Even the world’s greatest leaders have been tested during the COVID-19 pandemic as they find new ways to navigate a crisis.
Some of Australia’s top executives have shared their secret tactics and insightful lessons to overcoming challenges that arise when a virus disrupts the globe.
Many of the business leaders, who are among the judges for The CEO Magazine’s 2021 Executive of the Year Awards, believe without the dedication of the talented people behind the companies, their businesses would not have made it through the crisis.
"If you lead with strength, honesty and transparency, your team will respond in the best possible way," explains Chris Dutton, Co-Founder of The CEO Magazine.
"Lead by example, with integrity, clarity and passion, and you will inspire the desire and give the freedom to innovate so that any challenge becomes an opportunity to find a better, more efficient way of doing things.
"Above all, you can’t over communicate as a leader."
Lessons from the COVID crisis
- Communicate, have empathy and be proactive
- Slow down
- Listen, listen, listen
- People make the business successful
- Be flexible
- Lead with clarity
- Make tough decisions
"My businesses are able to succeed through this crisis through agility, transparency and positivity – three key principles that I believe in, not just in a crisis but in everyday business," says Lynette Phillips, Founder and CEO of MAXMEDIALAB and MAXCONNECTORS.
"With my businesses being privately owned, I was able to make the tough decisions quickly to ensure business continuity through uncertain times. I looked for new opportunities for brands to connect with media, advocates, influencers and audiences alike in the current climate which saw digital consumption skyrocket.
"We were first to create digital press rooms (running over 50 webinars in 2020), virtual influencer-led consumer masterclasses, mass consumer trial teams to replace in-store trial and sampling and leveraging our in-house traffic acquisition and ecommerce specialists to help our clients capitalise on the growth in online traffic over lockdowns.
"Last year gave me the space and time to focus on re-evaluating and refining areas of business and its strategy moving forward. For me, it was really important to plan and communicate this clear post pandemic vision for not just both businesses, but for clients and employees too.
"I wanted and needed to ensure that people felt confident in the direction that we were moving towards, and that they were part of building the road ahead. I wanted the team to feel united and excited about our future. From career progression reviews, to team building and bonding experiences, and even upscaling resources, I invested back into the backbone of my business – its people."
"I will never forget those first two weeks when COVID became very real in Australia after the 2020 Grand Prix was cancelled on the day as it was all just so unknown. I certainly felt a lot of initial anxiety about it all, worrying about health of family, friends and the world," says Tim Gurner, owner of GURNER.
"While it was definitely a challenge, working through this period was probably the best thing that could have happened to get myself out of a negative headspace and into a more productive, focused state of mind.
"One of the biggest leadership lessons through it all has been communication. So many people are anxious about their jobs and the economy, so we had a weekly video call where I updated the team on our business and any news coming out of the global health authorities.
"There have been some huge positives to come out of this period while we experience the world slowing down a bit. We all got so used to the world being chaotic and crazy there was no time left for ourselves or family. Everything was so important and urgent that the converse became true – nothing was actually important anymore.
"This time has really allowed us the space to focus on our family and friends first, which has put things back into perspective."
"Empower all staff and trust them, and make sure you have regular contact to check they are OK," says Grant Barling, General Manager of Maserati Australia and New Zealand.
"Lessons I’ve learned during the pandemic are to simply listen to customers and stay informed with the latest news; plan for unexpected interruption and make sure staff are comfortable to come to you; keep management informed on key issues and escalate any queries immediately – don’t wait."
"Our company works to regularly share the vision of what we are striving for in the longer term, acknowledge the short-term challenges and provide the support and tools to navigate the changing environment. Virtual one-to-one check-ins with the wider team and a variety of motivational activities also assisted with the team engagement and confidence," says Rosi Fernandez, Managing Director of La Prairie Group Australia and New Zealand.
"We acknowledge not all our plans are successful, providing people with the confidence that it is OK to make mistakes. This is important as we have a group of high achievers who are used to exceeding their goals, and resetting the framework is important to keep them motivated.
"Staff retention is critical to ensure future performance. Whilst the shift to digital is super accelerated in the pandemic, digital is still only the tool. The reinforced learning is that the people make a business successful. People handle stress differently and this needs to be acknowledged and consequently supported.
"The same leadership skills are required at crisis time, just more frequently, empathetically and more visibly."
"First, don’t panic; you need a cool head in business," says Dorry Kordahi, Co-Owner and President of the Illawarra Hawks and Managing Director and Co-Owner of DKM Blue.
"For me, just like everyone, last year the pandemic was really uncharted waters. But I’d been through the global financial crisis and actually expanded my company during that time, so I knew we could get through this too.
"I was prepared, flexible and ready to try new approaches, but I never let go of the fundamentals that have seen me safely through my journey so far. I don’t believe that a crisis is the time start experimenting.
"Set some achievable goals. Monitor your costs and keep them as low as possible and ensure your cash flow is consistent. Make sure you pay your suppliers on time. These are times when you, your customers and suppliers need to stick together, because it’s happening to them too.
"As an entrepreneur, you need flexibility stamped in your DNA. Business is like sport: you train hard every day, but come game day you always go that extra mile. I looked at the pandemic through that lens. It was game time!"
"During 2020, our leadership team felt an immense responsibility to our people throughout the pandemic, and the health, safety and wellbeing of them were never more in the forefront of our minds," says Louise Adams, Group COO of Aurecon.
"Our world is still in turmoil. As we respond to each situation, we evolve our thinking as to what good leadership looks like. Our people are continuing to deal with a lot of ambiguity and what we are finding is we are having more conversations about stress and fatigue.
"Pre-COVID this was generally caused by things that we could easily fix as an organisation, for instance, long hours. What we are now finding is stress and burnout are being caused by external factors an organisation has no control over. People are being cut off from their families living overseas and holidays have been cancelled.
"What workplaces have tried to do is meld the ‘work’ and ‘life’ parts together to help bring an empathetic and compassionate response to the crisis. However, what we are seeing is that the ‘life’ part for many is still not great.
"As leaders, we need to give people direction and ensure it is in bite-size chunks so they can easily disseminate what they need to do, make it clear and consistent, and unwind the complexities. Being clear, calm, consistent and confident is what is required to lead people through uncertain times."
"For me, it is about leading from the front, being visible, overcommunicating, being authentic and honest, and not making emotional or kneejerk decisions," says Soren Trampedach, Founder, Chairman and CEO of Work Club Global.
"It’s all about hard work, persistence and resilience. Being a leader means sometimes making unpopular decisions, but so long as you always explain the rationale behind them, I think you come out with a stronger team at the other end."