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Resilient Leadership: Emerging Insights

The Resilient Leadership project is scheduled to run for 16 weeks, starting on 6th April and ending 24th July. Being at the mid-point, we decided to take a breather, give our interviewees a week off and spend the time delving into the accumulated insights from the first half. From these, we have distilled the following Emerging Insights. We hope you find them interesting - even helpful.

Our twelve participants are a combination of managers, entrepreneurs and change agents – often all three rolled into one persona.  What they clearly all share is a substantial sense of responsibility for making life better for those over whom they have influence. Observing them responding to the existential threat posed by the Covid-19 pandemic has been a study in practical, heart-felt intelligence. And a pattern has begun to emerge: some insights reflect on the state of participants’ organisations or cities prior to the pandemic, most touch on attitudes adopted and actions taken during the heat of the response to rapidly-changing circumstances once the pandemic hit, while few have been able to resist scanning the horizon for clues as to how they and their organisations will emerge from this upheaval and how they might influence that emergence for the better.

Keeping with this organic pattern, our Emerging Insights are grouped under five headings roughly aligned to a crisis timeline, starting with Preparedness and moving through Response to Recovery.

Preparedness

Underlying Conditions

Response

As the Wave Starts to Break

Leadership and the Personal Perspective

The Turbulence of the Breaking Wave

Recovery

Recovering
Better

Underlying Conditions

We should perhaps not be surprised to discover that the way an organisation or city copes when a pandemic arrives is mirrored in the way the individual human body copes when a novel virus arrives and infects it. Simply put, the body’s chances of seeing off the virus with limited symptoms are enhanced if the body is in overall good health to start with. We’ve heard much about underlying conditions and co-morbidities as indicators of vulnerability to the coronavirus – it is clearly the same for companies and cities.

Leveraging strengths and addressing weaknesses

A major crisis will inevitably shine a sharp spotlight on their pre-existing culture, internal and external relationships and financial health. None of these can be fixed in short order when the crisis is on the doorstep, so the clear lesson from our participants is “Get your house in order! The next crisis will, just like this one, expose and exploit your systemic weaknesses.” By the very same token the pandemic has revealed some real strengths, which have been cause for relief and even celebration by our participants. Patient building of healthy relationships and systems during ‘peacetime’ has been witnessed paying rich dividends under pressure.

Piero Pelizzaro

The Italian government’s rules about who you can lock down with and who you can’t, and who can visit you in hospital and who can’t, reveal long-embedded official views about the nature of the family unit and people’s sexual preferences that are surely no longer relevant, especially for a modern, global city like Milan. They have been the cause of much unnecessary suffering during lockdown. It's clear there is a need for new rights and the recognition of additional types of relationships. This is obvious to us at the city level, maybe less obvious at the national.

Ann Rosenberg

Why has Denmark done so well? First of all, Denmark has a healthcare system which is for free for everybody. And that make you feel safe. Because I normally live in US I can just see the huge difference. I‘ve felt so safe being in Denmark during the pandemic. It also has a very strong social system. From very early on the government began to email Danes around the world daily saying, "You should come home, and if not, you need to let us know why." That was as an eye-opener. I felt, “This country takes care of their citizens!” Denmark is also a country where, compared to US, it's very fact-based. When you get information, there's absolutely no drama. It's fact-based, so it’s trustworthy.

Barbara Humpton

The best preparation for a management team going into a crisis is for them to have already developed a high level of mutual trust. It takes specific interventions within the leadership team to get them past politeness and self-interest to an efficient place of frankly expressing their own needs and listening to the concerns and needs of other parts of the business.

Improving access to ICT infrastructure

Nobody could have foreseen the way a tiny virus would drive us all back into our homes, making us and our organisations profoundly dependent upon the internet and a handful of key communication technologies. But several participants have reflected on how, in the years preceding the pandemic, and often in the teeth of institutional indifference and a reluctance to spend, their organisations had secured new levels of IT infrastructure, either for their own internal use or for solving client problems.

The lesson here is so obvious as to appear banal: since in a crisis communication is the most important leadership tool and often where things break down fastest, make sure your ability to keep talking with your staff and key stakeholders is up to the task. Of course, the question ‘What happens when the internet goes down or is hacked?’ should from now on be getting the serious attention it deserves.

Elaine Roberts

Over the past five years we've made a lot of investments in various IT systems, despite some of those being tough investment choices. This included investing in some digital products and services, which lead to remote solutions for clients, and upgrading our whole IT stack and everybody's laptops. On the digital remote services what we've found is that some clients are saying, "Yeah, I'm ready for this," even though one of our colleagues was saying "I thought it might take three years to persuade them this was a good way of working!" Meanwhile with all our back-office processes now cloud-based, we’ve been able to work from home, supporting clients and staff. So overall, although we'd never really tested it, and culturally we may not have thought we were ready for it, our business resilience and remote working has been excellent. And we're recognizing that everything doesn't need to go back to how it was. We've identified a target that says that at least 30% of our future operations will run remotely.

