“Things I wish I’d known…”

Written by Adam Marshall CMgr Tuesday 17 August 2021
Adam Marshall, Senior Adviser at CMI and former Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, reflects on organisational leadership during the pandemic – and the lessons that can help any manager or leader through an unexpected crisis

March 20th last year was my husband’s birthday. While the pandemic was gathering force both far away and closer to home, all I can remember is racing to a local supermarket – masked-up, gloved-up, and frankly, scared – to get a cake and a bottle of champagne. I suppose it was our family’s shared effort to maintain that last shred of normalcy, as the world around us started to hunker down. But the minute the birthday celebration came to an end that Friday evening, I had to switch gears – quickly.

I knew that neither the company I led, nor the business communities we supported across the UK, would be anything but normal come Monday morning. I knew we had to spring into action and change literally everything we were doing, how we were doing it, and what I was trying to achieve as a leader if our business was to have a fighting chance of making it through.

Everything changed

That fateful March 20th, I was also starting my fifth and final year leading the British Chambers of Commerce, one of the UK’s most prominent business organisations. It was a job that I loved – connecting with, listening to, synthesising and channelling the hopes, aspirations and needs of business communities all across the UK and all around the world.

Yet, along with the high-profile representational role came the direct leadership of a small, £5m turnover business, and indirect leadership of a network of local and international Chambers of Commerce turning over some £150m. These were not-for-dividend businesses based on live events, on direct business-to-business connections, on services that supported international trade and exports. They were businesses that thrived on connectivity, on interaction – on all of the things that the Coronavirus pandemic made impossible.

So we had to change everything. Literally, everything.

And that’s exactly what we did.

I thank my lucky stars that I’d asked my board to invest in cloud computing and new computers for all our staff just six months before the pandemic hit. I’d done it because I wanted our company to be a champion for agile working – but little did I know that it was a decision that would pay itself back in spades, as we were up and running in hours after lockdown was declared, rather than days or weeks. We ripped up our strategy and business plans and started from scratch – with a focus on just three things:

  • representing UK business through a time of crisis;
  • supporting our Chambers and their business communities; and
  • ensuring that BCC’s own core P&L remained sustainable so that we could restart, rebuild and renew.

Communicating in a crisis

We had continuous crisis meetings with top Cabinet ministers, the Governor of the Bank of England, senior civil servants, parliamentarians and so many others to ensure that the economic response to the shutdown reflected the cacophony of concerns arising from businesses of every size and sector. We instigated daily briefings with all 53 UK Chambers of Commerce – so that they could tell us what was happening on the ground, and so we could fashion a response to support businesses employing some six million people across the UK, not to mention the drive to source PPE for overstretched health services during the early days. We held weekly conversations with our British Chambers around the world, who were working tirelessly to find ways to get vital shipments either from their countries to the UK, or vice versa, despite the global shutdown.

And closer to home, we had to throw our arms around our small team of 25 people, finding ways to support them as they faced their own personal and family concerns and a work environment of 24/7 difficulty and change. By doing so, we were able to turn around our finances.

Crises shape leaders

I suppose I tell you all this because it’s a reminder of the fact that purpose can propel you forward when you least expect it. I never thought that I would have the steel and the leadership skills needed to do such a complex and demanding job under such trying circumstances. Yet here I am, recounting that experience to you. Still standing.

I don’t for a minute pretend that what I did during the pandemic was somehow exceptional. The exceptional leaders were the ones triaging patients in A&E wards, the people who kept food and medical supplies moving, and who comforted scared residents in care homes. The pandemic brought out leadership at every level, in so many organisations. But I still had to lead a team, lead a network, and stand up for our business communities. After a decade with the British Chambers of Commerce, first as policy director and then as Director General, this was my world and my wheelhouse. And I want to share a few of the lessons that I learned from that experience with you.

First, empathy is everything when you’re leading in a crisis situation

If you’ve got it – use it. If you don’t – start working on the ‘shadow side’ of your personality now, because sooner or later, you’re going to need it. Yes, you have to be clear-eyed and ready to make tough decisions. The leaders who were most successful during the pandemic were those who connected emotionally with their workforce, with their customers and stakeholders, and with others who were making decisions that affected them. Businesses are nothing without their people, and without the licence to operate that’s conferred upon them by the public. I very much hope we are now moving into a world where empathy is seen as a core characteristic of leadership – in business and big public sector organisations as much as in third-sector and charitable ones. Those leaders that show they are listening to their people, rather than the ones who want to go back to command-and-control from the big glass office tower, are the ones we should be profiling and celebrating.

Second, in a crisis, adopt the ‘one mouth, two ears’ principle

When you’re faced with a crisis moment, whether within your own business or due to factors outside your control, you need to find a way to button it and listen. Listen to your people, at every level. Listen to your stakeholders and customers. Listen to your peers. And yes, listen to the politicians too – before telling them what you need them to do to make things right. I’m not a natural listener; I like to wade straight in. Yet I’ve learned that solutions in a crisis situation come more easily when you’re on the receiving end first. You only switch over to broadcast when all that listening comes together in your head, and you devise a plan that you need to execute.

Third, keep your strategy simple and focus on its execution

Leading through a crisis means intense focus on a small number of priorities. If things get convoluted, the likelihood of success diminishes – and so too do your organisation’s chances of coming through that crisis relatively unscathed. This is a lesson that can be applied to times of stability as well as times of crisis. Some people think that writing and rewriting strategies is the definition of leadership – it’s not. The real definition is keeping your focus on making change happen, and on how you execute that strategy. The best blueprints are those that fit on a single page, and the best leaders are the ones that make them come to life and inspire their people to deliver them.

Fourth, communicate relentlessly and clearly

I was in a role where I was campaigning for emergency support for businesses. Both they and their people ran the real risk of losing everything overnight. Together with my team and a few other organisations, I felt like we were carrying the UK business community on our shoulders – and to do so we needed to be as clear as day in what we were saying. So as a leader I knew I needed simple messages, in language that anyone could understand and relate to, and that I needed to convey them over and over and over again. And that my team needed to convey those same messages, so that together we could achieve our aims. As a result, we were able to have a real influence over many of the schemes that kept the economy afloat during its darkest time in 300 years – the emergency grants for closed businesses, business rates holidays for the high street and hospitality, the furlough scheme, and much more besides.

Empathy. Listening. Simple strategy. Constant communication.

I really believe that these are the hallmarks of a successful 21st century leader.
Whether you’re just starting out, or growing your management skills; whether you’re an entrepreneur with your big plans or you’re at the helm of a major organisation, take time to think about these four key attributes, and what you’re doing to develop them.

Some of that activity will just be about practice – after all, we get better at things by doing them, or by making mistakes and learning from them. Yet sometimes you’ll also need to seek out the help of others, whether peers, coaches, mentors, employees, family or friends – to recognise where you’ve got gaps in your skills base and to think through what you can do about them.

I know that some of the conclusions and lessons that I’ve drawn are far from unique. But they reflect my lived experience of leadership, and they’re the principles that I know will guide me through the rest of my own working life.


For more leadership stories forged in the crisis, visit CMI’s leading through uncertainty hub.

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