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Leading through a crisis: How to create certainty in uncertain times

When faced with an unprecedented situation like a global pandemic, just how do you ensure your people are well led and well managed? In the following article, we speak to the four winners of Best Companies’ ‘Best Leader’ Special Award across the Small, Mid-Size, Large and Big headcount range, to find out exactly how they achieved such an accolade after a year like no other, and the key advice they would share with others.

It goes without saying that the challenges of successfully leading and managing an organisation when faced with a crisis with the intensity of the Covid-19 pandemic are unlike any other.

But in such times of uncertainty, under pressure to both deliver on organisational goals and show inspirational leadership, how do you create a feeling of certainty for your direct reports?


Put yourself on the coalface

According to Jay Neale, CEO at CloudThing, winner of the Best Leader Special Award in the ‘Small’ category, the answer is showing that when it comes to major crisis, senior leaders should demonstrate that nothing is beneath them. “Show your team that you are happy to get stuck in beside them on the coalface,” he said.

Equally important, Neale says, is putting your people at the centre of planning and “putting yourself in your staff’s shoes” to consider how they might be thinking about things and to understand the different needs and wants of individuals.

Once you’ve established clear channels of communications and have started to understand how your people are feeling, Neale says an open, transparent and approachable way of engaging with direct reports was key for his business.

“We engaged constantly in a variety of ways, including monthly all-company calls and virtual social events,” he explained. CloudThing also established a direct line for all employees to contact the Board and Senior Leadership Team, where they could discuss anything personal, or business related.

 
“In a pressure cooker environment, you have to react”

For Dan Craddock, CEO at plan.com, named the Best Leader in the ‘Mid-Size’ category, the key to managing through a crisis was also through having a people-centric plan.

“When you’re on the way up, people share in that joy and everyone feels part of it, but when you hit a bump in the road, or when you’re on the way down, everyone naturally looks to the leadership team for guidance and to what is going to happen,” he explained.

“When the pandemic hit the leadership team sat down and worked out what our people actually wanted. We had to rapidly find out what was important to them, and the business became very secondary. Once we’d figured that side out and people knew they were safe we could go back to the day job.”

Not dissimilar to Cloudthing, at plan.com communicating key messages and providing regular updates was vital to keeping staff informed and internal communications were made a priority, switching from monthly to weekly updates.

“We’ve taken a lot of lessons about how to communicate on a bigger level as a business. When you’re in a pressure cooker environment you have to react – make a decision – A or B,” he added. 


“Leadership is a deeply personal and emotional thing”

Winner of the Best Leader in the ‘Large’ category, Hugh Griffiths, CEO of Inzpire, emphasised that showing care is one of the most important things a manager can do – not least when faced with a global crisis.

“Leadership is a very deeply personal and emotional thing. It’s not really about strategies and Gannt charts, it’s about forming a connection with people at a very personal level,” he explained.

“They want to know you’re an authentic person and want to understand what you care about. When they find out that you actually care about them and their future in the company – in the order that the employees matter first, then the customers and then the company – I think that gives them a lot of reassurance. I think generally there’s too much emphasis on strategy and planning and not enough emphasis on the human side of leadership, which we’ve done pretty well.”

Along with care, communication and trust are two key areas of focus that Griffiths says are important in leadership and something which he and his team prioritised during the pandemic.

“We sent daily emails reporting on both the national and company situation, as well as mental health tips,” he explained. “Communication is really important. If you don’t talk to people, they fear the worst. I communicate every day. We have lots of video conferences – not all pre-planned – but some with open free talk to try and make sure everyone understands what’s going on. We made it clear that the employee comes first.”

For Managers, building trust with direct reports and living the values of the company are key priorities within Inzpire which have seen some interesting results.

“Managers and staff live behaviours daily, explained Griffiths. “Practicing empowerment is one of the behaviours, and managers bestow trust and responsibility on staff, allowing them to work from home when it suits them and trusting them with unlimited paid leave.”

Griffiths says that this trust has not been abused, with no employee to date taking unfair advantage of the policies. This, he believes, is about trusting individuals and giving them the authority to do the right thing.  


“Trust people and it’s amazing what they can achieve”

At Childbase Partnership, where Chairman, Mike Thompson, was named Best Leader in the ‘Big’ size category, leaders and managers being present and available was a key priority.

After it found its people in juxtaposed positions of either being furloughed, or deemed essential key workers, Thompson said managers always remained visible and regular contact was key.

They prioritised communications with staff, with frequent reminders about company services such as round-the-clock access to external counselling services, business performance updates, clarity of role and business recovery plans, and updates on pay and benefits.

Thompson said that through the challenging times, he trusted his staff to get on with the job in hand, adding, “trust people and it’s amazing what they can achieve.” 


The full lists of winners across all list sizes and categories can be found here and full recordings of the day can be accessed here.

To return to the Insight hub for more articles from Best Companies please click here.

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