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How do leaders and leadership teams respond to events that weren't in the business plan? Agile Leadership Lessons Podcast: Episode 2

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Published on 25th August 2021

At Watermark, we're advocates of the for purpose sector. Not only do we contribute as a firm, but we also appoint many executives in for purpose entities. In this episode we are joined by three leaders from some of Australia's best known for purpose entities to share some of their experiences.

Hosted by Watermark Search International's Managing Partner, David Evans. In this episode we're joined by; Colin Seery, CEO of Lifeline, who saw an increase of 30% in calls to the main crisis support service through the bushfires crisis and the COVID pandemic, Judy Slatyer, most recently the CEO of the Australian Red Cross, whose team had to quickly adapt from dealing with the devastation of the bushfires in early 2020 to managing COVID and the pandemic and Susannah Le Bron, CEO at the Y in New South Wales, (formerly known as the YMCA), who experienced the pandemic through a different lens, adapting to a crisis environment that directly impacted more than half of her organisation.

Our speakers discuss leadership agility, and how they adapted to an unprecedented crisis situation. Anticipating change, assessing new risks and the importance of setting clear principles to guide their organisations and their people through the crisis. And the day-to-day tactics they implemented to remain connected with their teams, their organisations purpose, and to ensure themselves and their teams were looking after each other from a personal and professional point of view.

Listen 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 app or read the transcript below.

How do leaders and leadership teams respond to events that weren't in the business plan?
Agile Leadership Lessons, Episode 2, 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.

At Watermark Search we are very interested in leadership agility. How do leaders and leadership teams respond to events that weren't in the business plan? I believe that those leadership teams that have higher agility will be able to better respond. At Watermark, we are advocates of the for purpose sector. Not only do we contribute as a firm, but we also appoint many executives in for purpose entities. Today, we've invited three leaders from some of Australia's best known for purpose entities to share some of their experiences. Colin Seery, CEO of Lifeline, Judy Slatyer, most recently the CEO of the Australian Red Cross and Susannah Le Bron, CEO at the Y in New South Wales, which was formerly known as the YMCA. I'm David Evans, Managing Partner of Watermark Search.


Judy, let's start with you. As CEO of the Red Cross in 2020, we had those horrendous bushfires and just as the fires started to slow down and clean-up efforts increased, we had COVID headed our way. How did you and your team adapt to what was thrown at you?

Judy Slatyer, most recently the CEO of Australian Red Cross:

I can remember that time very well. We were in January and the bushfires were still wreaking havoc in communities. We had been supporting hundreds of evacuation centres, we had volunteers in helicopters evacuating people on ships, we had incredible trauma across five states and people in real trouble. Then at the end of January, I was with my team, and I said, “Folks, I think we need to get ready for a pandemic”. The looks of belief around the table, or disbelief, I just thought, “Whoa” because responding to Black Summer was a massive exercise for us at the Red Cross. It was the biggest, most impactful fire Australia has had, impacting the most people. We sat down and did a quick assessment of what could happen, so obviously not just hundreds of thousands of people in trouble for their most basic needs but also donations dropping off, so Red Cross challenged by its own sustainability issues, through to 50% of our 30,000 volunteers over the age of 60, so therefore at risk, all of our staff at risk, all of these sorts of things.

Once we got our head around what could happen in a pandemic because it hadn’t been declared, we then agreed on several core principles that we would use to lead the organisation through the pandemic and they have held the test of time. I thought I would just tell you what those principles are because we found them incredibly helpful. The first was focus absolutely on why we exist, which is to support people through tough times, but at the same time be fully accountable for Red Cross’ destiny through the uncertain times ahead. Be calm, thoughtful and measured while also being able to adapt and pivot. Give clarity and certainty where we could but be honest where we couldn't. Be there and present for our people. Listen well, be calm, be careful when wording emails, provide a lot of praise. Be flexible when partners lose their jobs, elderly relatives and children need care, friends and family get sick. And finally, look after each other, acknowledge our own precious challenges and feelings and be there for each other.

We had those as our secure base and I am so pleased we did that because it infiltrated absolutely everything we did. It was an incredibly full-on time and it still will be for those at Red Cross and those going through the lockdowns. Through the year we ultimately ended up having our biggest ever deployment of services since World War 2 and needing literally every single hand on deck to do it. Red Cross people were amazing, as they always are, just incredible humanitarians. It really took some clear principles to help guide us.

