During COVID-19 organisations are identifying expertise gaps in critical areas. As we work through this crisis period we have created a series to focus on these critical areas, with insights from one of our readily available expert Interim Executives. View the full series here.
“Get involved early, listen to those around you, take advice, be calm, be decisive and lead” - Tom Quinn
Tom has been in the middle of several “crisis” events over the years:
- Head of Infrastructure and Operations at ASX during the stock market crash of 1987 and the recession of 1990-91
- CTO at inter-touch (a technology services start up in the hotel sector globally) during the SARS epidemic of 2003
- CTO at NewsCorp during the GFC during 2007-8
- Currently Interim Head of IT Operations at the University of Technology Sydney during Covid-19
There are a number of attributes of a crisis that are common:
- Cash flow takes a significant hit very quickly – life threatening to a lot of businesses
- Cash flow constriction always means staff get nervous – “is my job safe”?
- This is because cost cutting nearly always means staff redundancies
- Ways of working change – prioritisation becomes crucial
- The crisis always ends AND there are lessons to be learnt for “life after”
Tom’s role in determining and/or planning around the crisis were:
- ASX – a member of the Crisis Committee for both – planned organisation wide technology changes in response – determined which staff were made redundant – this is the most difficult task in a crisis and devastating for those let go – Tom’s first crisis taught him compassion for his team – a lifelong lesson
- Inter-touch – the revenue model was dependent upon hotel occupancy which dropped to almost zero throughout Asia. Tom had 70% of company costs in his control so he drove the cost cutting exercise
- News Corp – on the crisis team and was focused on restructuring as a means of getting cost out
- UTS – teaching has continued even though students are no longer on campus – most staff also off campus. In a very quick time UTS made 1500 subjects available online – Tom is leading the team providing the remote access solution to 40,000 students and staff – they have more than 10,000 classes online each week and more than 1000 students with full study capability in China (difficult given the Great Firewall of China)
Tom engaged with the stakeholders impacted by the crisis:
- Daily updates – face-to-face is good but Covid-19 has taught us that video conferencing works
- Always tried to remain calm and confident – emotions are contagious – smile (corny but effective)
- Only deal in facts – where assumptions need to be made be ready for them to be wrong and respond accordingly – then communicate
- Be truthful – people want to know what is happening even if it is personally painful
- Ask open ended questions – gathering intel is key
- Listening to concerns is crucial – let your audience get them out on the table
- ASX was in a very slow process of implementing electronic trading and settlement (closing the open outcry trading floors by migrating all trading to new systems). It was being strongly resisted by stock broking firms and the key “personalities” in the industry. The drop in the market cut brokers revenue massively. They only had the “staff” lever to pull – more than 2500 staff were employed on the trading floors – closing them was the only option and so they did. A fairer, safer and more scalable market was the result.
- At inter-touch, new products were offered to their client base (wireless solutions for convention centres, SVOD into hotels) and they consolidated the physical footprint to be more cost effective (consolidated back of house operations from locations in Sydney, London and Singapore to a single location in Kuala Lumpur). Both actions allowed inter-touch to power out of the SARS slowdown with great success – the venture capitalist backers sold the firm 18 months later for $US100m (on an investment of 33)
- At NewsCorp, long resisted organisational change was the benefit. Due to the cost savings being significant, Tom was able to consolidate 14 individual IT departments into one national function and drive a technology platform consolidation (e.g. 17 accounts payable systems to one, 7 CRM’s to one, etc). The end result was being able to provide advertising customers one invoice (Harvey Normal used to get about 100 per month) and to be able to sell campaigns across all channels (Print, web, iPad, and mobile). This drove revenue increases across the business.
- At UTS, the catchment area for students is no longer a restricting issue. Remote learning can now happen from any location in the world – Europe, The US, across Asia. The capability that we created VERY quickly can now be used to grow the university and to enter new sectors like corporate learning, shorter courses and learning for life. This crisis forced them to create a tool for the modern university.
What Tom Learnt
Some of the things Tom learnt from the varying situations he has been involved in are:
- Be quick to get into the crisis response – there is no time to waste contemplating – early response is crucial to a successful fightback – go early, go hard – try to get ahead of the problem early on.
- Don’t try for perfect outcomes – 80% quality quickly is better than 100% quality slowly
- Remain calm, ask lots of questions, deal in facts not rumour
- Assign people full time to the response – this means reviewing short term priorities and reprioritising/stopping enough things to allow proper resourcing to the response
- Most of your people will “get it” – be compassionate to their changed circumstances
- Rapid response is crucial – run a crisis team that meets daily and works through responses
- The crisis always changes work practice. When the crisis is over, focus on the best changes that have been made and keep them.
“Gaining significant improvement coming out the other side of a crisis is not only possible – we should all be looking for it. And every crisis will provide an upside on the other side”– Tom Quinn