Piero Pelizzaro

We learned that everyone in the community needs a basic level of internet access, and the internet cannot be a purely privately run commodity. And then there's hardware - what about families of four locked down with only one laptop?

Utilizing data to understand ourselves better

One might be tempted to think that, in a crisis, what matters is how leaders and their people function at a psychological and emotional level. But running a city or a corporation implies responsibility for complex systems of infrastructure, assets and flows of energy, resources and money. The ability to know where these are and how they are moving has proven once again to be invaluable to some of our participants, in particular those whose organisations had invested in smart data systems and the skills to manage them. Simply the act of collecting data may reveal previously hidden facets of your city or organisation.

Tom Lewis

In any emergency, but especially if you've got COVID on top of a hurricane, you've got so many moving parts. You can't manage if you don't know where they all are: equipment, supplies, your workers and also evacuees, etc. You need a tracking and asset management system. Florida apparently has an antiquated one that’s not being used because it's not helpful. We've developed a system for our own use in emergencies. For example, when we deploy hundreds of generators and people to service those generators, parts and fuel trucks, we barcode everything and you can scan it with your smartphone and then once you do that it geo references and you can see where everything is on a map in real time. All this at your fingertips. So when you're doing briefings as a government official, or you just want to have meetings with your team and figure out what to do next, you have all this real time information. It's a real communication tool to reassure people that you're on top of this and say, "Here's what we're offering to you as citizens. Here’s where you need to go and here's where other people are.” And you can show it all on maps.

One of the biggest missions that we had over the past five weeks was setting up a data led approach to this. It now has an automated component which allows us to work with new data as it comes in, to automatically update our models of city systems and finances, SCM, HR – e.g. 'Where are the service overlays compared to outbreaks of the disease?' It's actually incredible. And that doesn't just emerge. It's on the back of two and a half years of dedicated investment in data science. A corporate data strategy for the City that everyone thought was completely boring at the time has now had to be activated. All of that infrastructure is in place and we are reaping the benefits of it in ways that are just amazing.

Mahesh Harhare

Something I thought was very obvious turned out not to be so to government officials. We regularly do digital mapping, but for them that was a game changer. The moment city officials started looking at the mapping exercise and saw they could update details into that in real time, they realized it would actually help them in terms of communicating better to stakeholders, doing proper analysis and managing resources.

Adriana Campelo

Normally Brazil is very bureaucratic and to access official systems you have to be registered to vote, etc. But in order to deliver its emergency cash benefits to the poor, the federal government decided to create a digital ID, which would be given to anyone with a cell phone. The big surprise has been the amount of people that actually emerged to claim this digital ID, people who have been living in informality all this time. There was a layer of invisible citizens who were not in any kind of statistics. They didn't have any social security Last week people started to say the country needs to have a plan for these people, needs to be accountable for these people.

Take care of critical supply chains in advance

Any competent corporate or city executive knows the importance of properly functioning supply chains that allow one’s core functions to continue smoothly year-round. But one has to be familiar with the dynamics of disaster to understand the critical role that certain key supplies suddenly take on. In the case of this pandemic, every health ministry in the world suddenly needed large stocks of PPE, then ventilators, testing equipment, and so on. While no government or supporting company can be expected to have every possible emergency fully catered for in its stores, we have learned the value of being quick out of the blocks – and that does require preparation.

Piero Pelizzaro

In Italy before the pandemic nobody was producing masks. Now we produce millions, but it took weeks to convert production. If we were planning resiliently, we would make agreements with a few producers that, in time of need, they would switch production very quickly.

Tom Lewis

The thing we now realise we need to have, which we didn't before, is someone to keep a sharp eye on our large networks of suppliers, keep them updated and appropriate for likely emergencies. We used to think that if we handled one disaster, the companies we turned to then would stay on our books and we'd use them in a similar situation. But this crisis has stressed that system and we could do with managing the networks more proactively. 'Just in time' isn't enough anymore.

There is a larger question about who takes responsibility for making sure the most vital supplies and their supply chains are in an adequate state of readiness. In a market-driven economy they can quickly become prey to short-term competitive behaviour – we saw this in contractors to US States having to fight one another for PPE.

Elaine Roberts

I think there will be a fresh focus on supply chains and ‘Where does that product or service actually come from? How much do I trust it? How secure is that supply chain? What happens if it's cut off?’ With Covid-19, we're working across the business to look at how we can accelerate products and services that are in very early days in their life-cycles to clients - to test and improve them, and to continue to develop further. We see that being not just a one off for this situation, but actually becoming part of our portfolio and way of working.

