Steve Woodford, BGL’s Chief Technology Officer, reflects on the extraordinary business challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic and some key thoughts on leading during the crisis.
It took me quite some time to learn to enjoy cycling up hills. I would have much preferred a flat road or even a slight decline. My time living in the Isle of Man changed this. The island has more than its fair share of vicious climbs and more than its share of talented cyclists to embarrass you en route.
My change of heart came on one particular occasion while I was battling up my local summit (called Cronk ny Arrey Laa). A friend of mine cycled past and told me that “it’s the mountains that show you how good your cycling legs are”. While it was irritating that he had sufficient breath to speak as I gasped my way to the top, his words have stuck with me. We learn the most about ourselves when we are tested.
‘In a crisis a team’s raw prevailing culture is exposed for all to see’
COVID-19 has cast us all into the eye of a number of substantial challenges both at home, in the community and at work. After three months of living through this crisis I have been reflecting on how my team have responded to the challenges we have faced and what insights this period has given rise to.
During simpler times it is easy for a leader to be lulled into the view that the team is ‘high performing’ with a positive culture that closely correlates to the organisation’s stated values. In reality it is exceptionally difficult to accurately measure or assess culture; indeed entire fields of study are dedicated to this elusive pursuit.
Leading through a crisis strips away this obfuscation. During such periods the raw prevailing culture of the team is exposed for all to see.
‘It has been fascinating to watch some organisations innovate rapidly, experiment and adapt’
As an example a few months ago many companies looked broadly the same within their sectors; primarily differentiated by price and marketing prowess. Reflect now on those same companies. How many fought to continue to serve their customers while others shut up shop and waited for a return to ‘normal’ (although I appreciate there are valid health and legal reasons for some businesses being unable to trade)? How many obsessed over their customers’ changing needs, and how they could adapt to meet these, while others waited for the market to return to their standard offering?
It has been fascinating to watch some organisations innovate rapidly, experiment and adapt to find new models and new methods of servicing. This speaks to a true customer-centric culture, right in the fabric of the organisation.
I witnessed my own team put in place an entirely new telephony system in less than two weeks to ensure our customers could be serviced and all our colleagues able to safely work from home. This would previously have been unthinkable; a massive technology change within tight regulatory, cyber and architectural limitations delivered in a matter of days. The team was simply determined to ensure that our customers and staff should be cared for during this time and the collective mindset was overwhelmingly one of ‘nothing will get in our way’.
‘Despite the fact that we are now physically separated by lockdown, in many ways we feel more connected to one another’
It has similarly been fascinating to hear the stories that abound of how teams have come together with great creativity and resolution to support one another. COVID-19 hasn’t interrupted our determination to have fun together with a plethora of team events happening every week (including a drinking version of the game show Blockbusters that my team now play every Friday).
Speaking with a friend recently we compared notes on the different communication styles we had employed through COVID-19 and what insights that has given us. We both recognised that communication was pivotal to ensure the team stay engaged and focused. His approach was to present firm plans to try to offer his team a level of certainty in uncertain times. Our approach has been somewhat different.
Initially communications was challenging. How do you ensure a team is kept informed when everything is changing so quickly and so much is unknown? We decided to keep our rate of communications high and to be honest. If we didn’t know, we said we didn’t know.
Board members issued videos which included an honest view of the impact of lockdown on them as individuals as well as the impact on the business. I shared my own challenges (trying to balance a job I love with the extra childcare duties that come from being married to an A&E doctor). I was deeply touched by the team’s response to this, receiving not only messages of support and encouragement but also with many others sharing their own challenges. Whoever would have thought that, despite the fact that we are now physically separated by lockdown, in many ways we feel more connected to one another. We now seem more willing to be truly authentic and open, which in turn has led to numerous acts of quiet kindness to those who are struggling at any point in time.
‘We have learned lessons at an astonishing rate and emerge stronger’
In cycling terms COVID-19 has presented a beast of a hill to us all. We didn’t know it was coming, we simply turned the corner and there it was, looming in our path, its summit obscured by black clouds. The challenge this period has presented to us has given me a very useful insight to the underlying culture and performance of my team.
I am quite sure that our response to COVID-19 has not been perfect. Once we are through this strange time, and with the benefit of hindsight, the mistakes we have made will be evident but in the melee that inevitably accompanies leading in a crisis I have been given an insight into a team of which I am profoundly proud and feel privileged to lead. We have learned lessons at an astonishing rate and have built deeper relationships across the board. We come out of this crisis even stronger than when we entered.
If only my cycling prowess in the mountains would adapt so quickly!