Many aspire to play the role of a leader. It could be the power and authority that attracts many to the position, or it could just be a matter of the financial rewards associated with the role. Maybe it could be some combination of all the above, but whatever the case, the opportunity to lead has always seemed more appealing than its inverse, the chance to serve. However, the now clichéd quote of “with great power comes even greater responsibility” is cliché for a reason and nothing seems to have illustrated this than the global pandemic that has come to redefine life as we know it. It’s leaders who’ve had to take on the arduous task of guiding us out of a global calamity; a calamity that hit so fast and so swiftly that no one could adequately prepare.

Seemingly, nothing has been spared from lives to entire livelihoods, COVID-19’s impact on the world has been of biblical proportions and no one knows how to manage this crisis. The leaders, who we often turn to for guidance and direction, are uncertain on how best to handle the situation at hand like we all are and it feels like some are just figuring it out as it unfolds. And who can blame them, there hasn’t quite been a crisis quite like COVID-19 in recent memory that could have prepared them for this, no management school case studies they could refer to, no leadership conference they could have attended, nothing really could have braced them for the impact of COVID.

Yet, funnily enough, we still turn to them to provide us with a roadmap out of this quagmire; a concrete plan that will ensure their organizations or country’s survival’ and to do it all with little to no collateral damage. To imagine that they have some sort of game plan or a playbook that could use in moments like this is somehow indicative of the trust we place to those in positions of power. But, the honest fact of the matter is, that no one has the answers to all that is unfolding before us, however, unsurprisingly enough, some are coping far better than others. 

What are these exceptional leaders doing better than others? What’s their secret formula that’s allowing them to navigate through this crisis, while others are seemingly drowning? Do they have access to some proverbial philosopher’s stone that shines brightest during these dark times that allows us to see the road ahead better than others? It is this question that led us to put together a Leading In A Crisis webinar series. 

We wanted to provide a local first perspective, on how different entrepreneurs and leaders are managing during COVID. We’ve heard enough of how foreign businessmen and women have reacted and are handling the situation, but some of their solutions are so far from home that it’s difficult to draw any real-world parallels with our situation on the ground. As they say, local challenges require local solutions.

The hope of this series was to learn from different leaders across different sectors, to hear how they’ve been impacted, how they reacted in the beginning, how they are coping currently, what they have learned, what they wished they knew earlier, and their outlook into the future. The goal was to provide a platform where we can have these discussions & share some of the best practices being undertaken by these various leaders because at the end of the day good leadership benefits us all.

For the first leading in a crisis webinar, we had experienced panel comprised of:

Rita Kavashe the Managing Director of Isuzu East Africa Ltd (formerly General Motors East Africa (GMEA) where she has worked for the last 25 years. 

Joanne Mwangi is the Founder and current CEO of Professional Marketing Services Limited, a company that she single started about 22 years ago.

And moderating the conversation was Carol Odero, the Deputy Managing Editor at CIO East Africa

Key Take-Aways

1.Communication:  Inspire others | Reassurance | Communicate More | Transparency

Inspire others

“In the beginning, employees were anxious about their health & safety, as well as their job security, us managers were also worried but quickly we had to change from worrying about yourself to wanting to inspire those that you are leading so that they face the realities of the pandemic, and be ready to operate. As a leader, you take a stall of yourself and inspire other stakeholders.” Rita

Rita pointed out that like everyone she was also scared and anxious in the beginning, but she quickly realized that she had to take up the mantle and try to inspire those under her guide. This resonated with me in that it showed me, leaders are human too, but as a leader focus needs to shift from yourself to the ones that are you are leading.

Reassurance

“The team needs me to give them the assurance that there is a future, I have to be empathetic. Because the fact is this is a pandemic and the most important thing is for us to stay alive more than anything else… “ Joanne

Almost everyone is uncertain at this moment in time and the things the most are uncertain about are their health, safety, and job security. So what Joanne sees that when leading the most important thing you can give your team is reassurance, because that just means its one less thing that they have to worry about.

Communicate

“You need to have a transparent communication mechanism structure with your employees so that your struggle is clear to everybody. You need to communicate constantly with your team, reiterating your message of hope, your message of reality. People want to hear from their leader, what has happened what are the implications for me, So, we need to look at this as a humanitarian crisis first before looking at this as an economic crisis.” Joanne

“What we’ve noticed is that We have to listen more. There is value when we are together in an office seated across from each other, I can pick up on subtle cues and determine whether they had a good day or a bad day. So, we had to rejig our habits and focus on listening more so we can pick up what is going on in our employees’ lives who we are managing virtually and thru systems” Rita

Leading can be described as knowing the way and showing the way, so as leader one needs to be in constant communication. This requires the leader to be explicitly transparent in their dealings, they need to tell the truth about the situation where the company is at the moment in time, what is the new mission, what is the new vision, & where is the new opportunity if any. However, communication is a two-way street, so leaders have to listen more. What are some of the concerns the team might be having, do they have any ideas that they would like to share. 

