The CEO decathlon I didn’t foresee

Menai Owen-Jones, CEO of The Pituitary Foundation, a UK-wide health charity, trustee of ACEVO & Race Council Cymru, reflects on the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis.

I’m used to scenario planning, risk registers, thinking of best- and worst-case scenarios. Pandemic on an unprecedented scale, however, wasn’t on any risk register! The Olympics may now be delayed till next year; I never thought, however, I’d be facing my own 2020 CEO decathlon, without much training.

I have been CEO of The Pituitary Foundation, a national UK-wide health charity, for over eight years. In this time, I’ve faced all sorts of challenges: restructures, redundancies, financial pressures, etc. It’s part of the course of being CEO, taking the rough with the smooth, the good times come and go, as do the difficult times. 

I would describe the month of March 2020, metaphorically, like an earthquake, that rocked my charity like never before. COVID-19 literally shook every part of the organisation at the speed of light, as it has rocked civil society, our country and the world.

What is your point of reference?

Literally there was hardly any solid ground to stand on. What is your point of reference when every part of your charity is in a state of major flux? Everyone around you too, your usual support network, is also facing challenges, difficulties, and probably crises too?

It was, and still is, to a point, an unsurmountable decathlon for any charity CEO. Fundraising was falling off a cliff, in a matter of days. Boulders were falling off the income budget and zeros were appearing in our income forecast like an unlucky lottery draw. Our patient services were off the scale with demand from worried people needing our help. Operations were having to rapidly respond, quickly mobilising all staff to work from home, closing offices, changing processes, while also trying to ensure good governance amongst the plethora of chaos.  

What were we going to do about potentially losing up to 30% of our income, in a matter of months? How could we, at the same time on the front line of this crisis, meet the demands of our beneficiaries, many of whom have quite literally nowhere else to turn at the moment? In all of this too, what about the wellbeing of staff and volunteers, who are all personally affected in different ways by this shock? 

For me on the personal level add into the mix, school closures. Never had I thought I would be leading a charity through a crisis, in a lockdown, with a small child at home, also, rightly, needing more time, attention and care than ever before.

People make a phenomenal difference

Undoubtedly for me, a superb team of staff and volunteers stepping up, cooperating and going above and beyond made a phenomenal difference.  As did speaking to trusted people. I can always rely on for a listening ear, support and encouragement. We all need it. We all need to reach out, especially now.

I chose emotion, communication and directional leadership

For me, quite early on, I decided that this shocking situation required three things. Firstly, room for emotion. Secondly, clear communication. Thirdly, directional leadership, unlike normal times. 

Directional leadership in times of crisis

Time was of the essence. Decisions needed to be made with imperfect information, in hazy uncertainty, both quickly and decisively, to get ahead of this collapsing house of cards, as best as possible. 

We needed to ensure, as far as possible, that we could continue seamless service delivery and communications for our beneficiaries and supporters.  My staff team, I felt, needed to know that there was a sense of focus and ‘order’ in the disorder, as did our volunteers.

People needed focus, calm and clarity in chaos – what to do, what not to do.  Personally, I felt this was a time for a clear steer from me as CEO, as to our priorities, the plan moving forward and actions needed, from every person on the team. 

To be honest I was drawing on a combination of experience, learning and instinct, that’s all. No magic formula and who says I got it right!

Leaders make room for emotion and support wellbeing

Alongside directional leadership, I also tried my best to make sure my team had time to talk, as I still do now, after the initial weeks of crisis. Time to talk about how they are feeling, what is happening in their lives, work and home, and to share their emotions. This is a shocking experience for everyone. As a leader, I feel it is important to make room for emotion, to listen, empathise and acknowledge how hard this is. This is about connection – human to human.

It is truly a tall order, all of this. A balancing act like never before. Asking people to not only function but to respond to change like never before, on every level. Personally, and professionally, at the same time. To step up at work, to deliver more at work, to deliver differently at work; without truly and detrimentally tipping their wellbeing balance.    

Communicate, communicate, communicate

I also felt, in the first few weeks of this crisis especially, it was more important than ever to be seen, to communicate, to be personable, to be visible and accessible – I am here. You can talk to me. To be present on social media, on videos, by email and telephone for my staff, volunteers and quite frankly, anyone from ‘work’, whoever may like to get in touch.

My approach to communication both internally and externally (not that I’m saying I am right) is to share with people what’s happening, why it’s happening, where next, and if you don’t know this, then tell them you don’t know, be honest. Don’t be vague and don’t leave people second-guessing.

Give as much certainty as you possibly can in uncertainty.

Make the complex simple where possible, take out unnecessary processes, complexity and for each area that required decisions. Ask four simple questions and help your team to do this – do we delay this, ditch this, do it, or do it differently, trying to also consider at the same time short, medium- and long-term consequences of decisions.

Your board either enables or hinders you as CEO in a crisis situation

My chair and board have been a seamless, reassuring and appropriate source of support to me in my role as CEO during this unprecedented time. 

My trustees were there to support me when I needed them. Their eyes were on what was happening, but their hands were out. I kept them updated with regular briefings, nearly daily, I involved them where strategic decisions needed to be made, and I asked for their help with some key areas of expertise. They didn’t ask for copious detail, they didn’t ask for unnecessary information and they didn’t meddle. Instead, they enabled me to do my role as CEO during the first wave of this crisis. They trusted me to get on with what needed to be done, while being there as the governing body.

The road ahead – let’s never lose our common purpose and hope

We are only a mere five weeks into this pandemic. The first wave of this crisis for The Pituitary Foundation is over.

However, our charity’s future is uncertain. Like many other charities right now, we have a large financial shortfall in the coming months. There is no simple answer, nor certainty ahead.

What we do have however, is a superb team of people, trustees, staff, volunteers, all working together to try and achieve a shared, common purpose.  At these times you need people’s discretionary effort more than ever.

This gives us focus and a hope for the future. Let’s use this strength to positively come out of this storm, together.

Read previous blogs by Menai

Photo by Tirza van Dijk on Unsplash

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