Hany Fam

Worldwide, supply chains have been so severely disrupted, I think there is going to be a global re-think about what constitutes supply chain resilience and how much it matters going forward. Fundamental to that will be the distinction between supply chains that enable critical national infrastructure and those that enable normal commerce. How do cities and national governments ensure that they have the supplies they absolutely need to manage crises? Local manufacture and local supply chains may well emerge as critical once again.

Learning from the last crisis

Of course, if your city has recently endured and survived a major crisis – the case with Cape Town and its 2016-18 drought – you will find that there is some very helpful ‘muscle memory’ within the organisation, and less likelihood of natural anxiety leading to paralysis. Although one wouldn’t wish a succession of crises upon any city or company simply because they train one’s people to be good crisis managers, the background realization is that crises are coming thicker and faster than before, so it makes sense to build these strengths consciously. It is essential that systems enable people to process crises in a constructive and positive manner - the last crisis may inspire you to do better the next time around, but it might also leave you with lingering trauma as the next one hits.

Craig Kesson

Having so recently come through the drought crisis, we are now constructing our learning and self-reflection, so that we’re documenting how we learn as we go through this crisis, and what we learned from the last one.

Stephen Hammer

It’s interesting looking at where lockdown protests have been most vocal. There seems to be a sharp contrast with countries that went through wars or other serious hardships within living memory. Perhaps the people there are more resilient and more accustomed to, "This is just what I have to do. I have to wear a mask. I have to stay home for a period of time," because that was their reality in the recent past?

Mahesh Harhare

In the swine flu outbreak around 2009-10 Pune had a comparatively large number of patients and casualties. In fact, it has not completely gone down, so there are few cases every year. The city government got a lot of criticism then because it was responsive rather than proactive. The government has since been rigorous, providing medicine and vaccines, especially in slum areas, to keep the numbers contained. So they learned from that. Now, with Covid, the city administration started using technology early on, using mobile vans, testing and mapping all the patients and disseminating that information. That’s been highly appreciated by both citizens and the Government of India, who sent a delegation from to Pune to see what kind of measures we are taking and how we are doing the mapping, both relating to containment and micro-containment. That was a major boost for the city administration.

Alexandria McBride

I think the city's going through a bit of PTSD here, you feel it. Back in 2008, the city let go about 50% of their workforce. No one wants to be at the wheel when you're literally firing half of the team.

Listen to Seth and Peter discuss emerging insights around 'Underlying Conditions' on the 'Resilient Leadership' podcast

As the Wave Starts to Break

This theme of being quick out of the blocks has come to loom large in the global public understanding of the difference between successful and not-so-successful responses to the coronavirus pandemic. In any disaster it is the case that, in the beginning, minutes and hours matter. They can make the difference between life and death. What is leadership’s role at this point?

Pay attention to weak, early signals

All our corporate participants pointed to the benefit their organisations derived in the early days of the pandemic from having offices and active businesses in China. These automatically gave them a sense of the pace and scale of the danger – but they still had to pay attention and act.

Peter Chamley

It’s a critical leadership task to pick up weak signals early on and assess potential risk. ‘Should we act on this or watch closely as others act on it?’ At the end of January, with so many staff members travelling for the Lunar New Year holiday, we saw considerable risk of them bringing the virus back to South-east Asia and Australia, so we insisted on quarantine once they got back and then banned international travel. We have a cultural bias toward caution and care within Arup. At that same time our Global Board was briefed by an eminent epidemiologist, who told us “This is out. It will spread round the world.” That made us sit up and we started planning to limit travel, and so on.

Piero Pelizzaro

We need to improve the City’s capacity for risk management. We have a lot of risk management for internal procedures, but not an appropriate risk management approach for the cascade effect of the failure of key infrastructures. My own learning is that I have to push more in advance, for the City to be prepared for a crisis. Because risk management is not what you do after the crisis has happened, it is what you have done before, to be ready for the crisis. I need to argue harder for this, saying "Look, this could come, not in 20 years, but tomorrow", and be more strict about it.

Re-set your strategic priorities and free yourself from the constraints of the existing organogram

Once it was clear that a life-threatening crisis was emerging, at large scale and likely to be around for many months, those of our participants at the head of their organisations took swift steps to re-conceptualize the most appropriate management structure for what was clearly going to be business abnormal.

Barbara Humpton

What kind of pandemic task team makes best sense for us? One that includes the necessary range of skills & expertise you might need in order to make good decisions for re-orienting and keeping safe a large organization in fast-moving uncertainty. This extends beyond the health and HR experts, communicators, legal and compliance, to include the IT team and cybersecurity, etc. It doesn’t need to represent the organogram. This task team adopted four priorities:

  1. Take care of our people.
  2. Take care of our business.
  3. We're Siemens - what do we bring to the fight? (We are a Business to Society company, solving for megatrends).
  4. What do we need to be doing right now to help set up a future that's more resilient?

