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Leading through disruption. What I’ve learnt from the pandemic, from a founder.

Written by Sarra Bejaoui on Monday, 01 June 2020. Posted in Leadership, People

You haven’t properly tested your leadership qualities until you have had to lead a team through a crisis.

Leading through disruption. What I’ve learnt from the pandemic, from a founder.

You haven’t properly tested your leadership qualities until you have had to lead a team through a crisis. Fact. In times of uncertainty, there is no one higher than the company founder to look to for reassurance, and when you’re uncertain about the situation yourself, it’s even more difficult to put on a brave face.

The pandemic has changed our world in many ways. From the remote working adjustments to the devastating economic impact as a result of businesses closing.

Whilst some businesses have stayed silent, protecting their own livelihoods, we have worked hard to make a conscious effort to go above and beyond. We believe that those who can help, should help, and as such we made it our duty to be the voice of reason and helping hand for businesses in all predicaments.

As with most businesses, we were thrust into lockdown with a very quick turnaround time. However, with remote working being our day to day, despite the abrupt adoption, our transition into the new normal was relatively smooth. We’ve had no choice but to battle on for the good of our clients. With 9 weeks of lockdown under our belt and a sanitised office ready for a phased return, I’ve had time to reflect on the effects that the pandemic has had on me as a leader and in turn my team. Despite being proud of our collective perseverance, there are many things that I have learnt from this time.

Echoing one of our values at SmartPA, I will ‘own it’ and share my experiences as a business leader of steering our ship through these choppy waters.

Flexible working.

A flexible work-life balance is something that we all strive for, but for many companies, the thought of entertaining remote working has often been rejected. Many managers cannot fathom a reason as to why their employees wouldn’t be in the same room as them, where they can check up on them at all times. This highlights the true difference between managers and leaders, as leaders understand that freedom is essential to gain the maximum potential out of their team.

I strongly believe that this is one of the main contributing factors as to why SmartPA have survived during this time. Remote working and flexibility should be encouraged long after the pandemic, to allow your staff to be creative and take responsibility for their own success.

For those who do not encourage this, the forced transition to working from home, has been a much more turbulent process. Initially businesses may not have welcomed the changes with open arms, but hopefully many are now seeing the benefits. The world appears to have adopted this “new normal” so well that I strongly believe we will never revert to working from an ‘office’. To stay ahead of the curve and abreast of another crisis, businesses must reflect upon their remote working practices and implement changes for the long term.

Communication.

It has been essential for me to communicate effectively to my team, client base and customers for reassurance, but most importantly for transparency. No one in our lifetime has been through a situation quite like this so no one could have been thoroughly prepared. It has been important for me to recognise that as a leader, you don’t always have the answers – but you must convey that with your people.

With most of the world staying at home, it has been difficult to wrangle a sense of corporate culture when we are all so separate. However, thanks to weekly quizzes and Friday catch ups hosted by Zoom or Teams – we’ve never been closer as a team. This is a light-hearted, team-building practice that must continue when we return to an office environment.

As well as communicating transparently, leaders must also strive to instill a sense of calm and stability – even if they don’t have all of the answers. It’s important to keep conversations focused on facts and data and not speculate. Once you’ve opened the door to opinions, panic can start to set in. Now more than ever, your team needs to feel secure and data and hard evidence will help to do that.

People first.

Just as it is at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – people’s most basic needs of feeling safe need to be met before anything else. Leading with a people first attitude is key. Yes, you may be worrying about the bottom line – but the importance of putting the health, safety, and well-being of employees should be above all else. Remember, your people are your most important asset in business. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today and making sure they are mentally and physically well, is essential.

This can be in the form of checking in, rewarding or supporting. Throughout lock down I have been sure to check in with my team and remind everyone that they’re doing the best they can. My number one priority has been to make sure that all employees are stable.

We’re very lucky that we’ve not had to make any redundancies during these times. As fear of job loss has become contagious across most organisations, it’s been very important for me to address these concerns with total honesty. 

Look for the silver lining.

Of course, the pandemic has had devastating effects and no business wants to be seen to have capitalised on other people’s misery. However, it has been important for leaders to reassure job security by emphasising the opportunities amid the chaos.

For us, this has been the chance to support new businesses through virtual support that would have otherwise turned their head at the thought. Now that the world has had no choice but to adopt remote working practices, they have seen first-hand the value and as such are more open to the help of a virtual service.  

It has also been very rewarding for us to help charities that are busier than ever during these times as our support is much more cost efficient for them as we offer a charity discount.

For employees finding themselves with more downtime than usual, I’ve encouraged my team to use this time to undergo online courses that will excel their career. This is a great way to keep motivated and use our time productively.

There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has brought an influx of challenges for businesses across the globe and we too, have had to be agile in responding to clients’ ever-evolving needs. Agility, along with flexibility, innovation and resilience, are but a few skills business leaders are utilising as a means to survive – even thrive – during these times.

Reflecting upon our time in lockdown has given me an overwhelming sense of team spirit. We are all in this together and with a mixture of shared uncertainty and more Zoom calls than ever – the team has never felt closer.

One thing is for certain, regardless of mistakes and challenges, we will one day return to a more connected office environment. As a leader, it is very important that however much we want to, we must not forget these times and mark them as a bad dream. We must use these learning experiences to prepare for future crises and commend our people for their efforts in powering through.

About the Author

Sarra Bejaoui

Sarra Bejaoui

Sarra Bejaoui, is the Founder and Managing Director of SmartPA. As a global business leader, Sarra drives SmartPA in its quest to challenge the perception and experience of the PA and business support sector, transforming the lives of individual SmartPAs and their clients.

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