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Lockdown new leaders

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Your first weeks and months as chief executive are when you walk the floor, meet the team and make your mark, right? Well, no, not if you are a lockdown new leader – you may never have met your team and may never step foot in the office. And you are supposed to lead… Three charity CEOs that started their roles during lockdown share their stories.

There is no handbook on remote leadership, so those of us who have found ourselves in this context have found our own solutions. They may or may not work for others, but for better or for worse, they have marked each of us and our leadership style and we probably wouldn’t go back.

The greatest challenge of being a lockdown leader is not about us, but about what the lockdown has meant to each of the organisations we have joined. Here are our stories of what we walked into.

Ed started at the beginning of July 2020 as chief executive of Pilotlight, a national charity partnering with business that provides support for small charities through hands-on strategic coaching for their chief executives. Business income had dropped sharply and hands-on had quickly become hands-off, with remote delivery. What balance would he find between continuing vital services for charities and falling back on reserves to fund the team to deliver on this?

The dramatic impact of COVID-19 on the charity sector is now better-known thanks to the #NeverMoreNeeded sector campaign. But when Ben joined Age UK Enfield in April 2020, it felt like stepping into a whirlwind. A consultant before this to a wide range of non-profits and chair of his local Citizens Advice, Ben was recruited to lead a local charity that planned to grow its staff team and its range of services in an ambitious way. Instead, Ben was faced with an array of decisions on how to redesign services and ensure the sustainability of a charity that is a lifeline to so many local people. What information base could he fall back on, when he had neither the data nor the context to make those decisions? 

Emily started as executive director at the Bikeability Trust in May, her first as a non-profit CEO after a career including, among other roles, ten years as head of participation at NSPCC. Where the pandemic closed down options for so many charities and businesses, it propelled the focus of Bikeability – cycling – into a front-rank opportunity, with quieter streets and record demand for bicycles. For the CEO of a charity whose mission is to help more people cycle, more safely, more often, what do you prioritise when some of your wishes come true?

Each of us was recruited as an organisation leader, but in each case, we faced critical decisions that would normally require an understanding of context built up patiently over time. At the same time, at an operational level, we were working with staff teams, those not on furlough, buffeted by the changes of remote working and lockdown: staff teams that we had never met in person.

The solutions we found are not new in the leadership locker, but they took on an importance which has marked how each of us would ever approach a leadership role in future.

For Ed, with the backing of the trustees, the first move was to promote a talented senior member of staff as deputy chief executive as his first decision, effective from day one. With this, the Pilotlight staff team knew that the new leadership would start from an informed understanding and respect of their work and context. He then focused first on ways to set up conversation and dialogue with the staff team, for them to get to know him and vice-versa, including sending round a one-page User Manual on Ed as a quirky introduction to how he works. Alongside meetings with key business partners, to confirm how programmes of support for small charities would continue, Ed’s induction took him into the home of every staff member, on screen at least, and he drew on questions drawn from the field of personal counselling (appreciative enquiry) to explore what gave them pride in what they did. The results were shared as ‘the root causes of our success’, affirming the organisation values of connecting, unlocking and demanding. When a new CEO starts, it inevitably feels like a big change; but when everything outside is changing, it can be of value to show that it is not.

Ben was appointed as CEO in early March, when there was still some uncertainty about what COVID-19 would mean for the UK. A fortnight later the lockdown was announced, and Ben offered to join Age UK Enfield in a voluntary capacity early to support the organisation’s response effort. Through volunteering, Ben then had an insight into the organisation that he would simply not have had as a paid executive. Over the following weeks the transition became more of a ‘soft launch’ as he became increasingly familiar with the organisation and its people. Ben’s first formal week in post as CEO was filled by one-to-ones with the staff team, volunteers, and trustees. Equipped with his own understanding of the context and challenges the charity faced, this was an opportunity for more in-depth introductions, to get to know the values and priorities of the charity through the words of the people who work there. For a charity centred on people, it was also a window into how everyone was coping with the personal and professional challenges of lockdown.

Whereas Ben and Ed were recruited earlier and took up their roles during the lockdown, for Emily, the whole process of her recruitment was within the period of the lockdown. What is more, she was new to the cycling world. Her first few weeks were, therefore, a deep dive into cycling’s history and key relationships over time, a vital foundation for then exploring how to face the opportunities the pandemic created. The staff team was faced with reacting to COVID-19 and flexing the programme of delivery within COVID-19, but what lay ahead as Emily quickly saw, was a shift from a mode of pandemic planning to a new phase of scaling up delivery. She spent time understanding how staff were feeling and reassuring that their expertise, experience and skill was critical. She committed to transparent leadership and produced from her first week a summary of her thoughts and notes from external meetings to share with them. Through a daily morning call with the staff team to start the working day, to a Friday wellbeing resources exchange, she focussed on recognising the needs of the staff. COVID-19 created clear opportunities for growth, but that could not be realised unless the team felt supported to deliver and grow.

Everyone has their own story of how we have experienced life under lockdown and continued social distancing in a pre-vaccine age. For us, the lockdown new leaders, it has meant learning fast and dealing with ambiguity – making decisions outside of our comfort zone and in the knowledge that while we don’t entirely know what we are doing, we know that curating decisions is what we are here for.

This has been a chapter which may never be repeated, of new CEOs who never meet their staff or set foot in their office. Alternatively, in a world of remote working and automation, who knows… It is a story that might one day just become the norm.

Narrated by Ed Mayo

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