Craig Kesson

We cannot regard this as we would a normal portfolio or normal project, where you have a budget, a definite outcome, and your objective is to reach that outcome and spend your budget. Across all of these different planned interventions, what we’ve done is designed a plan and secured resources from Council at the outer limit of what we think is required, which is like creating a portfolio of interventions in a typical budget. Within that, though, we are utilizing a toolbox of interventions, a variable structure that responds to changes across the systems as they are required. It's not a typical structure and it's not a typical project and we need to embrace that level of complexity.

Adopt a ‘start-up’ mentality

This ability to free oneself from the constraints of the existing organisational chart or organogram may turn out to be a game-changer, in that it helps place the best people and most needed resources where they can do the most good in an uncommonly fast-changing landscape. Traditional seniority may be a poor guide to who will function most effectively in a crisis – in fact several participants likened the atmosphere of those early weeks to being in a start-up.

Craig Kesson

The past five weeks has been such a fast-moving journey of almost developing a start-up within government to respond and mutate with the requirements of the pandemic as they become understood and manifest in South African local conditions. What did we learn?

  1. In a crisis don't retreat to silos or hierarchical positions, think about who can get what done in the best way and give them as much space and scope to get it done.
  2. Don't retreat into strict sector responses but think about thematic issues and how these cut across sectors, and what are the best ways to activate them. Don't think of the problem structurally or in terms of organograms or flow diagrams. Think about it as here's the issue and what's the best way to manage that issue.

Listen to Seth and Peter discuss emerging insights on the theme 'As the Wave Starts to Break' on the 'Resilient Leadership' podcast

Leadership and the Personal Perspective

As one of our participants reflected early in the pandemic, any crisis sorts the good managers from the not-so-good. The call is to step up, manage one’s own fear in the service of helping one’s people manage theirs, and give them a sense of focused purpose as events churn around them.

Create a narrative and a sense of being in this together

In many conversations we heard that people at all levels were moved to lean in towards the danger and its essential tasks. What leadership can provide these individuals is a framing vision or story, or an igniting experience of high-octane camaraderie.

Barbara Humpton

One of the highest tasks of leadership may be to provide a narrative that describes where we are on this uncertain journey and where we must now focus our attention. e.g. ‘We’re digging in for the long haul.’ Barbara recalls the story of Captain Shackleton’s ice-bound crew in Antarctica. We realise we face a long period of danger and uncertainty. We must take what we really need from the sinking ship and leave behind a lot that once seemed important. We’ve sent some scouts out to find a vaccine but they could be gone for a year or more. We must figure out how to survive in the meantime, work out what our daily tasks, challenges and routines are going to be so that we keep our morale up and ultimately achieve our objectives.

Alexandria McBride

A new member of the team joined last week, who’s normally the Oakland Tennis Centre manager but put his hand up for re-assignment in the disaster. On his first day I invited him to sit in with me on some in-person meetings in the Emergency Ops Centre. How we operate normally in the city can be a bit slow and bureaucratic, but then you get thrown into this crisis and it shakes up and accelerates bonds or emotions. He said, "In the one day I've been here, seeing everyone and how they operate and the level of sophistication and intelligence - I really want to be that. I want to live up to that." I think it is a hyper-efficient atmosphere and for the right person who wants to help, it makes you want to be better. It did it for me! You have to step up. It is a privilege to find a way to genuinely help.

Ann Rosenberg

You want to be part of this. And I think a part of this is also your own personal journey into the unknown. I would say having those conversations every single day with my team, we have never been a stronger team together. We have never been more thankful because it helps you as a person to go through this, and you know it will take a long time.

Be open, honest and communicate frequently. Be calm.

Given the rolling uncertainty, with staff facing real threats of both sickness and loss of their jobs, while having to retreat to work from home, many of our participants spoke about the efforts they and their fellow leaders were putting in to communicating with their teams. One had the impression that what was showing up here was not only the personal approach and character of the individual leaders but the long-established culture of their organisation – something that underwrites how people will behave with each other under stress, and that cannot be faked.

Peter Chamley

Over the years I’ve learned that remaining calm in a crisis and being honest and transparent with my team works best. This is my way of handling uncertainty and modelling it for my people. Treating people like grownups, able to handle uncertainty, yet needing honest interaction with their leaders.

