Every day leadership: managers stepping up to the crisis – Part 3

Written by Matthew Rock Friday 20 March 2020
As the Covid-19 pandemic took grip, I pledged to talk to a different business leader or manager every day, to discover their management challenges, responses and workarounds. I’ll keep up this diary for as long as the crisis lasts.
Wednesday 8 April

Today I’ve been to Devon.

I wish. Actually it was a call with Stuart Brocklehurst, CEO of the online procurement platform Applegate. It’s an impressive home-grown UK tech company based near Barnstaple that’s worked closely with Exeter University’s Institute for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence. 35 people. Lots of in-house tech capability. A young team, including a cohort of terrific Chartered Manager Degree Apprentices who help drive the business.

Applegate sits at the intersection between buyers and sellers, so it offers a glimpse of what’s happening in the economy right now. Brocklehurst explains that they’re seeing an unprecedented, ‘unlimited’ demand for certain types of equipment right now, particularly personal protective equipment, hand sanitiser, machinery and spare parts related to combating the Covid-19 crisis. These requests, says Brocklehurst, are coming from nursing homes, councils, surgeries, food manufacturers and are often directed to Applegate by MPs around the country.

This week alone we’ve arranged shipment of millions of items of PPE to those who needed it and I had an email from one MP saying ‘sorry to keep coming back to you, you’re just so much more efficient than anyone in government’.

Why is this happening? Because so many traditional supply chains have been disrupted by the crisis. UK companies that may previously have sourced goods and parts from Italy may find those unavailable; even if they can find products in China it’s often impossible to get anything on air freight.

To help meet this demand, Applegate has created a new, free Covid-19 supply hub, and Brocklehurst encourages other manufacturers and suppliers to make use of it if they want to get their products and services to the front line.

Brocklehurst is well networked in the south-west business community, so I took the chance to ask him what’s happening in the region. There are many familiar themes: the situation is extremely challenging, though food manufacturers see their business up; many sectors are furloughing staff; others are struggling with staff shortages with people self-isolating; cash flow is the key concern for everyone.

The south-west has many businesses in the tourism, leisure and hospitality sector that is pretty much closed right now. Brocklehurst makes an interesting warning that, even if the lockdown ends over the summer, these companies will have missed a vital revenue-earning period. His fear is that, even if they’re able to open this summer, they won’t have accumulated enough cash to make it through next winter.

Tuesday 7 April

An old friend calls. Let’s call him Laurenzo. He’s an experienced marketeer and recently joined a high-street retailer. He was due to start two weeks ago, but was told almost as soon as he took the job that he’d have to sit tight for a couple of weeks as the organisation geared itself up for the Covid-19 storm. “to be honest I expected to be told that I wouldn’t be needed,” he says.

Not a bit of it. Yesterday (Monday) was his first day, but the only thing is, he’s been asked to do a new, totally different job at the group. The role he was recruited for isn’t a priority right now, so Laurenzo found himself asked to work in a different part of the business, for a new boss, and doing a role that he’s never done before.

He’s part of a giant process of redeployment that’s happening in organisations right across the world. It’s necessary because, while lots of commercial activities have tanked, others are going gangbusters. Organisations are having to shift resources to where they’re needed – and fast. We’ve put together some guidance on rapid redeployment and we’d be super-interested to hear from other organisations are redeploying people.


My manager of the day tells me why it's never too early to start planning exit strategies...While remaining upbeat

Monday 6 April

Another eventful weekend. The sun shone. The British population hesitated about when to go out. Sir Keir Starmer was voted in by a large margin to become the new leader of the Labour party.

It’s a tricky time to be an opposition leader. He will need to be constructive in his criticism while still supportive of the national effort to combat the Coronavirus.

One of Sir Keir’s first calls is for a debate about the country’s ‘exit strategy’ from the lockdown. Some will feel this is too early given that the Covid-19 crisis has probably not yet peaked.

Jeannette Lichner believes that businesses need to be thinking about their own exit strategies right now, otherwise they run the risk of being left behind when the economy opens up again. Jeannette sits on a number of business and charity boards such as Miller Insurance and the financial crime ratings company Elucidate. She also coaches executives. As such, she has a close-up view of how senior leaders are meeting the Covid-19 challenge.

The best boardrooms and executives are of course focused on the ‘here and now’, she says, but they’re also keeping a close eye on what’s going on outside the organisation. “As a board member, it’s your job to keep your organisation ahead of the curve,” she insists.

Make sure post-crisis opportunities are on the agenda. How will your organisation adjust once we go 'back to normal'? What has the organisation learned that it wants to keep – agile working is a big one. What new business opportunities are there? Where have we excelled? What are our competitors doing?

