How has this constantly evolving landscape impacted how we lead into the future? Agile Leadership Lessons Podcast: Episode 1

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Published on 18th May 2021

​How did you react to events in 2020, and how has this affected how you're looking to the future? Philip Holliday, William Cox, and Elizabeth Mildwater share their experiences in Watermark Search International'sfirst podcast episodeof ourAgile Leadership Lessonsseries.

Hosted by Watermark Search International's Managing Partner, David Evans. In this episode we're joined by;
Philip Holliday, CEO of the NSW Ports Authority, who's team was deeply impacted by the events of 2020 reacting to the Ruby Princess (the cruise ship at the centre of one of Australia's largest coronavirus outbreaks), William Cox, CEO of Aurecon, who has a different perspective with his team of consultants who have seen all sorts of organisations evaluating their evolving requirements, and consequently how they must adapt their own business to support this changing landscape, and Elizabeth Mildwater, CEO of the Greater Sydney Commission, who has had to deal with changes in not only how we work but also how these events will impact us over the longer term.

Our speakers highlight the changes in opinions on flexible working, how some companies who offered flexible working prior to the pandemic have now actually gone backwards and require staff to be in the office 5 days a week, or companies who have foregone the office all together and have moved to a fully remote workforce. They discuss the 3/2 hybrid working split and their concerns for the more inexperienced employee's learning and development with reduced opportunities for face to face mentoring and guidance from more experienced team members. How will this effect the future workforce?

Listen to the full podcast below to gain their insights and advice for current and future leaders.
You can also find the podcast on several different apps, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, and RadioPublic.Click here to listen & subscribe on your favourite appor read the transcript below.

How has this constantly evolving landscape impacted how we lead into the future?
Agile Leadership Lessons, Episode 1, transcript:

David Evans, Managing Partner of Watermark Search International:

Hello and welcome to the Watermark Search International podcast, Agile Leadership Lessons. On this podcast, we discuss leadership trends with experienced leaders on what is working, what isn't, and how we can all improve as a leadership cohort. Let's dive into this episode. I'm David Evans, Managing Partner of Watermark Search and today we're joined by Philip Holliday CEO, the New South Wales Ports Authority. William Cox, CEO of Aurecon. And Elizabeth Mildwater, CEO of the Greater Sydney Commission. 2020 was not the year we're expecting it to be. Philip and his team have been significantly impacted by those events. William and his team, as consultants have seen all sorts of organizations evaluating their evolving requirements, and consequently, how they must adapt in their own business to support this changing landscape. Elizabeth has had to deal with changes in not only how we work, but also how these changes will impact all of us over the longer term.

Philip Holliday CEO of New South Wales Ports Authority, a lots been thrown at you and your team over the most recent period. Talk us through what's happening and how you've approached it.

Philip Holliday, CEO of the NSW Ports Authority:

Yeah, thanks. So I suppose it might be worth saying that the Port Authority of New South Wales is an organization, we're state owned organisation, and we are essentially a marine services provider. So we make sure that the ships, the commercial ships, can safely get into and out of Yamba in the far North and Newcastle, Sydney, Port Botany, Port Kembla, and in the far south, Eden. So that's predominantly what we do get ships safely in and out. But we also retain the operational land, in Sydney Harbour, so Glebe Island, White Bay, and the cruise terminals, the one at White Bay, of course, and the overseas passenger terminal.

