Rob Harvey, CEO of Dentsu Aegis New Zealand, shares 10 principles to help you lead your team through unchartered waters.
We are only a third of the way through the year but ‘unprecedented’ looks very likely to be the word of 2020. For leaders at this time, I would imagine it is true for all of us that we are currently navigating one of the most challenging periods of our careers to date. The very nature of a crisis of this magnitude suggests that this is the first time we will have experienced this.
There is no playbook.
The challenges we face as business leaders are many. From rapid implementation of business continuity plans, to operational and logistical challenges as our teams move to working from home and the need for technology to support this, as well as anxious staff dealing with uncertain futures and health and family concerns. Lastly, I am sure most of us are facing significant revenue declines and commercial challenges.
But despite there being great commonality and unity with the challenges we are facing as leaders, we are all leading through this situation in our own unique ways.
From my perspective I’ve never believed leadership to be about bravado and the need to be the smartest or most important person in the room. For me it’s more real and raw, and your actions speak much louder than your words. This is a time where those that are all talk and whose leadership is self-serving will get found out quickly.
I certainly don’t profess to be the expert, and I’m responding to the situation as much as anyone else, but here are 10 principles I have learned to be important. It’s fair to say much of this has been post rationalised as they have been my natural instincts at play, as the situation has evolved, rather than any preconceived plan.
1 - Keep calm
First and foremost, try to keep calm and take the situation one step a time. Recognise that you can only control the controllable and accept that the situation is going to be fluid. The way you approach this is never going to be perfect, but a calm and steady hand will engender a calm response from your team.
2 - Care. Deeply and genuinely
We are in the people business so put them first. Look after your people and help and inspire them to look after your clients/customers. True care requires a very empathetic approach. The anxieties and challenges your team members are facing are very often not related to the commercial aspects of your business, they are personal. Appreciate that in the initial stages of the crisis the most important thing to them will be the health and safety of their family. It’s super important in times like this that you give people permission to prioritise these things, to take time out, and to have some fun. One of the greatest challenges we have through a crisis like this is protection of our mental health and we have a real responsibility as employers to support our teams through this. So, dig deeper. Ask what your teams are really feeling and how the business can help.
3 - Communicate, communicate and communicate
This is arguably one of the most important principles. Communication is absolutely critical, and I don’t think you can ever over communicate. Silence is a void that your team will fill for themselves so give them updates frequently. Even if you don’t have all the answers, just check in and let the team know what you and the other leaders are thinking and working on. This is particularly important when your team are dispersed around the country and often isolated from each other. It’s also important that you conduct as much communication via video as possible. Don’t hide behind voice or email. People take comfort in seeing each other and it makes us more human and emotionally available.
4 - Be transparent
As you communicate, be as transparent as possible. Make yourself available and be prepared to answer questions regularly and honestly. Your team would much rather hear it like it is than some sanitised response that ultimately doesn’t tell them anything. Tough decisions are required but don’t be afraid to speak the truth, just do it empathetically. It’s also important to recognise that often people won’t be comfortable speaking up and asking hard questions of their leaders in public forums so create opportunities for them to submit questions anonymously.
5 - Be authentic
This is much easier said than done. To be authentic you need to be honest, and you need to be open. Your team don’t expect you to have all the answers so it’s okay to say you don’t know, but they do expect you to tell them the truth, and on a personal level understand what they are going through.
6 - Be decisive
This is not the time to be indecisive or slow. Hard decisions are required so back yourself and the advice of your team, and once you have made decisions, own them.
7 - Remain agile
Whilst it’s important to be decisive, you also need to be prepared to be agile with your strategy. This is a situation that is changing by the day, and in some cases hour. Best laid plans will need to evolve, and you will need to either change or accelerate strategies. This is okay, but it’s important to clearly and transparently communicate to your team as to why you have changed tack. A change in direction without open communication will only create uncertainty.
8 - Don’t do it alone
This is not a time to attempt to do everything on your own, or without strong counsel. Surround yourself with great leaders and talent from within your business and from outside. Lean on your trusted advisors and really listen. Unique and diverse perspectives are critically important through this time, as is trusting those around you to help execute your collective plan.
9 - Look up and forward
Your team are looking to you for leadership. Whilst the situation may be uncertain and commercially challenging it’s important you remain optimistic about the future and present this to them in a way that is true to your leadership style. Now that some of the dust has settled on the immediate response required it’s a good opportunity to begin to look at what your business will look like post this crisis. Things have undoubtedly changed for all of us, but great opportunities arise from situations like this and it is those who remain optimistic, open for change, and hungry for growth that will capitalise on the inevitable bounce back.
10 - Express gratitude
This is a time where it is important to frequently say thanks. Recognising that through this time many of your team are going above and beyond and are likely to be making some form of financial sacrifice to support the business, it’s important this isn’t taken for granted. Thank them and do so both privately and publicly. When physical connection is restricted it’s all the more important you tell people they are doing a great job. Also, sadly for many leaders you will need to be saying goodbye to people who have been made redundant. Don’t let them slip out quietly in fear of highlighting you have let people go, make sure you thank them for their contribution too.
At the end of all of this I will have learned a huge amount. I have learned what has been important to me and I have learned to trust my gut. Most of all I have learned that great leadership through a time like this will never be perfect, and ultimately it is based on the most human of responses. I think there is a good reason why by many accounts female leaders are being judged for having more successfully navigated this crisis, and that is because they are much more tuned into their human qualities or EQ.
I hope that some of my learnings prove to be useful. As I said, this has just been my experience of the situation and a summary of the principles that I have found to be important to me, but as someone younger than me would say, you do you.
I think when I look back, I will reflect that this has arguably been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my career. I know that I am now much better prepared for an event like this in the future, and next time won’t be making it up so much as I go along, but I also know that if I stick true to my own principles of empathetic leadership then even if it’s not perfect I will have done all I can to help guide my team through this.
As a footnote, I would also like to thank my incredible team for their support. It’s a privilege to lead you all through this and everything I have articulated above is really only possible with the amazing team and collective spirit we have at Dentsu. He waka eke noa.