Elaine Roberts

This crisis reminds us that good leaders have experience of making tough decisions and living with the consequences. They have developed some humility about what they know and what they don't know. I think we’ve tried to be honest and we haven't shied away from some tough stuff that we're having to do. We're explaining the logic and rationale where appropriate. While people might not appreciate the message, they recognize they're not being excluded and things are being shared with them.

Deal honestly with loss and grief: it may bring surprising gifts

Barbara Humpton

Loss and real sorrow are just getting closer and closer. I think we're going to need to find ways to grieve and support one another as we go through… We aren't living in a bubble. It's a big semi-permeable membrane that surrounds all of us and we've got to acknowledge that these very human things are happening to our employees, in the midst of us keeping our business enterprise healthy and going strong.

Craig Kesson

We had a very sad milestone yesterday with our first staff member who died from COVID-19 in the city administration. They worked in one of the departments that I'm responsible for. We’ve taken all the steps that we tell everyone to follow in the public, from not just a health and safety perspective, but also an employee wellness perspective, the mental engagements, etc. But some staff have suggested we must close the entire Civic Centre. I said now is not the time to panic. There's a person, they had a name, they had a life, people knew them and there's where they worked…and now they're gone. It focuses the mind. But our job as leaders is to maintain our cool, in as much as we can. The possibility of trauma has been real for me for weeks, but it's very difficult to get everyone focused on the crisis when you are discussing theoretically what is going to happen in the future…until that day arrives, and you realize, heck, it's here!

Dr Adriana Campelo

I had a sudden serious illness at the start of the year and had to stop everything, take time out. Then, as I was starting to come back, coronavirus arrived. It's been an interesting journey, dealing with crisis both on an internal, personal level and now also on an external, societal level. I've been left with the question "What matters?" What I've discovered is that I needed to slow down a lot personally, and in that process my perceptions of some things have changed. For instance, coming back into my department I've wanted to allow my team to keep a lot of the responsibility they took on when I had to be away.  I'm listening a lot more to them, letting them lead.

The surprising up-side of leading in a crisis

Should we be surprised that several of our participants spoke at one time or another of the exhilaration of responding to danger?

Barbara Humpton

I'm convinced that everything is going to keep changing, day in, day out, week in, week out for the foreseeable future. So I've coined the phrase 'the now normal'. It's very much like the things I've learned in yoga, just to be present. Keep yourself on your mat and recognize that the past is gone and you don't know what's coming. Everything you need is right here on this mat. What I'm finding is that I just have this deep-seated joy. I don't know how else to describe it, but this deep-seated joy. People want to be useful, and I'm people, I want to be useful.

Alexandria McBride

It's been incredibly taxing on me personally, physically, but it's been the most fulfilling eight weeks of my life.

As the crisis matures, be ready to let go of some leadership and empower others to step up

Just as our leaders have generally relished the leadership tasks that fell into their lap with this pandemic, several of them have spoken of realizing that others around them would equally thrive on being given more leadership to shoulder.

 

Barbara Humpton

What's been really crystallized for me is that the most important thing I've learned to do - and I enjoy doing it - is to let others lead, to recognize that, especially at times like this, people want to step up, they want to be given more to do - so let it go.

Alexandria McBride

If you're really about getting work done, you don't have to get the praise. We want people to get tested but it doesn't have to be the City that's leading the charge. We're not the experts. So we’ve said to the County, "You either need to give us some money to operate and expand these test sites or you need to help us understand what your long term strategy is. Because if the City sites shut down, we are going to rely fully on you the County to help us meet the goals for testing per population." It's going to be an interesting shift for us, as the City, because I know I'm ready, and I’m hoping our political leadership is ready to hand to County what’s been an excellent City story of setting up and operating test sites.

Listen to Seth and Peter discuss our participants' insights on 'Leadership and the Personal Perspective' on the 'Resilient Leadership' podcast

The Turbulence of the Breaking Wave

In a crisis such as this one, with no certain end in sight for most countries, the initial high-octane response phase gave way after a few weeks to something much more complex for all our participants, taxing their leadership skills in new ways.

Dealing with uncertainty

All our participants have commented on the challenge of working with so little certainty and so few stable landmarks to navigate by. Not only is the behaviour of the coronavirus still not fully understood, but most national economies have entered freefall. Add to this having to work remotely from home and the job of keeping one’s organisation or city functioning simply magnifies.

Happily, in all our participants’ cases we got the sense that the people who needed to show up and be present to all this difficulty did exactly that. Stories abound of individuals and teams leaning in energetically to solve new problems and stabilize the chaos.

Barbara Humpton

In a crisis, paradoxically, many people will respond best if you give them really hard problems to solve. This may be particularly true of engineers and technically minded people, but possibly many others. It can channel adrenalin, provide a sense of clear purpose and reduce anxiety. Crises can draw out inspiring responses from one’s people. Devote resources to harvesting and sharing these in real time, particularly internally.

