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Going The Distance: 10 Critical Insights for Leadership Above and Beyond COVID-19

Wednesday 17, Jun 2020

As part of our ongoing commitment to supporting CEOs and leaders throughout the COVID-19 crisis, The CEO Circle held a webinar titled “Going The Distance: Leadership Above & Beyond COVID-19” on Thursday 11 June.

The webinar featured experienced business leaders Andrew Reitzer, Elizabeth Johnstone and John Moller, who are all esteemed group chairs with The CEO Circle. 

The discussion ranged from the way COVID-19 is transforming the socio-economic landscape of Australia through to how organisations might be able to consolidate the positives that have emerged from the crisis. 

As the webinar moderator, I was delighted by the optimism of the panellists, with everyone recognising this crisis is a marathon, not a sprint. All agreed we can expect uncertainty to be a certainty at least for the next 12-18 months. 

The consensus is that organisations with strong fundamentals in place and an adaptable, ‘athletic stance’ to challenges and opportunities stand to emerge stronger from this crisis. 

With that in mind, here are 10 of the most critical insights to come from our Going The Distance webinar.

  1. Maintain an 'athletic stance'. Opportunities will emerge over the next year for businesses that have adopted an 'athletic stance' during the COVID-19 crisis. Leaders need to ensure their business is ready to seize these opportunities across areas like M&A, new markets and new projects. This is not business as usual; we are in a new era. Stay on the front foot. Revisit supply contracts; organisational structure; lease and rental agreements; and employee agreements. How can you strengthen your balance sheet in the short to medium term? What is your cash runway, do you have the cashflow to cope? Understand the changes made in your business over the past months and work to lock in the positives.

  2. Engage and energise your team to stay the course. The fracturing of workplace cultures is one of the significant challenges to come from the crisis. For many, uncertainty about the future of their jobs and livelihoods has led to anxiety and stress. Even with regular virtual meetings, remote work has put team cultures under strain. Leaders and key staff need to work hard to reinvigorate flagging cultures and stressed employees, especially as businesses shift to ‘hybrid’ workplace models incorporating remote work and a return-to-office. John Moller said: “Your business is about people – today, tomorrow and forever. Get the right people on the bus. Retain good people. If you’ve got great people working together, it energises an organisation. Leaders shape an organisation’s culture.”

  3. Leadership fundamentals have not changed. Despite the massive upheavals, the fundamentals of good leadership stay the same. Employees are looking towards leaders during these difficult times. Andrew Reitzer said: “People want direction. They want to be led. As a leader, you need to lead and stand up.” While pre-COVID times may have seen a shift in leadership styles towards flatter hierarchies and a greater emphasis on consensus decision-making, the demands of crisis and emergencies require leaders to back themselves and take action, quickly. Your team needs you now more than ever.

  4. Get close to your customers. John Moller said: “People are shopping differently. People aren’t as tactile anymore. Customer behaviours are changing. Stay close to your customer. Run customer surveys to get on the front foot. Your customers may be different post-COVID to pre-COVID.” It is tricky to discern precisely to what extent customer behaviour will have changed as a result of the pandemic, but the signs clearly indicate it has been significantly affected. Now is the time to stay in touch with your customers and to gauge what it is they want and how you can deliver.

  5. Shifts in the socio-economic landscape. Elizabeth Johnstone outlined several areas in which we can expect drastic changes to the socio-economic landscape as well as the international business landscape. She said: “How will what’s going on internationally affect your business? The changing geopolitical scene, sanctions, tariffs, lack of travel, international trade? All of these things will affect the economy and businesses.” With governments around the world making policy on the run, there is a high degree of uncertainty about what we can expect in the next 1-3 years. High debt levels and the spectre of inflation and recession also loom. Leaders must be cognisant of these factors and how they may affect business. 

  6. You need a plan. Change is a certainty and is happening at an unprecedented rate. Your plan and your planning process have never been more critical. Controlling what you can manage and stringent scenario planning for everything else will enable businesses to weather a broad range of outcomes. John Moller said: “With COVID, we have had to revise the plans a little bit. You have to get the plan out of the bottom drawer and regularly revise every 30, 60, 90 days, look for new opportunities.”