David Evans, Managing Partner of Watermark Search International:

It's one of the things we've been looking at, leadership agility, and those aspects that make that up, teamwork, collaboration is a big part of it, but also anticipating change. How do we get ready for these things?

Colin, when you joined Lifeline it was a huge transformation you went on. The volume of activity to your organisation has increased, I'm sure you tell us the amount, but how did you evolve? How did you adapt? And how did you get your team through it?

Colin Seery, CEO of Lifeline:

Thanks David. Similar to Judy at the Red Cross, Lifeline had the double whammy of the bushfire season and then the pandemic on top. To give you an idea of the impact from a service point of view, typically pre-December 2019, Lifeline would have somewhere around 2400 calls to the main crisis support service, on the bushfires that increased by 10 to 15%. Then with the pandemic, it has gone up 30%, so up over 3100 contacts a day. That has remained actually and as we're doing this, we're in another lockdown, we're there again. David, for us, the transformation programme, as you mentioned, we were partway through that. March last year, when COVID hit we thought it was going to be the perfect storm. For us, it was again like Red Cross' situation, we knew there was going to be increased demand. We had workforce challenges, how in lockdown do we get the workforce to our contact centres and there are also financial implications. A lot of our member centres do the traditional fundraising. We have 250 retail shops around the country, the lifeline book fairs, etc so it was the perfect storm. From looking from a leadership perspective, probably the on-reflection, David, a couple of the key changes in my world was that we have quite a complex stakeholder engagement, or engagement framework. I'd like to think traditionally, I'm sort of a consultative leader in that regard but when things happened in March, it was more of a crash-through approach, to be honest.

What we needed to do in terms of some issues that would typically take 12 months to work through, business continuity processes, etc, we were able to get those up in three weeks. What it did in terms of moving forward was create this bit of a change of culture in relation to we can actually do these things quickly, if needed and that's been that's been really helpful moving forward. I think, again, a bit like Judy's scenario, with our staff, from my perspective, being more involved with a lot of individuals we knew and know people that in the organisation that were really struggling themselves and so being there and being pretty open myself about the situation as well. Not from an organisation point of view but personally I don’t enjoy working from home, so taking the mask off and dealing with as many people individually as we could to get us through. Lifeline was never needed more and has never performed better in terms of the service. It was a challenging period but one I think will stand us in good stead moving forward.

David Evans, Managing Partner of Watermark Search International:

Thanks Colin, it has been an immense period for you and your team. I'm going to pass it over to Susannah. Your entity that you lead has gone through similar sort of changes, how have you guys adapted?

Susannah Le Bron, CEO at the Y in New South Wales:

Firstly, I just want to thank both Judy and Colin, because your efforts have ensured that Australians have had constant support and access to critical support. I can only imagine how that has a personal impact to both of you of managing through that time and your team so a big thanks from me. The Y's probably slightly different in that we don't normally play in crisis. For us it was quite a remarkable and confronting change to actually be what we see ourselves as a constant in community through normal state, to actually be thrust into an environment of crisis which directly impacted more than half of my organisation and we have over 64% of our people are under the age of 25 employed by the Y. I was experiencing it from that lens but also realising that from an organisational point of view, we weren't used to handling a crisis environment. We'd handled quite well the bushfires and the flooding and being connected to those communities, especially up in the coastal areas up north and so we were part of that community but moving forward, what I could see was the decision making, similar to what Colin said, about crashing through. I personally am a collaborator, I do like to have people involved in a process, I'm non-hierarchical and I felt that I had to personally change my normal traits and my normal skills, and really park them to be on pace and adapting to the challenges that were emerging and finding the relevance of how the Y could support its communities in a crisis, when, as I said, we weren't normally in that position.