2. Planning: Being prepared 

“One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.” –Arnold Glasow.

No one could have adequately prepared for COVID19 so it’s pointless to play the game of hindsight, however, a good leader can assess the situation as it unfolds, and start making preparations that would better position the team to tackle the problems that may arise. Having “A” plan is better than having “No”plan.

“Working virtually was already part of our culture, employees did not have to 100% work in the office, there was already an existing system that allows employees to work remotely and a system of measuring, however, the scope of the system was not the same as what we are experiencing right now, because everyone now was working from home” – Rita

At Isuzu, they already had a system in place for remote work even before COVID19, as some of their employees could work from home. Granted, the system that they had wasn’t robust enough to allow for the entire organization to work remotely, but when COVID hit they were in a better position, than other companies adopting it for the first time. Their experience beforehand, allowed them to easily make the transition because it was just a matter of scaling up their system. This just illustrates the importance of how planning, even for the most unlikely of circumstances is always prudent.

“You have to be very transparent with your employees; these are our numbers, this is what we have, this is how long this will last us, this is how long we can hold out with the reserves we have. At this point these are changes that are going to be made. The sooner you come up with a strategy the better it will be. People are already anxious; they don’t need any additional surprises.” – Joanne

A plan reduces the level of people’s anxiety because they know what needs to be done, by who, when it needs to be done and helps reduces the likely hood of any unexpected outcomes. For those who don’t have a plan, then the first thing a leader needs to do is organize a crisis response team. Having a group of men and women whose sole task is to anticipate the challenges ahead is crucial to how you come out at the end of the crisis.

3. Culture: Productivity | Innovation

The pandemic also gave leaders an awakening on the kind of culture that exists among their employees. Are these people that can be trusted and still give results despite these challenges. So as leaders we found ourselves asking what interventions need to be made to ensure that productivity stays up. You KPIs have to be clear and so that you can hold your employees accountable since you are there to supervise what they are doing. Ho

“One thing we’ve done is made the team more dynamic, they are the ones that are coming up with new methodologies on what should be done. So, the team is giving me their ideas and they are relying on my experience and my knowledge to make their ideas more robust and together we charter a new future for the organization.” – Joanne

This is a period where organizations shouldn’t shy away from innovation, because it seems that the most innovative organizations are the one which will come out triumphant. So this is an opportunity for leaders to give their teams a chance to have their voices heard.

“We’ve had to retrain our salespeople. Because initially our sales agents were trained to deal with customers face to face, but now they are dealing with clients virtually and that changes the nature of their interaction. From little things like how you sound like, because right now most people are downcast, so we’ve had to train people to try and elevate the customer’s mood, how to spark hope int the customer so they are excited to buy the product.”- Joanne on Innovation

Conclusion

It was quite interesting to hear how these two leaders handled the crisis in their different organizations. But here’s what I mostly took away from their discussion: 

Importance of planning. Initially it was very reactionary, we acted before planned, now we are planning before we take action.

Invest in technology. This period has imposed on us a digital shift more so to those who were initially hesitant. And the good thing about this we become, efficient and more productive. COVID has shown people that we don’t need to be in big expensive offices to work. What people need is an efficient, and effective technology, and good internet to work. And we can be meeting when we do need to have a face to face meeting coz, we are all social begins.

Deferring non-urgent investment that may not return the cash quickly. So, if you are investing in a new venture, ensure it is a venture of the future and not a venture of the past.

Fixing gaps in our organization. What does this situation show us as far as gaps are concerned? Do we have the infrastructure in place that allows our team to work remotely? What have learned?

Learn and unlearn. We should change on the fly; we should react accordingly in response to the information that we get.

Most importantly we need to be empathetic. This is a health crisis, people’s lives are at risk and that should take precedence over everything. People are also dealing with a lot mentally with the uncertainty of their sources of income, limited social interaction, children not being in school, and so on, so leaders have to show some empathy when making their decisions.

We hope that more leaders can apply some (if not all of the above) because at the end of it all, good leadership benefits us all.Special Thanks to: Rita Kavashe – ISUZU, Joanne Mwangi – Professional Marketing Services Ltd .

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