Craig Kesson

We are doing everything we can to process and broadcast messages of support, messages of appreciation for all of our staff members, and amplifying their stories and interactions and trying as much as we can to make sure that they get what they need.

Peter Chamley

Our hardest challenge currently is future planning – it’s like the ‘Phoney War’ in 1939, when we were at war but not much was happening. We’ve just had a really good month, revenue-wise, but there are clearly some sectors that are completely flat. And we’re sure it’s going to get tougher generally, but it’s so hard to plan with confidence. In normal times this kind of buoyant revenue picture would have us wondering about recruiting more staff – but we’re absolutely not there yet.

On the horns of the ‘re-opening’ dilemma

Locking down whole countries was, in retrospect, a relatively simple process, helped by the copy-cat effect that Wuhan went first and thereafter governments around the world had a template to work from. Also national governments tend to thrive on actions that involve central control, so the simplicity of ‘Stay at home!’ worked well in most cases for the first few weeks. But as our conversations started to reveal from mid-April onwards, the process of returning to work was going to be orders of magnitude more complex.

Tom Lewis

How to manage the gradual reopening of our offices? There is a lot of sophistication in reopening successfully. We’re polling our staff for their feelings and expectations. The added complexity of the patchwork of different states' approaches to the reopening. And of the various landlords whose office space we rent - what will their approach be? It really matters to staff to be communicated with often by management, and with a caring approach to their needs. Our plan has been to provide guidelines to staff but then allow them to respond to specific circumstances as they see fit, within some broad guidelines that have been set based on government frameworks - e.g. getting on public transport may be challenging, so allow continued work from home and off-peak commuting. And it was especially tough early on when PPE wasn’t available, yet clients wanted them to go to a site – we do not force those who are uncomfortable to do so.

Piero Pelizzaro

What the community want, I think, is not really to go back to normal life, but to get back some meaning, to let the puppies play together. But I think that people want to know the rules in advance. So what is important is that we get the rules for the Phase Two, not the day before, but some days in advance, so people can be prepared. At the same time some are asking "Must I go back to work for my boss's profit or can I take care of my health?”

It's an issue that tests an organisation’s claim that ‘our people are our greatest asset’. Will staff experience the organisation as truly having their best interests at heart? The answer seems to lie partly in the levels of trust that have been built over years and partly in the leadership’s willingness to communicate frequently and honestly as tough decisions approach, while listening thoroughly to staff concerns… all of it remotely through a computer screen.

Peter Chamley

We’re working out when and how we will re-open our own offices and helping clients with re-starting their operations in large buildings. It’s a complex challenge and pivots around the issue of trust. Staff need to trust that coming back to the office won’t put them in harm’s way, either using public transport or when they get to the building or a client’s site. In all cases, we’re finding that communicating openly with staff and asking their views is both much welcomed and yields useful information.

A common thread in conversations has been to ponder the implications of the pandemic for office-based working in future. Suddenly our assumptions about our head office as the body that naturally houses the mind and soul of an organisation have been thrown into doubt. Do we need big, expensive offices? The other side of that coin has been a realization that, while we still have head offices, re-opening them well calls for skill and judgment beyond that normally required of the office administrator.

Tom Lewis

We're making sure that office re-opening is not being handled as just any other office related activity that the office administrator would do, like ordering paper, or taking care of the copiers. This is much more important, so corporate leadership has asked the operational managers resident in the offices to take a leading role as to coordinating amongst those who want to come into the office, when they come into the office, tracking how they're doing in the office, etc.

When there’s no safe option, get as ready as you can and then plunge ahead

One of leadership’s toughest tasks in an existential crisis is to reckon with the inevitability of failure and loss, and to proceed purposefully anyway. Craig is charged with running the City of Cape Town’s Covid-19 response. After weeks of preparation he arrived at this reckoning.

Craig Kesson

I don't doubt that our systems are going to come under strain, they will. But in as much as we can be prepared for dealing with the pandemic at the operational and health level, I think we are there now, and it's going to come. Whether we are in hard lockdown or not, that moment will arrive. The consequences of the lockdown in terms of food security, in terms of economic and social security are so dire that they create compound problems that just make our response that much harder. From my engagement with the leadership, my sense is that we need to get into it and deal with what comes, without pretending that we can defer this pain because it's just not possible. Those are very harsh calculations to make, but it would seem to me that they are responsible and mature leadership responses.

Lift your head and collaborate, collaborate

You’ll never have better conditions for collaborating than in a meta-crisis where everyone is affected and involved. Be prepared to lift your head early, think wide and be surprised by who’s available to collaborate.

