Blog: COVID-19 leadership reflections

Published 31 Mar 2020
Written by
Andy Rhodes
Service Director, National Police Wellbeing Service
Reading time
10 mins

Andy Rhodes, Service Director for the NPWS and former Chief Constable of Lancashire Police, sets out some of the emerging lessons drawn from his own experiences and conversations with many other leaders from a variety of different sectors.

Whatever business you are in, most of them will apply and hopefully, we can start to share learning that we can use now and, even more importantly, help us prepare our organisations for the next crisis.

I wanted to focus on the organisational development (OD) stuff we’re all committed to on a normal day and see what’s happening under the pressure testing of a crisis. I believe the COVID-19 pandemic does bring with it some very unique organisational challenges and I’ll hopefully draw some of these out. 

The best time to mend a leaky roof is when the sun is shining

To kick start the paradigm shift, I think we can all agree COVID-19 is forcing us all to respond to what the World Health Organisation (WHO) has described as an ‘infodemic’. People are bombarded with fake news, facts and imagery resulting in confusion, fear and on occasion sheer panic. My usual pitch for wellbeing suggests we accept life is full of ups and downs and we must ask ourselves ‘does work make things better or worse?’ I believe the current crisis must be our time as leaders to contribute by answering this question without hesitation – Yes, of course we can help make this awful experience better for our people.

I can’t remember exactly where I read that quote, but I think about it all the time at the moment and it’s my opener on here because we all know a resilient organisational culture isn’t created overnight. 

Depending on your starting point, a crisis will create different behavioural dynamics within the workforce and we should adopt a positive mindset with leaders from day one. For example, I started by letting my leadership team know it’s ok to feel like we’re playing catch-up and that the crisis is an opportunity to establish new ways of working and behaviours that quite often prove difficult in peacetime. 

The crisis requires us to break some of the problematic norms around silos, collaboration and inclusion, because a pandemic touches everyone and it touches us all in a totally unique way.

You will most likely see your leadership teams 100% focused on problem solving whatever business / operational problems the crisis is generating – and rightly so. Most leadership teams are still comprised of a certain type of problem solver and they are great at zoning in on solutions – so it is important to ensure someone with influence has the time and space to think about OD. Because the pandemic hits business continuity through abstraction, you have to constantly stress the need to focus on the behavioural response of your workforce to events as they unfold – Find that person on day one.

Ask them to rapidly assess the diagnostics you already have about key issues such as trust, advocacy, wellbeing and inclusion. Knowing your baseline will help leaders get ahead of the curve as the crisis has collapsed the timeframe between recognising a workforce concern, and taking action to address it. 

The iceberg of ignorance

I refer to the iceberg as a wake-up call for those of us in leadership positions who believe we understand how people on the frontline are thinking and feeling about their work and their organisation. We don’t. We see about 3-5% of what they see and this crisis is generating an emotional response on another level. 

Governments are making decisions about how our lives need to change, how our loved ones are going to be treated and whether some people will have maslow basics such as food, shelter and income. I, like everyone else, am sat waiting for information via Sky News and the minute it’s out there we must recognise our people are going to want to know ‘what does this mean for me?’

If you don’t know what you’re going to do, then buy some valuable time (which I’d suggest is a few hours – not days) by putting out holding statements to reassure your people that you recognise they will be worried, and that your leadership team is working on a plan. 

Avoid over-promising because as we are finding out, there is no plan for a crisis of this complexity and magnitude…there are no perfect answers, so be honest. 

School closures were announced with no notice and we immediately set up a dedicated HR helpline 8am-8pm to provide personal advice and guidance to individuals and line managers about important issues such as home working, special leave and flexible working. The helpline staff we personally briefed regarding our stance.

Let’s be honest, our policies aren’t usually well understood by line managers at the best of times and humanising them is a daily challenge even when it’s quiet! Think about how a parent is feeling being told they can’t leave their child with their elderly mum. Get some parents onto a Skype call and ask them what they need, open channels with staff associations and networks day one and monitor any online channels you’ve got. Tune in and tune in fast.

For me, the help desk has been the saving grace and it’s been central to a ‘head and heart’ win-win. People feel like their uniqueness has been considered and that we understand there’s no place for a one size fits all policy approach. 

Discretionary effort is protected. Bottom line is, I have people at work / contributing that otherwise would not be able to do so. Oh, and my HR team feel like they’re really contributing despite working remotely. Everyone loves the HR team!

Social distancing wasn’t even a ‘thing’ until three weeks ago and now everyone is supposed to understand how to do it at home and in the workplace. 