So we were going along, minding our own business, the same as everybody else, and we found ourselves thrown into a situation that very few people could have predicted. And certainly we hadn't, and for which there was no real playbook. And so, you know, everybody was trying to do their best with the information that they had. And I'm pretty confident that actually people did do their best with the information that they had at hand. Of course the Port Authority got drawn into the whole Ruby Princess saga, and, you know, if I'm selfishly looking at that the Port Authority did what it was supposed to do when it was supposed to do it. And so, I actually believe that that's what most authorities, agencies, and individuals were doing at the time. You know, the Ruby Princess came into port on, I think it was about the 20th of March last year, we were still going to football matches, we were still going to restaurants, we were still going to the cinema and so on and so forth. So it caught everybody, and then it all went pretty rapid from there. I recall saying to the team, we should perhaps start to see what our capabilities to work from home, maybe we should start to do some tests. And, you know, it's been in our plans for for quite some time, it has been in our contingency plans, but maybe we should give it a live test and start to see, you know, let's send the finance team home for a couple of days and see how we get on and we'll do that in a gradual approach. And three days later, we were out of the office permanently for quite some, some months. So you know, in its broader context, not radically different to what everybody else was was having to face but you know, the maritime industry generally is is a fairly slow moving conservative industry, we employ about 360 people, and about 75% of those are operational people, that sort of frontline, on shift and rosters and the likes, they still have to come into work and make sure that the ships could, you know, physically we could bring the ships in, and we could make sure they tied up alongside and all that kind of stuff. So that, you know, with the people that are more office based, when, when we moved out and started to work from home, that just created more space and allowed us to spread our operational teams out a bit more and give them more social distancing. And then put in place measures to make sure that, you know, the morning shift didn't physically come into contact with the afternoon shift and all that kind of thing. So it's, it's been, as I say, it's been a game with no rule book, and we've tried our best to make it up as we go along, but to take everyone on the journey with us, and my plans of trying to change the world very quickly became, let's make sure that we don't lose anybody. And I'm pretty pleased to be able to say that, you know, everything we put in places has worked pretty well, because we have to keep changing and adapting to, and I can't claim credit for the, you know, for the good work that the government's done, in making sure broadly Australia and New South Wales have been managed really well. But for our little part, I've been very happy with how it's gone. And, you know, now we've got a bit of a rule book for next time.

David Evans, Managing Partner of Watermark Search International:

Bill Cox, the CEO of Aurecon, you have a really interesting perspective in that you support many organizations and have a lens on quite a few different paces of change. But how have you adapted your own team and your own business to what's been thrown at us recently?

William Cox, CEO of Aurecon:

Thanks, David. And just listening to as you know, when we reflect back all of the things that each of us were were doing a year ago, 14 months ago, you do relive some of those moments that, at the time, were incredibly stressful for all of us. And I think we were starting to understand the implications of the virus, probably back in late January, early February, because we've got operations up through Asia and the Middle East, as well as here in Australia, in New Zealand. So we already had response committees and steering committees in place to be looking at it. But it was when the big part of our operation here in Australia and New Zealand, started to be impacted in March that we very quickly moved to bringing in all of the things that we had in place around digital ways of working, being able to move people from office base to home base working with, you know, three, three key criteria about being able to keep our people safe, and their health, safety and welfare being being absolutely critical. Our clients likewise, being, you know, very exposed, and so being able to help them and making sure that we're protected, protecting the business and protecting the jobs of all of our people, and that they were the three the three key things that focused us and made sure that we were meeting each of those criteria and the decisions that we took, and, you know, out in the immediate response, we're meeting every day or every second day, to make sure that those things are in place, and to be ensuring that, that our people were able to continue to work safely and support our clients because our clients by government and private sector needed to be keeping their operations running and in supporting them it was absolutely key and flexibility, innovation.

And to Philip's point. There was no playbook for any of this. And so being prepared to make things up on the run, try new things, if it works great, you know, scale that, if it doesn't work, try something different. And people had that attitude. Well, okay, if it's going to fail, fail fast. But if it's going to work, it could actually be a game changer, not just for what we were living with, you know, in the peak of the crisis, but as we've started to see now when we're back into a hybrid mode of working. Look, we've got lots of our people that are working two days a week from home, three days in the office, and using a lot of those learnings as part of it. And that that whole innovation mindset, and that innovation culture that is part of our engineering culture, and in our scientific culture, really did come to come to the floor. And that was really good in terms of being able to do that, and to support people, when they were going through stress in their own lives. Obviously, we've got people in in Melbourne that were locked down for months, we have a team of 200 people in Manila, who have been variously locked down or working from home for over a year. And so the mental health implications of that, and supporting people through mental health, health, first aid teams, and sort of consultants who helped us there has been another important part of helping to get people through that. And, you know, just my last point is that, as we're seeing, as those of you know, we're all in Sydney right now that we're going through another phase of this, and I think for, for some time to come, we are going to see these sorts of flare ups in cases. And so that resilience, that endurance around being able to handle these surprises when they come up, and be able to deal with them is going to be an important part of how we get through this. And it'll be an important learning for us or for the years ahead, just depending on how, how this virus sort of changes over time, as we're seeing it's very capable of doing so. They're an interesting challenge, but i think if you've got the right people, and the right mindset, and you're in the right sort of places, then it's something that we've all learnt new ways of coping with. Thanks.