  7. Extreme decisiveness is required and desired. The most significant opportunity to arise from the crisis is to lock in organisational speed. Winners in the future will be those who can move quickly, and the crisis has provided a blueprint for extreme decisiveness and accelerated action. Elizabeth Johnstone said: “People who take decisive action will survive. Significant businesses, not only small ones, will fold. Leaders need to analyse the talent they need to focus on growth and survival.” Understand how you enabled rapid change in your business in nine weeks and work out how you keep this decision-making process as the new normal. 

  8. Consolidate and extend gains in areas like digital transformation. The shift to hybrid work models and the adoption of tools like Zoom for meetings only skims the surface of the digital transformation underway among fast-moving organisations. The crisis has forced a radical reset on how we do business, and digital technologies (AI, automation, VR/AR, blockchain, etc.) have all come to the fore, offering new ways to work more productively and deliver to our customers. While many businesses gave lip-service to digital transformation pre-COVID, smart ones have seen the benefits of being digital-ready. They have been able to transition workforces quickly and maintain firm contact points with customers and stakeholders. Organisations that lock in the productivity gains of digital transformation will gain a substantial lead on their competition in years to come.

  9. The great leaders will be the ones who know how to deliver tough messages. Leaders will need to have difficult conversations with their people, especially as the question of redundancies and restructures come up. Learn how to have those conversations in a compassionate, appropriate manner, but have them decisively. Elizabeth Johnstone said: “Be honest and clear with people. Almost always, people want to be led by someone who communicates well. They need to see the link between what they are doing and what it will give to them, not just in a financial sense, but also meaning and purpose.”

  10. Look after yourself. We are only a little over halfway through 2020, and we have been through so much already. The COVID-19 crisis is a marathon, not a sprint. To go the distance, you need to look after those around you, but also yourself. If you are not mentally and physically in good shape, your capacity to lead others will be diminished. Make sure to have some fun. Take a break when you can. Andrew Reitzer used marathon running as an analogy: “Where is halfway in a standard marathon? It’s not 21 kilometres. It’s five kilometres from the end. Because the energy that we need to use to get to the 5 kilometre mark, is the same energy that we need for the last 5 kilometres. Know your battery, how much energy do you have? How do you recharge that battery? What works for you? It’s different for every individual.” 


We are proud to be able to bring the best and brightest minds together in completely confidential Circles – no hidden agendas, completely confidential and with a vast range of experiences.

For over 26 years now, The CEO Circle has been sharing insights, knowledge and perspectives, enhancing leadership capacity and making it a less lonely existence for all in our Circle. Where else can you have access to hundreds of years of combined experience that would take a lifetime to amass yourself.

We will continue our mission throughout this crisis and beyond the curve, helping you to achieve greater success as a leader. 


OUR WEBINAR PANELLISTS

Andrew Reitzer brings 40+ years of global experience in the technology, retail and wholesaling industries, with significant expertise in M&A, post-acquisition integration and organisational change. From 1998 to 2013, Andrew was CEO of Metcash Limited, overseeing a four-fold increase in sales and a $280 million earnings turnaround. Andrew has been appointed to several company directorships, including Chairman of SG Fleet, amaysim, ARQ Group and George & Matilda boards. A CEO Circle member, he is one of our esteemed CEO Circle Sydney Chairs.

Elizabeth Johnstone is a professional company director with a distinguished career in corporate law including many years as National Director and Practice Head (Company Law and Governance) of legal firm Blake Dawson (now Ashurst). A senior strategic consultant to global law firm DLA Piper, Elizabeth is the current Chair of ASX Corporate Governance Council and has served as a director of a number of publicly listed, private and government boards. She is a former Business and Professional Women’s Association/QANTAS Business Woman of the Year. Elizabeth Johnstone is one of our esteemed CEO Circle and Future Circle Chairs in Sydney.

John Moller has built world-class leadership teams, turned around companies and been a mentor to many during his prolific career in Australia and abroad. He has held senior positions in Honeywell, James Hardie Industries, Adsteam, Repco and most recently with Genuine Parts Company, a US-headquartered company which acquired Repco in 2013. He is the Non-Executive Chairman of GPC Asia Pacific and is on the board of Inenco Group. An esteemed CEO Circle Chair, John has been a member of The CEO Circle in Sydney, London and Melbourne.