Leadership in Times of Crisis Part 4: Key Words of Advice from Tech Business Leaders

Leadership in Times of Crisis

Leadership in Times of Crisis Part 4: Key Words of Advice from Tech Business Leaders

In the hopes of unveiling some ideas we can apply to our own respective businesses, we asked our clients what their top three pieces of advice would be to other leaders during a crisis. As stated by Julian Elliott, CEO of Covidence, now is the time for leaders to build culture and support their teams, customers and clients. “These are the times that show who you are as a person and what the company really is at its core.”  

 Communication and Transparency is Key

It is clear from speaking to our leaders that communication (both internally and externally with customers) is the most important during a crisis. While some companies suggested more than usual (Les Wigan, COO of Kayo Sports) with as many as three company-wide calls per week (Rob Scott, CEO of Cygilant), all agreed that communicating at least once a week was pivotal to ensuring employees felt engaged.

“Be as transparent as possible with both your employees and your customers. It’s ok to show some vulnerability and transparency when things are tough. As leaders, we tend to forget that human aspect.”

– Gabriele Famous, former Chief Marketing and Brand Officer, Trustpilot

Furthermore, all leaders we interviewed confirmed that the communication should be done with as much transparency as possible. As stated by Michael Batko, CEO of Startmate, leaders should be 100% transparent with both good and bad news. Employees understand that business leaders may not know what the immediate future holds, so there is no requirement for definitive answers. 

100% of business leaders agreed transparent communication is crucial

“COVID-19 and forced working from home arrangements have left employees in a great deal of uncertainty. As an employer, it’s important to prioritise taking care of our teams by keeping communications as transparent, open and honest as possible. HR plays a crucial role in upholding employer brand during this time. How companies tackle the COVID-19 crisis as a business challenge will define their brand for decades.”

– Deborah Mason, SVP Global Talent, PageUp

Mark Wells, CEO of Cogent stresses that leading with a balance of optimism and realism is crucial. In fact, recognising this uncertainty means that leaders appear more honest – something which staff appreciate.

“Be genuine and sincere in what’s working, but acknowledge what’s not working. People don’t like surprises.

– Rodd Cunico, Group CEO, CIRRUS Holdco

Look After Your People

Focusing on the mental health of your people and showing empathy and understanding of what they are going through, was the second most prominent theme identified during our research. During a time where employees may be feeling isolated and disengaged, it is essential to recognise the unusual nature of the current economic climate and reassure staff that feelings of uncertainty are normal. As Ajay Bhatia, Managing Director of Carsales Australia, states, “You may not have the answer someone is looking for, but it is important to be there to answer their questions”.

“Be empathetic to your employees. Not all situations during a crisis are equal. For example, we found that it was harder for employees with young families and for people who lived alone. Being understanding of their situation and giving them the flexibility they need builds trust and better outcomes for both the company and employees.”

– Gabriele Famous, former Chief Marketing and Brand Officer, Trustpilot

Communicating in this manner goes beyond empathy, with other leaders recognising the importance of employees psychological wellbeing during this time, and how closely this is linked with how successfully a business will come out the other side. With employees more susceptible to issues such as anxiety, depression and PTSD during this time, studies are finding that “support may reduce the burden of comorbid mental health conditions and ensure the wellbeing of those affected.”

Leaders focussed on different employee engagemenet initiatives

“Employees need to feel leaders’ confidence and optimism during this environment in order to be flexible. They can’t be stuck in concern and anxiety. They need to know we’re going to survive.”

– Ben Palmer, Co-Founder, Genos

Addie Wootten, CEO of mindfulness meditation startup, Smiling Mind, recommends leaders to encourage their staff to practise mindfulness and says that as little as 10 minutes of mindfulness every day can make a difference. Here at MitchelLake, we have engaged in two facilitated meditation sessions every week (both theory and practice) and a number of our team are already reaping the benefits.

“We have seen extraordinary work from our team leveraging their connection to our purpose. It’s been amazing to be part of, we’ve had lots of pause moments to celebrate and check in on people and support them. However, with any sudden adrenaline rush, the potential for a hangover and burnout is always a risk. We are very conscious of it and talk about it openly and will continue to do so until things settle down (if they settle down)”.

– Ellie Smith, VP of People and Culture, Who Gives a Crap

Seek Out Opportunities

During a crisis, it is easy to get so caught up in the tailspin of negativity that we cease to notice the opportunities that have arisen. Therefore, we are posed with the question: How do we take advantage of opportunities during this period? 

We have seen a number of companies pivot and change their focus, whether this be through the creation of new products or shifting their target to new audiences. While many have moved to online models of providing their services, innovative cases have arisen such as fashion houses creating masks, distilleries brewing hand sanitisers, and automotive companies producing ventilators.

“Think of ways you can pivot your product and sales strategy to fit the environment. Ask yourself, are you prepared to be flexible?”

– Ben Palmer, Co-Founder and CEO, Genos

46% of leaders have diversified their service offering

Service-based and technology businesses have also found different ways, not only to service the community but to improve their own internal processes and operations. For Elizabeth Compton, CEO of language services company LanguageLoop, it was tapping into a talent pool that was previously unavailable, as well-known brands such as the AFL and Qantas (who are currently struggling) previously had the monopoly.

Meanwhile, HR tech business Vervoe, discovered ways to identify opportunities to service different clients such as healthcare and Government entities rather than their traditional corporate clients:

“Never waste a crisis. There will be upsides to some parts of the business so make the most of the opportunity.” 

– Belinda Cheng, Director of EY Foundry (Sydney and Singapore), EY

Remain calm and deploy long-term thinking

Although expressed in different multiple ways, the importance of remaining calm during a time of crisis and deploying long-term thinking, rather than being overly defensive and reactionary was a consistent message from Founders. Furthermore, this attitude was considered especially crucial for all members of the leadership team, as stated by Jon Dobell, APAC Innovation Leader, EY. 

“Remaining calm is the assurance employees need during such uncertain times.”

– Lee Thompson, Managing Director ANZ, Nutanix

That said, Vervoe Co-Founder David Weinberg stressed that business leaders should not lose sight of their long-term company strategy and vision.

“It is human nature to protect and cut costs, it’s a survival instinct, but it is also important that you continue to build your company and not to lose sight of your long term strategy.”

– David Weinberg, Co-Founder, Vervoe

He advises businesses to focus on how they are going to accelerate out after the crisis. Think about what you are looking for – indicators that we are at the end? And, once you have identified this, consider the strategies you will deploy at that point. Belinda Cheng of EY agrees, advising companies to avoid shutting down their corporate innovation and R&D functions.

“Hold out beyond the short-term. Cutting back on innovation now will impact the pipeline of new tech and innovation opportunities in 2-3 years’ time.” 

– Belinda Cheng, Director of EY Foundry (Sydney and Singapore), EY


Read the full series online:

Part 1: Keeping Customers Engaged

Part 2: Hiring Decisions and Retaining Employees

Part 3: Handling the Next Quarter: Risks and Top Priorities

Part 4: Key Words of Advice from Tech Business Leaders

Conclusion: Learnings and Insights

Download the eBook:

Leadership in Times of Crisis eBook