Leading Through A Crisis


ryan-orton, Career

As we write this, there are over 10 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide. Since March 2020, organisations have been advised to work from home, putting employees into a sudden remote working situation.

The actions of leadership teams in the midst of this pandemic and worldwide crisis will significantly be a telling determination of their strength. Not just the fate of the company’s success, but also their team’s wellbeing and engagement.

4 months deep into this unique situation, I sat down with Ryan Orton to discuss how he’s leading the team through these extraordinary times. 

At the moment we're in the midst of a pandemic, a global health crisis and financial uncertainty. Have you personally ever dealt with something like this before?

I’ve never in my career had to deal with anything on this scale before. Don’t get me wrong, I have experiences with massive periods of change, but not a global crisis such as this one. 

Looking back, I survived Bubble. I was actively working with the tech industry when that happened.

There was the millennium, where no one knew what was going to happen when the clocks went to 2000, because nothing had been programmed to deal with the century. Everyone thought their computers would blow up and it was basically Armageddon. People stopped spending money on tech because no one knew what was going to happen to the systems.

It’s memorable, because you remember going through it at the time and it just sounds ridiculous now.

Then 911 happened, which was just surreal. It was shocking and had quite a few knock-on effects, especially within the banking industry. Then later we had the financial crises as well.

I wasn't managing a team at that time, but my mentality was that we had no choice but to get on with what we had to do and what was in front of us. 

Have you learnt anything from this lockdown experience that you’ll want to take away?

Everyone is still learning through this experience.

It still feels like a daydream. It's still hard to know for sure whether the approach any of us are taking is right, because we haven't had long enough for it to be proven successful or not.

I think we’re being very brave as a business and I’m confident in that we will prove to be doing the right things.

One of the key learns we’ve had is to put the right people in the right place. The right people, treated in the right way, communicated with correctly on all subjects, will result in a positive outcome. Whether you’re in the office, out the office, underground, in the air, it doesn’t matter.

People wonder about trust, and I think we’re a trusting organisation, but our immediate response on lockdown was to explain to the team that we’re going to need to monitor much more, due to the lack of facetime in the office.

We would need to understand what they were doing and why they were doing it.

We started out with a lot of touchpoints. I would call everybody in the team every morning, then again at lunchtime, then again at the end of the day. We were tracking team activity daily.

But as time goes on, we have been doing less of that and the team’s performance hasn’t changed, it’s either stayed consistent or actually improved.

When you talk about trust, you’re not trusting someone to do the job, you’re trusting their character.

You are trusting the reasons you hired them, the strong relationships we’ve built in the team. Why wouldn’t we trust their ambition, desire, and character?

Do you think transparency and being upfront with changes, such as an increase in touchpoints and activity tracking, gained better understanding from the team?

They’ve seen immediate benefits of working from home. Saving money on travel, getting up a bit later, whatever floats their boat. So it’s no surprise that most people understand the situation and have accepted it.

Now I consider whether the structure we had at the start of lockdown was necessary.

Different people require different amounts of time, communication, help and support. That’s not tied to their seniority or intelligence, it’s down to the individuals.

Some of the team will reach out two or three times a day, others may only speak to you once or twice a week. That’s fine if that’s all that is needed.

If they know what they are doing and that you understand their ambition, their goal and what their strategy is, you don’t necessarily need to speak to them, because you can trust they’ve done it.

If someone isn’t feeling great or if they’re not on the ball for a day, that’s just human nature. Even if we were all in an office, people would be hiding their ‘off day’, they would still feel the same.

They would take longer coffee breaks, stare into the abyss and their mind might be elsewhere. That’s going to happen whether you’re in the office, or not in the office. I think accepting that and giving people that trust is important.

Just because they’re not under your watch in the office, they’re not going to suddenly crumble and become bad people. It would be very egotistical to think that your business and your leadership team are the only reason they are motivated.

You can help enhance, channel and remind people, but the fundamental DNA of those people was there when we hired them, it was there when we stuck by them in a tough period of time and it will be there when they progress with their career.

I think all in all, people hold themselves accountable to a level of performance.

We're all aligned in what great looks like as well, because great is different now than it was six months ago. 

I think it’s now time to start challenging ourselves and each other to reach the pre-Covid peaks again, start looking forward and planning for the future as a company, and as individuals.  Our careers, in some cases, have been put on hold or they’ve changed, but now is the time to take advantage and be amongst the first to improve and develop.

How have the team coped with the crises?

Some individuals adapt better than others.

Some people enjoy change, some people do not. I think it's a real mixed bag. People get used to the new normal, and then they adapt. I mean humans are incredibly resilient, right?

It sometimes takes something catastrophic like this for us to realise just how adaptable and resilient we can be in the right environment.

I think the challenges we’ve faced as a team have all been overcome. We all know there's an end in sight, we all know that we're going to see each other again, we all know it's not forever.

As every week goes by, we will be closer to a return to normal. Interestingly, our new ‘normal’ will be different to the old ‘normal’. We will have the flexibilities to do what we want to do, when we want to do it, with our new flexible working structure.

Looking into the future, people say, ‘look after today and tomorrow looks after itself’.

I think it's allowed us to put much more value on what we're doing today because you don't know what tomorrow is going to bring.

Knowing business could vanish in the next month, at any given time, does put that intensity and urgency into being proactive and providing a better service.

This crisis has intensified everything. So with that in mind, people aren't stupid, we don't need to put further pressure on them.

On a day to day basis, the team understand the importance of performance in the current market.

Today does look after tomorrow, absolutely, it does.

I think we're now moving to the point where we're starting to go, ‘Okay, well this is where we are, we don't know whether it's going to get worse, get better or stay the same.’

We have to plan for our careers and our future because what we have proved, is that we can survive and thrive in this economy and in this market working in this way.