. The reality has proved to be quite different. There was a swift entry but a much slower exit, one that we are all still working our way through. What started as a health risk has become a genuine wealth risk and, crucially for leaders, a legacy risk. The way you, as a leader, deal with this crisis and navigate your people and your business through it will be remembered in years to come.

The pandemic has created opportunities for leaders to reinvent themselves; to change their leadership style and adapt it to suit the needs of staff working remotely, or for those who have been furloughed and are not working at all.

Your typical CEO is focused on their execution as a leader, seeking superior results using the help of their people. In top-down hierarchies, CEOs generally exercise power by taking charge and being proficient in the competencies of command and control. In times of crisis some leaders shift to a different style of CEO (Chief Enabling Officer) where the primarily focus is on enabling the success of others. They grow each of their people into leaders that are personally invested in helping the organisation succeed. The more empathetic nature of a Chief Enabling Officer in times of crisis helps to support staff who are working remotely and feeling isolated. When a business is working remotely connection of teams is crucial, as is breaking down any barriers to getting work done. For leaders acting more as an enabler helps shift power over to your people, giving them greater ownership, trust and accountability.

Take care of yourself and your team to bring the business to new heights

The health and survival of a business is only possible if two components of organisational resilience – The Team and The Leader – are taken care of.

Image credit: INSEAD

To help save and strengthen your business you need to keep in mind the following key areas:

  • Manage and take care of your own stress first
  • Relieve your team’s stress and help them to maintain their productivity

To lead your team(s), you need to be in good shape – take care of yourself first (put on your own oxygen mask before helping others!).

Image credit: INSEAD

Resilience as a process: awareness, goal setting, execution and reflection

How can you take care of yourself first, then take care of your team to maintain a productive business? The short answer is by being more resilient. But what is resilience? Resilience is the ability to bounce forward in times like these. Our ability to cope with crisis and advance, despite complex change and mental and emotional adversity.

Inherently, some people are more resilient than others. Your own personal resilience is something that can be worked on, it just requires some effort:

Body: Physical & mental health, energy, endurance, vitality

Mind: Rationality, clarity, focus, learning capability

Spirit: Big goals, values, meaning, faith

Relationships: Personal and professional

Here are four simple steps you can take to improve your personal resilience:

  1. Awareness: You need to know where you stand today. How resilient is your body? How resilient is your mind? How resilient is your spirit?
  2. Goal setting: What do you want to do for your body? How are you going to do it?
  3. Practice resilience: Execute what you have planned for yourself.
  4. Reflect and learn: Change your view on your resilience and your view on goals – keep some practices and remove others. Refine.

The morning resilience check form (below) is a simple exercise you can do each day. The first section ‘Status’ is the awareness piece. Where are your strengths? Where could you improve? Where do you see the problems? The other sections are where you can set some goals and actions for the day:

Image credit: INSEAD

SOAR framework for rational decision-making

Making decisions, and big decisions as leaders, is hard at the best of times – let alone at times of crisis!

We are all prone to individual biases and errors. During times of crisis and stress these biases and errors are amplified. Leaders should be aware of this and look out for any of the following common mistakes:

  • Anchoring: Making decisions around already present data. For example, if a competitor reduces their workforce by 50%, should you reduce your workforce by 50% by 60% or by 40%? Instead of looking at others, a decision should be made on existing data.
  • Loss aversion: Or the sunk cost fallacy. People demonstrate a greater tendency to continue an endeavour once an investment in money, effort or time has been made. Such behaviour may be described as “throwing good money after bad,” while refusing to succumb to what may be described as “cutting one’s losses”.
  • Overconfidence: At times of crisis and uncertainty, we tend to believe that we really know a lot. Whether we are experts on the subject matter or not, we believe in our capabilities – very often wrongly. We need to rely more on others at times of crisis especially.
  • Confirmation bias: Looking for pieces that confirm our old views, rather than being open to new information. Even in total uncertainty we can always find things that will confirm our previous views – which may lead to wrong decisions.

A Research & Development mindset can help when making decisions. It is about formulating a hypothesis under conditions of uncertainty, testing it, receiving feedback and then correcting the hypothesis if required – then test this again, expanding our overall knowledge of the new world in which we operate.

When making important decisions consider the SOAR framework:

Situation: Write down what you know and do not know. In every uncertainty there is some certainty. Some elements are there from the old equilibrium, and some you have already learned from the new. Make sure you understand your constraints and your playing ground.

Objectives and framing: Setting objectives and framing your decision questions. What do you want and by when? What is the decision you are trying to make? Rather than framing a decision question around predetermined values i.e. By how much do I want to cut my marketing budget? By 50%, 75% or 100%? Think about framing the question in a different way, What should my marketing strategy be for the next 6-18 months? What do I want to achieve with my marketing strategy? By framing questions in this way, you will come up with diverse alternatives, more choice, and be able to make better decisions.

Alternatives: List the alternatives. What can we do, what are the available actions?

Risks: Look at the risks associated with all the alternatives. Gain an understanding of how actions will impact objectives. Measure them on a scale from high risk to low risk.

Here are two common mistakes to keep in mind when using the SOAR framework:

  1. We jump straight to the Alternatives without looking at the Situation, without setting the Objectives and framing the questions.
  2. We forget about the time horizon. Are we talking three months? Three years? We should always consider the time horizon.

As businesses we are facing pace, scale and longevity of change that is larger than we have ever seen before and every day we are making decisions based on a limited ability to predict the near or long-term future. Regulations of a multitude of factors mean that we are in a constant state of iteration. Keeping ourselves, our teams and our business resilient during this time is key to success and our own wellbeing.

At Space & Time a shift in approach to agency leadership wasn’t difficult. In fact, we haven’t had to shift much at all! Right from the very top of the business employee empathy has always been, and will always be, a huge priority. It’s one of the many reasons our staff retention rates consistently sit way above the industry average.

On day one of the UK’s lockdown, the Space & Time Board of Directors began virtually meeting each morning. These daily meetings allow us to react and pivot direction when required to allow us to guide the business through the challenges of the global pandemic. It gives us as agency leaders the opportunity to check-in with ourselves and each other with regards to our own wellbeing, enabling us to be more resilient as we deal with the individual and business challenges faced by our employees and clients.

Throughout our business daily check-ins from managers have been put in place to keep up to date with our staff’s wellbeing and resilience levels. The empathetic nature of our leadership filters down to all levels within the business and supporting remote workers remains our number one priority.

The SOAR framework has been utilised in key decision making. By speaking daily, we have up-to-date context of the situation we are in so that we can understand how our decisions will affect our business objectives. It’s also allowed us the time to fully consider the alternatives and the associated risks with the decisions we make. Breaking down decisions using the SOAR framework and focusing on our own individual levels of resilience has put us in the best possible place to lead and make decisions with confidence, direction and a calm, clear head.