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

Written by Matthew Rock Friday 20 March 2020
As the covid-19 pandemic takes grip, I pledge 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. Here’s part one
Thursday 19 March

10am. Just back from my daily conversation with a manager. Today I was able to do it in person. Yay! I met up with a senior director at a TV production company at a coffee shop in west London. We got a coffee to go, then walked and talked down by the Thames – at a two-metre distance of course.

On the business challenges right now, he’s got solid advice. First priority: stabilise the base,. Then start looking for new angles.

So for example, there’s barely any TV production taking place right now, but my contact’s company recently realised that they were close to completing a show that has yet to be sold. The value of this to the big broadcasters will have gone up significantly, given how little fresh content is being generated. So… tada! …. An enhanced commercial opportunity.

This kind of opportunity-spotting and diversification is going on all around the country. The software company Zoho just launched its Small Business Emergency Subscription Assistance Program (ESAP) and waived the first three months’ fee. Manufacturers are looking to switch into different product lines that are needed. Food retailers are supporting frontline workers with free or discounted food. Hotels are converting to hospitals. Now may not feel like a moment to pivot, but for many it has to be.

Expect to see some really creative thinking and programming coming through in the next few weeks. A lot of broadcasters are looking at formats where they can make use of talent in different and unusual locations, such as Gary Lineker’s kitchen. Don’t be surprised to see a flurry of programming about lifting people’s spirits, reconnecting to overcome isolation, learning from home. We also talked about the BBC; surely its role at the centre of UK life won’t ever be questioned again…?

A couple of final thoughts from today’s manager:

  • Try to have all-staff hangouts as well as those one-to-ones and team meetings. A lot of people I’m talking to are bringing the whole organisation together regularly too. And the ‘5 at 5’ is becoming A Thing. Five-minute end of the day catch-ups.
  • Don’t call your split teams the A Team and B Team. Who wants to be in the B Team?! How about the Green Team and the White Team, say? That’d work for Celtic supporters…
For more ways CMI can help you and your teams cope with the challenges of the Covid-19 outbreak, check out these articles:

Ann Francke: Leaders must settle the anxiety of uncertainty
How to manage an entirely virtual team
Managing your mental health during a crisis


Wednesday 18 March

10.30am. Today’s was a long call. Dr Michael McDonagh CMgr is a former senior Met Police detective who ran protective security during the London 2012 Olympics. He’s worked in counter-terrorism, murder, kidnapping and countless other extreme situations. Today he runs his own risk and crisis firm, 6E Consulting, that advises corporates and international sporting bodies. He’s the kind of man you turn to in a crisis. We had a lot to talk about.

We talked first about the Avian flu virus that hit Asia, mainly, from 2005. At the time the predictions for the UK were grim, with the expectation that up to 60% of the police force might be affected. Michael was the lead for the Met Police team, developing contingency plans.

An important thing the police did then was to develop a “previous history skills test matrix.” Put simply, this was a 50,000-line database detailing staff and police officers’ former roles. This meant that, if a large proportion of the police force was put out of action, they could be replaced by people with relevant qualifications or previous experience. “Even if they were now a senior officer, we knew who was a Level 1 driver or a public order specialist,” says Michael.

Today, in the face of the Covid-19 outbreak, he suggests that organisations run the same exercise in the background.

Find out who could step into a role if the current lead falls sick.

Michael’s biggest concern right now – aside from getting his son home safely from university – is that organisations will find themselves reliant on crisis management plans that aren’t up to the job.

Most plans tend to be linear, based methodologies designed to survive a number of simplistic or commonplace events such as IT failure and cyber crime.

Covid-19 is quite different.

We’ll share Michael’s full insights for the CMI community in another blog, but here are some key points:

  • Every company, no matter what size, should develop business continuity and crisis management plans and capabilities to deal with the Covid-19 issue. But make sure these plans are flexible.
  • Hold business continuity/crisis meetings daily. Keep an eye on updates from the government, medical sources, industry bodies etc.
  • Sense-check every aspect of your organisation – HR, Talent Management, IT, comms, third-party suppliers, supply chains, stakeholders, sponsors, transport etc.
  • Assess what vulnerabilities you have and how to address them effectively – ie, risk reduction strategies, your response capability, what contingencies you already have in place and is your recovery strategy still valid, usable and realistic?

But Michael encourages business leaders not to overreact. He reminds us that things constantly change and to be mindful to

not decide on a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

The government has put together a £330bn package to support businesses, so let’s hope it’s enough to preserve companies and jobs for the long term.


Monday 16 March

Just got off the phone with Nadia Howell, owner-manager of L’Aquila, a west London-based food supplier of speciality vegetable ingredients into the food services and retail sectors.

When the Coronavirus spread to northern Italy where L’Aquila has three main suppliers, Nadia realised she’d need to act fast. As we speak, all three factories are open and are doing whatever it takes to remain so.

Nadia’s strategy has been to get in as many advance orders as possible – but without compromising her own cash-flow. Hers is only a small company, with ten employees. This is where good, long-term relationships come into play. By being quick on it, Nadia has bumped up her stocks so that she’s now two months ahead of where she’d normally be. By offering to store the additional supplies, she’s held payment terms to the pre-existing schedules. “We’ve made a lot of headway very quickly,” she says.


Tuesday 17 March

I’m getting loads of feedback to my post on LinkedIn about the 1988 postal workers’ strike and how that changed attitudes to communication forever. It was the moment we moved to mass adoption of fax machines for communication, and we never looked back. I reckon the same will happen now for working practices.

Andrew Try agrees. His company ComXo provides “21st-century switchboard” services. Demand is going through the roof as the Coronavirus spreads and the UK government encourages the population to avoid non-essential contact and travel. Andrew says:

People are invoking working practices they’d been thinking about but never imagined they would actually need to implement,”

He’s receiving regular calls from executives in global corporates frantically asking, “can you switch over our whole system by tomorrow?!”

The company that’s most ahead of the curve on all this is PwC, says Andrew. They’ve been rethinking their whole office strategy for several years.

They’re asking themselves: why make people traipse across to the city every day?

Andrew explains that PwC’s 30 offices around the UK are already primarily used for meeting clients and collaboration.


Saturday 14 March

My wife and children did a Parkrun. There probably won’t be any more for a while. I walked the dogs with Kate Dafter, who runs her own health food shop in west London. The past few days have been overwhelming for Kate. The day before (Friday) she’d done double her usual turnover as people panic-bought pasta and provisions. “It’s mad and I’m dead on my feet.” As a small business she can’t just call in extra staff to help cover, so she and the team are doing double the usual workload.


Thursday 12 March

A senior management team meeting followed by an all-staffer. We’re moving to homeworking. The crisis management team (codename, Think Cobra) at Think is determined to get ahead of the escalating Covid-19 crisis. If we pre-empt government advice, we’ll be up and running for when any lockdown happens. There’s bound to be lots of operational snagging to sort out, so let’s get ahead of the curve.

Late this afternoon a rather subdued prime minister Boris Johnson emerges from the official Cobra meeting to announce that many British people will lose loved ones before their time.

It’s the right time to change working practices.

Matthew Rock

Matthew Rock

Content Development Director at Think Publishing Ltd

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