Basically we just have to do our best to follow advice whilst accepting some people’s jobs mean there are limitations. Avoid sending messages out that are pie in the sky – it makes it look like you’re out of touch and patronising. 

I did an internal video using a real life scenario at an incident I attended in an attempt to make the advice realistic and relevant. Don’t worry about changing your mind if the science changes. Usually we stigmatise leaders who change their minds as indecisive but COVID-19 requires us to feel ok about adapting to new information and events. 

Discretionary effort is our lifeblood

And it’s about to be pressure tested in a crisis. Again, depending on the sector you’re in, the context will differ, but I actually think the country is waking up to the fact that some of our lowest paid workers are the ones stepping up to keep the country moving in a crisis. Some of them work for you!

Supermarket staff are working their socks off in a high contact environment, cleaners are on the frontline and it’s essential we don’t forget our vital ‘back office’ folk who often go unnoticed. 

My facilities team spent hours into the night decanting hand sanitiser so that we could get it out to the operational teams. Believe you me I never thought hand sanitiser would become a leadership priority and it may seem like a small thing when your team is working on a mass casualty plan, but it’s probably the one BIG thing for public facing staff. Find out who these busy bees are and make sure they feel valued and aren’t overlooked in the chaos.

I use discretionary effort to reframe operational issues which I think helps leaders make the link. For example, ensuring we have staff with personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential for them to do their job, but it’s actually not the main issue. 

The main issue is that unless their organisation provides them with physical, emotional and psychological safety they will withdraw effort. We are seeing this happening in some sectors as we speak and it’s why I’ll continue to behave like a dog with a bone when it comes to kit. 

Listen to what’s worrying them, acknowledge their fears and come up with plan to address them. Then ruthlessly reality check the plan is happening. Then check it again. 

VUCA leadership isn’t everyone’s cup of tea

Volatile uncertain complex and ambiguous. Sound familiar?

This pandemic is a unique crisis in the sense that it’s incredibly uncertain and humans aren’t great at dealing with randomness. Some are finding the covid-19 crisis more challenging than others and it’s important to avoid judging leaders who never expected to find themselves in full blown VUCA. Personally I enjoy VUCA because it plays to where I get my energy from and I have a high appetite for risk, but I know many of my leadership team are different and that’s fine. That’s why it works.

You are about to really get to know each other if you haven’t already made the effort! I mean really get to know each other.

Those team MBTi sessions of the past might be worth reflecting on, and start by agreeing exactly who is going to lead on what and arrange for a deputy who will adhere to social distancing measures from day one. 

Expect you’ll have to isolate at some point and plan your team roles around it, as well as your personal life. Take the time out for yourself on this one. I am literally having to order my leaders to take a break and I will insist on it because we know the storm is coming and everyone needs their energy levels and mental health in good shape for the time when taking a break may not be an option. 

This is incredibly tough and relies upon relentless open dialogue. We are finding out things about each other none of us knew before. Who has a health condition themselves or in their family that makes them vulnerable, who cares for an elderly relative or specific religious needs that will be challenging. If diversity is step one, this crisis is about to emphasise the importance of step 2 – inclusion

Because a pandemic hits business continuity it requires an organisational response built on flexibility and personalisation. We are doing more to treat our people as individuals than ever before. I hope we can keep doing so after the crisis. 

Final reflections

If you have taken the time to read my blog I’m sure some of my reflections may feel more or less relevant to your own context depending on what your organisation does. Mine is used to managing personal risk and so there is an underlying acceptance that we cannot operate in a zero risk environment. For some of you, it might be the first time your people have actually felt frightened coming to work to earn a living.

This morning I popped to my local supermarket across the road. The staff look frightened and very unhappy to be there. They are openly and loudly complaining to each other in front of customers about why their organisation is making them work and being placed in danger. 

I feel for them, and I feel for the supermarket leadership team. Nobody took a job there expecting to be face to face with a global pandemic and neither did their boss. It may feel impossible but things can be done, fairly simply, to protect trust in a crisis and some of my points in here set them out. 

Ultimately it’s about putting the wellbeing of our people at the front of every decision in a crisis rather than as an afterthought. If you can establish this shift in thinking early it will soon become the norm. 

No doubt by the end of this we will all have far more experiences share, I’ve cut this blog short because my wife is reminding me there’s an online gym class at 11am and I promised to do it!

Remember the true test will be in the hearts and minds of the people who just want to know the answer to one very simple question…’Does my boss really give a s**t about me?’