For me, it was actually pushing back on my natural instinct. I do feel that the investment you make when you're outside of crisis means that when you're in crisis you are in a very different operating model and serving communities enables you to be absolutely supportive, but also relevant because people have had that relationship previously. I think part of us adapting was leveraging off the relationships that were already formed in our communities and with our local councils and other partners to do amazing work in communities and at pace, apply that different change of leadership to actually deliver services and be relevant to the community. I knew this would happen in the podcast, I'm writing these notes as Judy and Colin are talking about their journey. The other one that I think was fantastic is actually pausing, Judy, to recognise that there needed to be some guidelines and principles that you're going to apply. We did that during the crisis. Part of that was to stay connected with what was happening, but also being like a drone sort of environment and think, well, how can I stay above here to keep looking at the future, because it would have been really easy for me to have been drawn down. Personally, it was making sure that I was staying connected at the local level, but also pulling myself back up and pushing myself forward, rather than feeling my instinct was to be down there, linking arms and actually staying in the moment. I had to personally pull myself up and out to stay connected with where we're going.

David Evans, Managing Partner of Watermark Search International:

Susannah we're hearing some key themes here and this connection, your connection with your team and connection with the organisation's purpose. There’s a couple of bits to this and for me it’s the strategies and the tactics. Judy, I might ask you how you got through and how some of your team got through some challenging times, so some of the tactics, some of the day to day things that you came up with, that helped you and your team get through these intense moments.

Judy Slatyer, most recently the CEO of Australian Red Cross:

Susannah, I can only imagine what it would be like to have to shift into a different mode completely, so congratulations.

Like Colin, we were establishing, even from the bushfires because they were massive, we were establishing new call centres, we were establishing new systems, the ability to connect with people who are in trouble from anywhere in Australia to anywhere in Australia, which sounds a bit weird, we were having to shift all of our international work to be able to support remotely. All of these innovations were happening in real time. One of the things we did, and I'll come to a couple of others, was we had been working to embed agile ways of working and project management throughout the organisation and we just decided we were going to take the risk to go full on agile, so we had an absolutely agile approach across the organisation. Still, like Colin and Susannah, we had to as a leadership team, we had to be quite directive as what was going to happen, but the how we got there was really delegated with a cross-organisational working approach. For example, we needed all hands-on deck, we really, really needed all hands on deck. Within the space of two weeks, we'd launched what we call Red Tasker so that anybody in the organisation could put in their extra skills and capabilities beyond their traditional jobs, to see what we could leverage. It was just amazing. I had two sessions each week with anyone who wanted to join (so 2,000 staff and 30,000 volunteers), which originally started as just a very open two-way communication but quickly became, “This is what this person is doing in Alice Springs, maybe it could work in Dubbo”. Previously everyone struggled to figure out the most efficient way to exchange knowledge but with online tools it was great. We really leveraged things like mirror boards where we could get best access to people's brains really, really fast.

Plus, the most compelling moment I remember of the switch between the bushfires and COVID was late January. Luckily, we have space at the Red Cross, sort of head office, we had crowded call centres, it was buzzing, so the whole place was buzzing, and it was full with all things related to the bushfires. We had a Board meeting and the Board members went around to thank people because of the incredible jobs they were doing. In the space of three weeks, I went back to that office and it was completely empty and quiet. But it was still happening. We managed to get all of our services, except for those that were really non-essential, which is not many of our services, online and working remotely. When you think back, it was just incredible what those Red Cross people did. Now of course, that's a good mode of operation going forward. The migrant support hub in northern New South Wales realised that they could reach many more people. It is still very important to have the house base that they have, but now could reach many more people. This mix of virtual and physical service has now become part of the way we work. That would have taken years to transition if it hadn't been for COVID. In that context and our role as a leadership group was how do we support that innovation? How do we give air to it? How do we really go to that traditional motherhood of try and fail fast. How do we really ramp up what's working like Red Tasker? How do we quickly and swiftly shift resources and put emphasis behind what was most needed for those in trouble? How do we build partnerships? To get the number of meals out there, had we rapidly built 16 to 17 new partnerships so that together we were collectively providing meals. It was just amazing that level of innovation and how it came to the fore. The one thing we did have to do, is we introduced what was called a Velvet Hammer because Red Cross people are just so passionate, they will not stop. For our own care for ourselves, we gave a couple of the HR team the velvet hammer and they watched the entire organisation and they could go and dong anyone. That person had to take four days off, non-negotiable. Then we introduced a couple of organisational wide long weekends with everyone putting down tools, unless it was the real front end of things. While there was this great buzz in innovation and excitement, there was incredible pressure so we had to introduce the pressure valve and the velvet hammer was really good. I got donged a couple of times. I was like, “No, I can't go”, and they said, “Yes you can, four days off”.