Adriana Campelo

I think Brazilian society is very competitive, even though some people assume we’re more ‘collective’ because we like to live and gather in large groups. But then in the very first moment of this crisis people were very afraid because they didn't know what was going on, yet there was a willingness to help, to collaborate somehow. It was very positive. We could also see this in big companies, even though philanthropy is not as strong in Brazil as in other countries. It was quite powerful. Some very rich people start to organize a movement, organising big companies and wealthy individuals to get together to donate.

Alexandria McBride

To address some historic difficulties in collaborating with Alameda County my team and I have been actively seeking their involvement and showing appreciation for everything they do of a collaborative nature. Even in the just last week the synergy has been different...they're coming to the table more.

Craig Kesson

I've been working deeply with provincial colleagues and city colleagues on what our approach is to the ‘hot-spot’ areas, which are now our strategic focus. You could boil it down to an intensification of our public health measures in those areas and our resource allocation. But it was quite gratifying to see that, given the time we had spent to get the planning parameters right for general service responses, we are now able to activate them to say, "Deploy in this area." What the payoffs will be remains to be seen, but at least there is good coordination within government and we’re leading thematically and not just across sectors.

Remember that crises won’t form an orderly queue for our attention

For the first few weeks, Covid-19 was pretty much the sole object of our participants’ attention. This was remarkable but could not last, and soon they were faced with additional layers of complexity and challenge.

Tom Lewis

Hurricane season is coming to the East and Gulf Coasts. We’re preparing for a call with the leadership of one of our most important state government clients to talk about not just getting ready for a second wave of Covid cases, but for that to happen at the same time as hurricanes, which peak from August through October. This raises all kinds of difficult questions. For example, they ordinarily have very prescribed evacuation procedures and routes and systems with buses or other mass transport. And then sheltering and what they call ‘mass care’, such as where you put people in a school gymnasium or an auditorium or sports arena. So now what are you going to do? Maybe there's more sheltering in place. Maybe you're using things like Uber and Lyft instead of buses. Maybe you're using hotels or college dormitories that are sitting empty instead of large gymnasiums to mass shelter people with more individual separation.

Barbara Humpton

Because we started with a healthcare crisis that precipitated a financial crisis, you could almost predict from the very beginning that we now have ourselves a political crisis as well. These things are inexorably linked. At Siemens we were getting ready to ramp down our formal global crisis team. The idea is that we've put new approaches in place, we’ve empowered individuals on the local level, we have escalation paths set up for them in the normal course of doing business. So we don't need a crisis team to help us with that. But now add on a layer of civil disruption, and yes, we in the US will need to deal with that. On top of that, we've got a storm season that's about to start, so we're prepared for that. And so having a team of colleagues that are constantly acknowledging and managing, I think we're in good shape.

Listen to Seth and Peter discuss emerging insights on 'The Turbulence of the Breaking Wave' theme on the 'Resilient Leadership' podcast

Recovering Better

Our participants are, both by nature and by choice of role, people who work to improve the future. This has meant that, even while spending most of their daily energy focusing on solving the immediate problems posed by the pandemic, their gaze would inevitably shift from time to time to consider the future and how it would be altered by current events.

Green stimulus? Green recovery?

What will it take to tilt the way governments, particularly in the developing world, spend their stimulus billions? Our participant from the world of development finance sees the post-Covid stimulus and recovery period as a unique opportunity to influence a green recovery, simply because of the unprecedented scale of the money being borrowed and granted. But it’s a hard sell to conventionally minded finance departments and their political masters.

Stephen Hammer

It's a challenge to provide hesitant policy makers, who may want to do a green stimulus, with enough reassuring data on how other countries have experimented before and succeeded, especially when most of that experience is in the developed world, which has very little to do with what would happen in, say, West Africa. Trying to link the long-term benefit to the short-term benefit that they will also achieve - and what everybody cares most about is the short-term gain - that's hard.

The real risk is, 10 years from now - or even two years from now - they're going to be writing the same obituary of the billions of dollars that went out the door. ‘We would have, should have, etc. Just like 2008 and 2009.’ Well we didn't get it done, and therefore we lost the decade. And given that this is the final decade in which to be able to do things in a cost effective manner to address climate, it comes back to, ‘Can't we get out of our box and really push very hard or think a bit more creatively?’ It's widely recognized in our C-suite that we should seize this window, but the conversations with client governments are naturally highly complex given the many needs in these countries.  It’s a real dance. And it's a bit of a time crunch that we're facing. I think it is weeks that we have.

Tom Lewis

We have a short but critically important window of opportunity as leaders to influence economic stimulus decision-makers and funders that we must do it better and smarter this time – with sustainability, resilience and the developing as well as the developed world all in mind.  I’ve been involved in convening a cross-sectoral global coalition which is currently evaluating the many challenges as well as the unique opportunities that we have right now for doing exactly this in the infrastructure space through bold and proactive leadership.

