As most of us now begin to learn of our governments’ plans to ease lockdown and we send out our grateful thanks to the frontline workers who have put their lives on the line to keep us safe, it is very humbling to write anything at all but I wanted to try and share some of my experiences of leading a team throughout this period.
You may be surprised to read as a Manchester lad that I begin with a quote from the late, great Bill Shankly but for me, this gets to the heart of what I have seen from our team at Highvern since we moved into lockdown. Bill Shankly was famous for seeing hard work and dedication as the key ingredients for a successful team and a quote that I remember from him is when he said that ‘If a player is not interfering with play or seeking to gain an advantage, then he should be.’ When a group of people who normally sit within 20 feet of you each day are suddenly asked to work remotely from all corners of the Island, it is very easy for people to ‘go missing’ and use a variety of excuses to not show the usual levels of professionalism and productivity that they display in the office. What I have seen over the last couple of months could not be further from that.
I’ve seen people embrace new technology and communication channels, pro-actively engage with our clients and professional intermediaries and share experiences and work and support each other as a team, both on a practical and emotional level. We quickly settled into a pattern of Microsoft Teams for team meetings, conference calls and work planning, audio conferences and Zoom calls for most client connectivity and a personal Whatsapp group where from 6pm and at weekends, funny videos, recipes, stories etc were shared to ensure people remained connected and included. Technology has of course played a huge part in seeing us through this period but how and when you use this has been crucial in ensuring continued effectiveness of our business operating model.
It is also very easy as a leader to quickly become that person who is not interfering with play or seeking to gain an advantage and therefore, the key attributes of a leader have never been as important as they are now.
Being able to communicate clearly and effectively to all of your team is imperative and for me, one of the most important skills in leadership. When a person or team is sitting in front of you, you have facial reactions, eye contact and body language to allow you to gauge whether a message has been understood or supported. However, when working remotely, you lose this and listening, yes really listening becomes even more important. Someone once said that ‘you have 2 ears and 1 mouth, use them in those proportions’ and for me that is wise advice. When we are all in the office, we have a desk, 2 computer monitors, a keyboard, a mouse, a chair that moves in a variety of directions, not always how you want it to and easy access to printers, scanners, faxes etc. If you are lucky enough to be able to replicate that at home, in a quiet study with no external distractions then all well and good, however, many of our staff have had to battle with home study with schools closed, self-isolation, varied working hours and at the beginning, less than suitable home workstations. Through listening to their needs, the leadership team at Highvern have delivered computer equipment, chairs etc where needed, managed work across the team to take into account childcare needs etc and encouraged flexible working patters. Add to this a review or our internal policies and procedures which are impacted by home-working, underpinned by an over-riding objective to ensure that our staff, our clients and everyone else who we are in contact with remains safe during this period and you will see that keeping our teams informed of all aspects during this period has tested us all as good communicators.
Decision making and working out a practical solution to a particular problem, often in the midst of changing circumstances is also key to leadership. Through secure electronic signing software, we have been able to complete many hundreds of Trust and company minutes and resolutions and despatch the underlying documents to where they are needed. For those that needed ‘wet signatures’ and being very fortunate to work on a small island, we have arranged this whilst observing the rules on social distancing. Through teams calls and conference calls with clients, we have not let our inability to meet face to face stand in our way of moving matters forward and I have to say that my team and I have probably never been busier that we have over the last 4 weeks. Some businesses cope, others cope better but the best actually continue to move forward and where you are is really down to decision making and focusing on the things that matter most.
Having a strong resolve and being able to listen and understand people’s anxiety and fears is also a strong attribute of any leader. You get to know people in an office when you work with them for 8 hours a day but often you don’t see the real person until we are all challenged and put in a situation which is new and has a profound impact on both our personal and working lives. Being able to motivate and speak openly during such a time is important and often simply sharing your own experiences and how you managed to find a resolution is all it takes to help someone. Leadership is certainly not about agreeing with people and looking for the path of least resistance but is about being true and honest in what you say and giving people reasons behind your decisions and sharing the wider business impact. We have seen this through discussions with team members on the importance of continuing to take annual leave during this period. It is certainly hard when the only options on a day off seem to be sorting out that junk drawer that you have been putting off for months or clearing out the shed which, over the winter months has turned into a home for every local spider you may wish to meet but the importance of having that break and not storing up a problem of accumulated holidays is a message that must be discussed and an acceptable solution found.
Problem solving is part of our everyday lives and most times goes un recognised as we all solve countless problems in a day and often don’t even know we have. As a fiduciary, you are asked to consider many things in the nature of your work, considering all of the facts that must be considered and ignoring those that are irrelevant or which have no bearing on the decision you are making. Lockdown has certainly presented a number of new challenges for us all and my experience shows that often dealing with a very simple problem makes a huge impact to someone’s working life. Leadership for me in the area of problem solving is not so much about solving the problems yourself but quickly understanding what the problem is, looking at various options with the help and support of the team around you and then finding the best solution. Our Managing Director, Martin Hall used a Warren Buffet quote in a recent article when he reminded us that ‘only when the tide goes out, do you discover who is swimming naked.’ This is very true and whilst his use of the quote was very much aimed at the preparations firms had put in place for such a period we are living through, as we have moved through the last few weeks, it has for me been more about being able to solve the problems that have been thrown up. I have not been surprised but immensely pleased by the way that our staff have offered solutions to problems, worked together to find solutions and then shared those across the wider business. Our ‘hints and tips’ pages for technology solutions has never been so busy and one of my earliest examples from a member of staff in self-isolation in mid- March was her use of her Smart TV at home as a second screen to enable her to open 2 applications at once and thereby operate more effectively. For me it was the purchase of an HDMI lead from Amazon and connecting to an old computer monitor which did the trick but her sharing of a tip on how to achieve multiple screen certain inspired me.
Finally, just a short word on vision. As a leader, never losing sight of the bigger picture and to be able to eloquently communicate this to your team so that every person knows the part that they play is fundamental. This period of lockdown has coincided with the period of half-yearly performance reviews with our teams and an easy solution would have been to park these until some sort of normality returns. However, as a team we took the decision that now more than ever, it is imperative that we made the time to have those discussions with each of our team members and I am so proud of the way that everyone has embraced these and actively contributed to furthering their own development and focusing on the business goals. As a business, we have a clear vision of what we are, what we are not, what we do and where we want to be and the current situation has only made us focus on this even more closely and begin to address whether our experiences during this period mean that we must adapt and change how we operate.
In summary and as the world now hopefully moves to a brighter future, it is important that we learn from the challenges that we have faced, consider whether we need to do things differently in the future but most importantly, look back on what we have achieved together and feel proud of our success.