David Evans, Managing Partner of Watermark Search International:

Having worked with you Judy, I can see why you might have been donged on some of those occasions. There are some great tips in there we can all use and watch out for each other in our teams. Colin, how you applying what you've learned to how your team are responding today?

Colin Seery, CEO of Lifeline:

I am interested in the velvet hammer concept. That's a good one Judy, we might introduce that as well. The tactical scenarios that we played out, David, were a bit similar in very quickly developing that remote working capability both for the actual service, I guess there's two components to Lifeline, the amazing volunteers that are answering the phones around the country and our people in our national office, so really pushing through technological change and change management processes, that I mentioned earlier, would take a significant amount of time through a very complex network, happened very quickly.

In terms of supporting both volunteers and staff, communication was the key for us. The amount of meetings at different levels we had daily. The Chair, the Vice Chair, myself and the executive met every day during that period, sort of a wall room or a cabinet to work through. The Chair and I would host get togethers with the volunteers where they could ask questions, etc. We had the opportunity with some of our great corporate supporters to get gifts out, etc. We also had to monitor very carefully the amount of work being done. I think with all of our organisations, Susannah, Judy and myself, we don't have problems saying to our people, our purpose, our reason for being and I think as leaders, we're very fortunate in relation to that, and sometimes that can just continue on and go too far. It was that interesting combination of this imperative we had, our work is literally life and death at times, so we need to get it right. That was the interesting balance about how far we push. We work in an agile framework, but how far do we go? What risks did were we prepared to take to deal with the demand we needed to do with a workforce where it was. In summary, David, in in our world, what it has opened up is arguably a more innovative approach in the way we do things. As we sit here now, literally, the last couple of days have been exactly the same with the latest lockdown.

David Evans, Managing Partner of Watermark Search International:

Thanks Colin. Susannah, how have you applied what you have learnt?

Susannah Le Bron, CEO at the Y in New South Wales:

Well, first of all I'm going to apply, moving forward, a velvet hammer because I think that's a fantastic suggestion. It's great. I think the points that are already made, where you had those obstacles in place around what you thought you could do and how you could do it, they all went out the window. It was that risk element that did stay in the back of my mind, it wasn't like I was going rogue, but I absolutely opened up the floodgates to move at pace. What I think has been tremendous, is the embracing of virtual interaction. I know that we often feel fatigued when doing it but this is the only option that we have to remain connected and so we have to master it. I think we've done a tremendous job in our different fields to keep that. I'm extremely proud of our connection with our young people that work for us and our young people that we connect through in terms of the different services and programmes that we offer. I was nervous about could we still maintain that amazing impact moving from face to face to virtual because, as you all know, you're out on the front line, and you're having those connections, they are pretty special, they drive that really amazing outcome. To shift that virtually, I was nervous but I have been so proud by reviewing some of those outcomes measurements that we've been able to tap into really high level, that we've actually probably done better than what we were seeing face to face. The reach has been unbelievable. The ability for our people to connect on more and more occasions, more times has meant that the services are there nearly 24/7. I'm now seeing a model that we will keep in place moving forward, and it will complement what we were doing pre-crisis. That's been an amazing learning.

Something else that I wouldn’t mind touching on is, I often want to look at everything holistically. These crises forced me to go back into a style that I wasn't really wanting to embrace, which was looking at individual areas and components of my business because everyone was experiencing things differently. Reminding myself not to actually go big in enterprise, on this occasion, and even today in lockdown, is to remind myself that every part of the business and the people associated that with their business, and the clients and customers and communities connected to that business are all experiencing it very differently. That again is probably a model that we will start to introduce moving forward, that it isn't just one look, which is how we want it really neat and holistic. We need to remind ourselves that there are still some idiosyncrasies that are off the back of a crisis and we need to remind ourselves that there is some uniqueness there that we need to make particular attention to. The whole virtual pace and innovation was crack on and it's absolutely going to be part of our model moving forward.