Planning cities and infrastructure for resilience

Chief Resilience Officers, as their name suggests, cannot help but see opportunities for improving their cities’ resilience, even in the midst of an existential crisis.

Mahesh Harhare

I see more de-centralization coming. There is a large fruit & veg market in the city centre, but it’s inside the containment (Red) zone, so very restricted at the moment. I expect the City to develop several smaller markets in different parts of the city, to be more flexible in a crisis. Similarly, we have a big central train station. We could develop satellite stations around the city to be more resilient.

Piero Pelizzaro

We’re looking for dual use of infrastructure all the time. We want to revive the local cultural scene (Milan is known globally for its rich cultural calendar), so we’re looking at New York’s idea of closing down one street (or portion of a street) in each district, so pedestrians can socially distance more easily, restaurants can spill out onto the street and we can host cultural events. We have 88 small districts in the city. We plan to close particularly streets that have e-vehicle charging stations, so that sound equipment can be run off them for pop-up concerts and other cultural events.

What will be the implications for cities and businesses of the emerging ‘Con-Covid’ landscape?

The contours of this future, living with Covid-19, are still hazy. But that needn’t stop us thinking creatively about possibilities.

Barbara Humpton

Everybody says "Post-COVID," but I'm going to say, "Con-COVID"...that there's a different way of being in the company of this virus, and so start to get that positive sense of, "OK, once we accept that, we can get creative." Late last year we created a strategy framework we called the US Agenda 2030 - here's what we think our US markets are going to look like for our five main areas of business. We've engaged internal consultants to help us think through the question, 'How does COVID affect these? And what other opportunities should we be considering since things are changing everywhere?' The real trick is how to set up an exercise like this without constraining ourselves. Incremental thinking isn't what we're interested in. We're interested in the really big thoughts.

Our CFO said, "Isn't it too early to be doing this? Who has a crystal ball? Who has certainty?" So we all agreed the objective here is not to create a prescriptive plan, but to hypothesize a set of possibilities and then to set up a sensor network with specific things to be watching for. "Hey, we're getting indications that what we thought is in fact happening – or not," and be able to feed that back into the businesses by way of guidance as they respond to the market. And in the spirit of killing as many birds with one stone as possible, we're thinking through what university relationships we have where students may not have things to do this summer, so can we tap into some brain power that would otherwise be idle. And then what about the talents in our own organization? Is there anyone we can draw into the network of the team that's doing this, in order to keep people's hearts and minds fully engaged?

Inequality: seize the opportunity to move the dial.

Crises usually shine a spotlight on inequality, as it is the poorest who have the fewest options to escape disaster or recover afterwards. Covid-19 has done so on a breathtaking scale, both as a virus that seems to affect certain minority groups disproportionately, and through the mass-scale shutting down of economies, cutting off livelihoods. But in amongst the losses and misery there are some signs that the scale of inequality has become too glaring to ignore, and it may be harder to go back to the ‘old normal’.

Adriana Campelo

Normally Brazil is very bureaucratic and to access official systems you have to be registered to vote, etc. But in order to deliver its emergency Covid cash benefits to the poor, the federal government decided to create a digital ID, which would be given to anyone with a cell phone. The big surprise has been the amount of people that actually emerged to claim this digital ID, people who have been living in informality all this time. There was a layer of invisible citizens who were not in any kind of statistics. They didn't have any social security. Last week people started to say the country needs to have a plan for these people, needs to be accountable for these people.

Alexandria McBride

I’m part of the newly formed Racial Health Disparities Task Force, started in the wake of Covid-19. It's a broad group of City and County staff plus other stakeholders. Its big ambition is to eliminate disparities related to Covid-19 in the city of Oakland. To do that we need to understand, amongst other things, why Black and Latinx folks are suffering a higher death rate from Covid-19, and the link to higher air quality burdens in their communities.

Ann Rosenberg

You can say Denmark is now becoming a safe zone. Finland a safe zone. New Zealand a safe zone. Okay, so what are we now going to do to help? How are we going to help other countries? You can say, "Denmark is okay, so now we're fine." No. We are learning the hard way. You cannot leave anybody behind, because if it is true that there was one person that activated this whole chain reaction, that exactly underlines how that one person you leave behind somewhere in the world can start the whole thing all over again.

Listen to Seth and Peter discuss emerging insights from our participants around 'Recovering Better' on the 'Resilient Leadership' podcast

Participants

The Emerging Insights on this page have been distilled from weekly interviews with the same twelve participants. We are grateful to our participants for taking time out of their busy schedules every week, and sharing their personal reflections and thoughts through this trying time. Please note that they do this in their own capacity, not as a spokesperson on behalf of their organisation.