These are challenging questions, and leaders already have a lot on their plate, but Jeannette warns that many organisations risk getting sidestepped if they don’t think hard about the future now. It’s more than likely that things won’t return to normal; in which case, what’s the strategy for your new, altered organisation?

Interestingly, she doesn’t believe we will see a sudden, supercharged economic rebound. Instead, she thinks it will be ‘messy’. People have been scared, she says, and she doesn’t anticipate a sudden rush back to normal life.

Jeannette admits that she misses the bustle of city life – she lives in west Sussex and her visits to clients are of course off limits – but, like almost all the managers and leaders I’ve been speaking to, she’s determined to stay upbeat. Other managers should do the same:

Remain positive. Moments of crisis are great leadership opportunities,” she says. She encourages leaders to influence their own people to step up. Consistent, clear, pragmatic communications are crucial. “And think about how you can treat your employees respectively – treat them as grown-ups and show empathy. Help them look even stronger to their teams.

And a final thought: share leadership lessons from articles that you’re reading – your people don't have time!


Two weeks into lockdown, how are boardrooms responding? I spoke to the one of uk's leading board experts and he told me, intriguingly, that new behaviours and dynamics are already emerging...

Thursday 2 April

Today I spoke to Patrick Dunne ahead of his webinar with Ann Francke next Thursday, 9th April. We touched upon a few of the key points he’ll delve further into in the discussion. He’s probably the UK’s leading expert when it comes to boards and boardroom dynamics. He’s a CMI Companion, too. There’s a fair bit of public debate right now about the importance of maintaining parliamentary scrutiny of government during the Covid-19 crisis, but what about scrutiny of corporate executives? Is there a danger in this lockdown period, with some regulation loosened, that boardrooms might let poor behaviour run amok? There have been one or two examples recently of some pretty shoddy business behaviour.

Patrick insists that these are very much the exception.

Most boards I know have acted with pace, sense and are focused on making sure their people are safe, their customers are served and their suppliers don't get wiped out.

On Tuesday this week Patrick chaired a session for 75 private equity-backed company executives to advise them on finance, people and sustainability. Two things stood out: one, that all were trying to do the right thing; two, that none had yet been able successfully to access the government’s furloughing scheme.

The Covid-19 crisis took hold very quickly, and Patrick is already seeing some new leadership behaviours emerge. Organisations are increasing the frequency of board meetings, trying to find the right balance of supporting their execs through the toughest period most of them will have encountered and providing proper oversight.

They have also had to accept that given the speed with which decisions have had to have been made with incomplete and uncertain information means that there will be mistakes and things that go wrong.

And, says Patrick,

I can’t think of one board where they aren’t bringing in new perspectives from non-board members.

He believes that those organisations such as Gucci, Interbrand and the Financial Times that have ‘next-gen boards’ alongside their traditional boards will give themselves an advantage in the future.

The profile of boardrooms may change, too.

It’s inescapable, given what’s happened and the effects it’s having, that you wouldn’t have enhanced digital insight on your board in future.” There will also be those board members recruited as a perfect for the strategy before the Covid-19 crisis who now no longer fit. Most important, this period will shine a light on the real star performers. “You’ll probably find out who your next chair and CEO is through this!

Patrick concludes:

This has been a shock to the system and will have profound effects on the way people do things. It isn't a normal situation so boards and leaders have to behave differently. But that doesn't mean that they have to stop behaving well.

This is, of course, a flavour of what’s to come in next Thursday’s live webinar. Why not check it out for yourself? It’s sure to be a lively and worthwhile discussion.

Wednesday 1 April

I spoke with Russell Harlow, head of global resourcing at TMA World, about the behaviours managers need to adapt in this suddenly changed world of work. He was clear: managers don’t need new skills, they need to dial-up the ones they already have.

The basic principles of managing a team and leading a team still apply, but how you apply it matters now more than ever before, because you're now carrying out those fundamental skills via technology.You don’t need to completely overhaul the way you manage your teams, but you need to be working differently in certain ways.

He talks about context awareness – that is, having a fluid enough management style to adapt quickly to individuals in your team. You need to know who needs and appreciates regular check-ins and who you just need to leave alone as they get on with it. Especially when you were co-located and are now virtual, this fluidity and context awareness around your team’s working habits is vital. “Don't just make assumptions that the way that you like to communicate is gonna fit for everyone,” he says.

Matthew Rock

Matthew Rock

Content Development Director at Think Publishing Ltd

Don’t miss out - get notified of new content

Sign-up to become a Friend of CMI to recieve our free newsletter for a regular round-up of our latest insight and guidance.

CMI members always see more. For the widest selection of content, including CPD tools and multimedia resources, check out how to get involved with CMI membership.