David Evans, Managing Partner of Watermark Search International:

Thanks, Bill. Elizabeth Mildwater, the CEO of the Greater Sydney Commission, a lot has been thrown at you, your team and the Commission itself, but also not what we're doing currently, but how this impacts over the medium term? How have you and your team adapted to the events that's been thrown at us?

Elizabeth Mildwater, CEO of the Greater Sydney Commission:

I think a lot of what Phil and Bill have just said actually really resonated, and to what Bill said, It almost felt like you hear it again. And it's hard to believe, isn't it? The number of decisions that we all had to make really rapidly and under huge time pressure, and i heard the word stress a couple of times. I think they're really common factors pretty well every team has dealt with, it's just the context that has been different over the last year. And so I came from a big, a big organization of transport where, you know, we were really focused, like keeping frontline services running and doing that while protecting staff. I've now come to a smaller team, but essentially, the principles were the same. Everyone was focused on just making the right decisions at the right time. I think the common thing is we all had to focus on what actually mattered in a way. Like it really sharpened our minds in a way that perhaps we hadn't had to do when we had the luxury of things going well. So you know, what matters in terms of service, provision, health and safety, all of that. It was sort of a hierarchy of needs, wasn't it? That you protected, protected, protected, and then adjusted everything around that. So I think, yeah, what I've seen here at the Greater Sydney Commission internally is very similar to what I saw in much bigger teams, it's just the particular context is different. But I guess in terms of, you know, looking at our job is to look forward and to predict the impacts on the city, not just over, not even over the next few months. That's interesting context for us, but not an area that we need to get too involved in where, you know, we're being asked to think about what the future is much longer term than that. And as you know, Bill just said this, we're still in it right now, it's still a time of great uncertainty. So I always start with, you'd be a very brave person to make some really big calls.

There's so much contention amongst different employers about whether this three to two thing is permanent. I have heard the whole range of stories from employers who've actually gone backwards on flexible working. So they haven't just told people, we want you back in the office three days a week, it's you must be back five days a week. Whereas pre COVID, they had flexible working, right through to the other extreme of people like the Atlassian that you hear, you know, "offices who needs them", and everything in between. So I think all the experiences were having as employers playing out everywhere, and our job at the Greater Sydney Commission is trying to pull through that what might be real, might be longer lasting, and then think through what are the implications for the city, because every trend Bill have an implication for how this city looks going forward.

David Evans, Managing Partner of Watermark Search International:

Thanks Elizabeth. Well, one more question to each of you keen to understand over the last period, to how you make decisions and how you lead your team from here on. So Philip, we might start with you.

Philip Holliday, CEO of the NSW Ports Authority:

Um, I think the key thing for me, is that before the pandemic it's very easy to get caught on that treadmill, and you're very focused on outputs, and targets and KPIs and being driven to achieve things. And it's very easy to, forget to pause and to make sure you're connecting with your staff, and you know, over the last 12 months we've found ways to, you know, previously I could walk around the office and bump into people and go out to sites and bump into people and have a chat to them, and what have you, because you never do that quite as much as you should. But that's what you try and do. And suddenly, I find myself stuck in the house, in a little room, with a dog barking and all that kind of carry on, and trying to find ways to communicate with staff and give them a level of reassurance and comfort about you know, if you if you need to worry about your family, then spend your energy on that, because your job is going to be fine. We'll just keep going. Let's not worry too much at the moment about working targets and KPI we'll get back to that. So as long as we can keep going, as long as we can keep moving forward. That's where we were. And I think it just, that was where we were for the first few months. And it kind of naturally comes. After that it naturally comes everyone starts to said, look, I want to, I want something different to focus on, I want to get back to work I want to start thinking about innovation. And I want to say there's some good things we're doing here. And can we do them? Can we keep doing them this way? So for example, again, my organization works across a number of sites. And as a new CEO, we were busy trying to put together a strategic plan, so we'd organized workshops and people were going to come in and what have you, and because all that had to go on hold, except we said well, let's do it online. And, let's invite people to participate. So we actually got more people participating from a broader range of locations. And I like to think we might have thought of it, but we probably wouldn't have done it that way. And so it's identifying the lessons, the good things, and we'll grab those good things and we'll hold on to them. And also identifying things that actually we didn't realize weren't very good previously. And now we don't need to do them that way. So the amount of change that's come about, in a very short period of time, with everybody coming on the journey with us, is incredible really. And, and I think Elizabeth is right, when, well I know Elizabeth was right when she says, don't make too many big decisions, too many permanent decisions right now. Because we're still feeling our way at the moment. Our office based staff are in the office for a minimum of two days, it will shortly be three days, but I actually think that's probably about where we'll end up. But we're trying to, we tried to do it based on experience now, rather than, you know, working out with a committee, we just said this, is this working? Should we, can we tweak it in this way, can we do a little bit more of this or a little bit less than that. Um, so I think that's where we're, where we're going. And what's changed. It's just reinforced the importance of connection and transparency and touching base across the board, because everybody wants to be heard, everyone wants to have the opportunity to be heard. And it's very easy to get caught up in the day to day, when we all know that you need to take time to touch base. So this has actually been a good opportunity to touch base, and to reinforce and to connect, and make genuine connections and be authentic. And I think that that will stand us in really good stead for a long time to go.

David Evans, Managing Partner of Watermark Search International:

Bill, what are your thoughts?

William Cox, CEO of Aurecon:

Thanks, David. And certainly, the the issue of communication, particularly in the in the early months was an area of significant focus for us. And all the things that Philip talked about, around you know, doing videos at the drop of a hat, either using your phone or more professional means, and putting that out to staff was an important part of it. Doing townhall meetings, and using zoom and teams to talk to four or five, or 600 people at a time in our, you know, various big offices right through the business. And not for us to talk for too long, to give people an opportunity to ask questions, and to ask all manner of questions on things that they might not have felt comfortable to do face to face, but with the anonymity of a team's call, asked to see all sorts of confronting questions, you know, "Why aren't I getting a pay rise?", "Why are they getting a bigger pay rise?". Good on them, though, that, you know, intimacy was really something that was important to people. And it allowed us to stay in contact, when under other circumstances we would fly around the business. And that has been one of the other big, you know, "Aha" moments for us in our business. Our travel bill, month to month was, you know, eye watering. And if I'd said to the business 14 months ago, right, we're cutting our travel spend by, you know, 95%. And we had to hold it that way for the next two years, "Oh no Bill, can't be done Bill, our the clients won't come to us anymore, we won't be able to do it." Guess what, that's we've basically gone from 100% to zero. starting to come back now. And proven, all of the things that you can do when you don't have to travel in terms of board meetings, workshops, town hall meetings, all of those things have been a real revelation and, it's a matter of them still saying OK, It's not that we never get to travel again. And we're not going to do face to face meetings and workshops, we will, but we don't need to do them on the scale that we're used to. And, yes, there's a cost. There's a cost, you know, saving and all that. But there's a whole health and welfare, and well being saving for people jumping on and off aeroplanes and you know, pushing themselves, that all sorts of unsustainable levels in traveling around, and that's really at the core of it.