Colin Seery, CEO of Lifeline:

David, could I just jump in and share something that we've all been talking about, how our organisations have adapted, it was all great, etc. One area that we're struggling in, I think you mentioned at the start, at Lifeline we've been through a really big transformation programme that involves shutting down offices around the country and everyone's centralising into Sydney in terms of national office. Our average tenure is one year and two months. If you can do the maths on that you can work out where people started. One of the interesting challenges over the last period, whilst we've all been going through this remote world and in crisis, etc, is where I'd say we're still struggling to be honest to work out. How do we develop in this remote world, when, literally on Wednesday, this week was going to be the first time we were all together? How do we build a culture of this is the way we do things around here, this is the way we want to do it? That's just a really interesting leadership challenge for us when pretty much everyone's brand new and some people we literally haven't met face to face. That's the world we're in at the moment, but just a really interesting challenge for us.

Susannah Le Bron, CEO at the Y in New South Wales:

Colin, I had a few moments last year where there were definitely people that had joined our organisation that I'd only met through these little square boxes. Something funny, I turn up and they're like, ‘Oh, you're a lot shorter than I thought you were going to be”. These moments of realisation, there is a bit more to the head.

Colin Seery, CEO of Lifeline:

It's just really interesting, how we do it moving forward. The reality is the flexible workplace is not going to be part of the future, it's what it is now. How do we build that culture in the brave new world is a really interesting one for me?

Susannah Le Bron, CEO at the Y in New South Wales:

I found where I was able to, with health guidelines and the opportunities and obviously you can't in lockdown in Sydney or in Greater Sydney, but I would meet and go for a walk in the local park if we were both able to do that. Try and build that personal connection, in the midst of a crisis, so when we got back to our little boxes on the screen there was something there. Where possible I'd try to do that.

Colin Seery, CEO of Lifeline:

I think that's great. As we touched earlier, that personal touch has become really important. It's not a hierarchical thing, but engaging with individuals that we necessarily wouldn't engage with at that depth in the previous world, it has just become critically important.

Judy Slatyer, most recently the CEO of Australian Red Cross:

I completely agree with that and I also wanted to say, David, that I really want to emphasise that there's so much I could have done better, in hindsight, and nothing was perfect. Like Colin and Susannah, we have these risk guardrails of, first of all, how do you support as many Australians as possible and those in the Pacific and Southeast Asia for Red Cross, but equally, how do you do no harm? There are two extreme guidelines on risk that you're trying to navigate through and when you're rapidly changing services and approaches, you can actually do harm so you have to have that really sharp eye on doing no harm. I'm sure like Colin and Susannah, the people at Red Cross are just incredible and as I'm thinking about it, I'm seeing their faces and what they were doing to keep within those guardrails, but at the same time, do amazing, amazing things. It's just incredible. That actually gives you a real personal buzz watching incredible humanitarians do great work.

Colin Seery, CEO of Lifeline:

I agree Judy, it's just extraordinary. We got classified as an essential service so the volunteers could physically go out. A bit like yourself, the army came to save us, it was just extraordinary. A number of mature people as crisis supporters were willing to put their health at risk to help the mental health of Australians and it's absolutely uplifting. It's just extraordinary.

Judy Slatyer, most recently the CEO of Australian Red Cross:

For anyone who wanted a call, we were calling anyone in quarantine everyday just for a chat. Then we had several people who had been in quarantine and found it so helpful, they came to volunteer to be able to do it for others, so it was just incredible.

Colin Seery, CEO of Lifeline:

We are lucky aren’t we?

David Evans, Managing Partner of Watermark Search International:

On behalf of all Australians, thank you all for the teams that you lead and all the volunteers out there. It's greatly appreciated, and we need you in our community. So thank you. Personally, I'd like to thank Colin Seery, CEO of Lifeline, Judy Slatyer, most recently the CEO of the Australian Red Cross, and Susannah Le Bron, CEO of the Y in New South Wales. Thank you.

Colin Seery, CEO of Lifeline:

Thanks David.

Judy Slatyer, most recently the CEO of Australian Red Cross:

Thank you very much.

Susannah Le Bron, CEO at the Y in New South Wales:

Thank you.

David Evans, Managing Partner of Watermark Search International:

That concludes the podcast. I hope you've enjoyed listening 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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