Confessions of a CEO during COVID-19 — A corporate system whistle-blower
For those who had had enough of screen time in the last couple of weeks: here is a podcast version, put your headphones on and go for a walk while you listen: https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-82xuj-d6b6ac
It’s 2.45am, again.
I’ve woken up the last 6 nights at exactly the same time. Anxious and frustrated. To say none of this is down to the financial burden of our company in these uncertain times would be a lie, but It’s not the main reason. It’s the wellbeing of my team and my ability to really lead them. I’m questioning the very core of my leadership ability.
This week one team member (who is a home worker) spoke to me about how stressed she was, now her husband and daughter are at home with her too; she mentioned how unsettling things seemed and how tense it was at times, as everyone scrambles to create a sense of routine in a sudden non-routine reality. Then, she mentioned her son may also be home from next week.
Another team member, a single mum with a young daughter, was trying to solve the entire complexity and implications of working from home alone, with her vibrant and energetic 6 year old, knowing she would require a lot of attention. She’s worried about things like lockdown — and what a mother and daughter in a two-bed apartment for two weeks will do to her sanity!
It’s 2.45am in the morning again. What can I do to help them? How am I going to solve this? What am I missing? How does my leader role change in all this?
These are the thoughts running through my head, making my heart beat faster.
I confess, these night-time frenzies are taking their toll on me too — I’m not as sharp during the day with decisions and I’m not the motivational CEO I usually am. If this carries on, my team may not want to bring their realities — their confessions — to me.
Then, inadvertently I spoke to another CEO. Dancing around the edge of truth at first, I decided to mention a couple of things I was worried about and instantly the flood gates opened. It just so happened my leadership colleague was having similar angst about the same things, but in varying degrees, as well as some completely different things altogether. We talked things through and eventually shared our thoughts about what leadership in March 2020 looks like versus March 2019, we even tried to think back to March 2005! Then I said, “So, what’s March 2021 going to look like then?”
She paused and said — “Mel, the one thing that’s fact, is things have changed forever. And it’s our job to ensure that the changes we lead and we make now, that stick, are the right ones.”
I can tell you now, it was a bullet between the eyes, the elixir I needed — all in one. The challenge and motivation to spur me on as a leader. I went for a run and when I got back took myself away to a spare room and wrote the following letter to my team, sharing with them straight after, warts and all:
Hi Team and friends,
The rules of leadership and business have changed. They changed before COVID-19, the majority of leaders just didn’t spot them. Even as the CEO of this company called Adapt2Digital, I didn’t spot this non-digital stuff and I wasn’t prepared. But I am resilient, and we are adaptive as a team and company, which gives me the knowledge we will get through this, doing what we do best — being human, which equals resilient and adaptive.
Leading through uncertainty and complexity is now par for the course; We’ve heard about bushfires, experienced floods, and now live in the eye of a global health pandemic storm — it’s safe to say extraordinary things have become our normal (even if the ‘things’ are extraordinary in and of themselves). Extraordinary times call for extraordinary thinking. What I mean by that is we need to think differently. Thinking differently about things we know is more extraordinary than thinking the same way about a problem or issue we tackled last week, or last year or ‘for that customer’. We must be brave and bold and know that thinking differently — together — we can thrive not just survive. This is a moment in time and every moment eventually passes.
I have learnt some things about myself during the last few weeks, in hindsight I think we all will. Today, I want to share with you what I’ve learnt in the hope that you will help me as much as I pledge to help you get through this resiliently.
- I cannot help you in the best way possible if I don’t first help myself. I realise the wellbeing of everyone in this company also includes me. So, for us all, let’s prioritise wellbeing above everything else over the coming weeks.
- Leadership isn’t 24/7. I’m not a superhuman. But, we can all be a hero “if just for one day!”. We are a small team and I welcome us all showing leadership spirit over the coming weeks to support each other when needed.
- The corporate social structure of the industrial age doesn’t work anymore and won’t transition to how we are working right here, right now. Stopping for morning coffee, then lunch and finally afternoon tea are things of the past — when it was human machines in factories, and break times were for building sustenance to drive efficiency. Today we are a team who want to drive effectiveness — so my suggestion is that we move away from breaks for food and have breaks for wellbeing and take this one step further and openly share our ‘wellbeing moments’ in our calendars. I’ve put a run in my calendar for tomorrow at 11 am already!
- Frantically, trying to get everything onto a digital/virtual screen is not our objective when going remote and becoming digital. We know this from the work we do with our customers. Let’s mix it up and eat some of our own dog food! I for one am going to record this letter onto audio and share it as a podcast.
- I don’t have all the answers. Even on those occasions when I come up with the answer in the end — it’s as a result of a team effort journey.
- Many of our customers are saying they are going to leverage this time to do more online learning — this is great! So should we — and help our other customers do the same, we’ve just in the last two days started to work with a central government agency to support them transition some of their classroom leadership learning to a virtual environment.
Finally, let’s keep perspective and keep ourselves human through this. If a young 6 year old wonder woman charges across the screen in the background during a meeting — It’s ok. If a black furry dog paw taps your keyboard when you are talking to some financial figures and 58 suddenly appears as 4392 — that’s OK too! Let’s just take things as they come and learn our rules along the way.
Two weeks ago, my beautiful, brave, utterly amazing sister-in-law learnt she has late stage cancer in several places in her body. The matriarch of the family, the beating heart of us all; but she’s strong and she’s going to fight this. Taking things day by day and moment by moment with the full support from her loved ones — she says she’s going to “beat this bitch!”. That’s exactly what we are going to do here. Let’s not take things out of proportion, let’s stick to reality and keep to fact. Remind ourselves this is a moment with an end in sight and keep hold of our humanity as we continue to work remotely and face further changes, many still unknown even as I write — Ensure we are not alone and prove together we are stronger.
If you are a CEO or leader, please share your feelings, thoughts, your worries and ideas with someone, maybe your team, like I did. I have reached out to offer my time to you free for advice, coaching and mentoring, but quite frankly, if you want to, please connect with me — if it’s for a virtual coffee chat, just to get something off your chest, or even to give me a virtual hug that’s OK! Share your story with someone, or on email to me directly via firstname.lastname@example.org
Feel free to schedule some time with me using this link: https://calendly.com/digital-leadership/catch_up
Things will not be the same again. Where they end up — positive or negative is has to be up to us — not us alone as leaders, but alongside those who matter most, our teams, family, friends and confidents.
No one should be alone right now — not even a CEO.