The other big thing for me with people working from home and it goes to this whole hybrid model of working in the office two days a week, three days a week. And that was the realization around trust and trusting your people to do good work, not because they're sitting outside your office, and you can watch them, but because they know what they've got to do. They understand what their responsibilities and accountabilities are. And they know what they've got to do for their clients, and they get on and do it. And that's an important part of flexibility, and it's an important part of being able to continue to deliver for clients, regardless of where we are. Now, the big counter to that, and this is an issue that I'm sort of, I think, as a society, we've got an issue that we'll need to be addressing. And that is around any graduate who's come out of a Tafe or a university, whom gets a lot of their early learning from working beside more experienced people. And you just can't get that working from home. And that's where, for me, the whole need for people to be, you know, for office space people to be in offices, at least some of the time for young people to be learning, for more senior people to be coaching and mentoring and guiding people and teaching them how to how to become a more experienced professional, a more experienced person. That's something that we're going to have to continue to work out and encourage people to be working in that hybrid way to make sure that that we don't, you know, people don't lose that, that learning experience past having done their formal education, because that's a fundamental part of how people will operate in the future.

David Evans, Managing Partner of Watermark Search International:

I Couldn't agree more. Elizabeth, how are you applying what you've learned to the way we operate now?

Elizabeth Mildwater, CEO of the Greater Sydney Commission:

I think the most immediate one is learning how to really take the temperature of how people are traveling every day, and therefore how you do need to communicate with them. Because I think the entire world moved into a different mindset last year where we were all very willing to comply with rules provided they were clear. And we understood the reasoning and what the rules were, like everyone, particularly in Australia, they were very compliant, but on the condition that we all understood the rules. And so, you know, workplace communications became very clear that rules based compared to where it might have been more engaging before that, that's really easy when you just, thump there's a rule. At the other extreme, it's easy to be really broadly engaging, but where we are now is actually much more tricky. And I think, working out how we do communicate when our people want to actually be told. And I think they're still in some of that, that space, I'm finding myself telling them things that at other times, I might go more slowly, and they're actually responding to that. They're asking for a bit more guidance. So it's about sort of figuring how we wean them off that over the coming year. But at the moment, there's still I think, need for telling.

The other thing that maybe sort of goes with that, that I'm hearing, not just, I'm not just observing at our workplace, but from other employees is there's been a big disconnect over the last few, Bill talked about, you know how difficult it is for young people or new people. But even people who are quite experienced seem to have become a bit disengaged from the big purpose they might be at work for. And so I'm hearing in a few places, and we did it without realizing what we're doing. There is a need to get people together and give them the big vision again, and go back to basics on purpose. And it's worked really well. Here and other people I've seen have tried it. At first I thought, Gosh, why? Why are we doing this, they all know what we're doing. But it is something about that going back to purpose, again, has really inspired people.

And the third one, I suppose that is a bit more of a big trend as well. Just recognizing last year was really, really difficult for so many people. Everyone talks about fatigue, if they were home in the lounge room staring at a screen if you were frontline staff, you rose to another level every day, right? And then we had to do all this mental agility and stuff as leaders and we were pretty exhausted by the end of the year. You can only perform at that level for so long. And I think everyone thought the turn into this year and it would all be good, but it's not right? And people, I'm thinking people are struggling to lift again. I'm seeing more people get sick as I get back together and germs go around. Mental health, more broadly hearing about things like relationship breakdowns, and all the signs of the stress I think because of largely what we all went through last year, so I guess that's just a call out that is you know, as a leader, we all have lives we all have to be mindful of and we may, I suspect we're gonna have to continue to be pretty agile and caring right through this year, you know, even then adapting forward, back forward back. With more, keep that sort of deliberate decision making and agility going for perhaps much longer than we thought we might have to.

David Evans, Managing Partner of Watermark Search International:

Thank you Elizabeth, some great points there. And listeners, I hope you've really enjoyed the conversation and listening to the candour and lessons that our great leaders have shared today. So I'd like to thank for the holiday car, the New South Wales Port Authority, Bill Cox, the CEO of Oricon, and Elizabeth Martin Warden, CEO of the Greater Sydney commission. Thank you.

Thanks. That concludes the podcast. I hope you've enjoyed listen to the leaders sharing their experiences. If you're interested in hearing more, please subscribe and stay tuned to our publications from Watermark Search International.

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