Leading Through Crises: the role of leadership and decision making

By Natasha Mandie (with Iain Dixon)
  • Covid-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is both unprecedented and unpredictable. From newly remote workforces, customers unable to pay, and pivoting product or service offerings, business leaders are working to navigate and adapt to the ever-changing landscape. During times like these, strong leadership is critical, and the success of the organisation is riding on their ability to quickly make the right decisions for the company, its people and all its stakeholders. Despite the unprecedented uncertainty, leaders must continue to steer with confidence while equipping both the team and themselves to make the best possible choices.

So how do business leaders lay the groundwork to lead through uncertainty and make decisions when the only constant is change? Recently, I sat down with Iain Dixon, CEO at HazardCo, to discuss this very question. Iain has been a longtime client as well as mentor and he’s worked with numerous companies to build teams and scale businesses. His wisdom, knowledge, experience and humour is a gift. I’m pleased to share his insights on how to be an effective leader and what he does to help make the right decisions during one of the hardest and strangest times many of us have seen.

Always remember your goal
HazardCo provides a health and safety platform and services for trades and builders in the residential construction market in New Zealand, and increasingly in Australia. “A few weeks into COVID we were all effectively locked down at home in Wellington. We knew that our customers were hurting and our first priority was to support them,” Iain said. “But we also needed to be mindful of what would happen to our business if our customers couldn’t work and therefore couldn’t pay their bills.”

When things are chaotic one of the hardest things to do is remember your end goal. However, every single decision should be made with that in mind. By defining what you are trying to achieve and why—and staying laser-focused on it —you can analyse the current facts and make decisions always in light of your goal. It’s also imperative to test this goal regularly, particularly to assess whether the goal is feasible or even desirable—or whether a whole new goal is required. But you cannot let testing the goal stop you from making decisions.

“Faced with the uncertainty of the length of lockdown and when our customers could go back to work, all of our planning and plans needed to be reassessed and various contingencies drawn up,” he continued. “It was a laser focus on our goal that allowed the team to do this work despite the significant uncertainty and reaffirm our strategic goal – to continue to expand into the Australian residential construction market. Working through the different scenarios for our goal also gave our team important confidence that their efforts were crucial and not wasted.”

Never stop planning
“When COVID hit, we were actively investing to pursue our goal of growth in the Australian residential construction market. The key questions were whether this was still the right goal – could we execute our plans in Australia, were the plans still appropriate, and could the NZ business support the investment given the uncertain impact of COVID,” Iain recalled.

Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Creating a plan is an exercise in futility because by the time you’ve written it down it’s already wrong. However, the process of planning allows you to ask key questions, particularly “So what?” and “What if?”—to understand multiple scenarios and assess situations as they change. This can help assess what is over the next hill. It’s a continuous process but it’s also one of the most important things you can do.

"Over time you learn which questions to ask and how to recognise patterns so you can better forecast the possibilities."

Iain added, “The team quickly came together with our advisors to test various scenarios and prepare effective contingency planning that would be triggered by various events – including the lockdown stages in each of the markets we are operating in. Even though the future was entirely unclear, by working through a range of options and clarifying when and why we would pursue those options, we gave the team confidence and clarity on what we all needed to do to keep the business moving.”

Planning is also a practice of learned intuition – the more you do it the better you get. Over time you learn which questions to ask and how to recognise patterns so you can better forecast the possibilities. However, effective planning is impossible without giving yourself time — even more so in times of stress such as the current COVID crisis.

As a leader, you have to be thinking about the big picture and you simply cannot do that when you’re putting out small fires. The challenges that come with a crisis are like a tide—they’re relentless and you can’t stop it, so you must develop strategies to work with it. Focus on short-term plans, such as one, four, or eight weeks out, to ensure that you are preparing to tackle the next set of challenges while allowing others to act on the more immediate ones.

Define everyone’s role—including yours
During a crisis every single person plays a critical part in moving the organisation forward. However, roles must be explicitly defined to enable people to play their parts effectively. As a leader, it’s up to you to determine how people spend their time. Not only does this allow you to delegate to other team members, you can spend more time thinking and planning for the next phase of work.

A good rule is that planning should take one-third of the time; with execution the rest. So, if something will take three hours to complete, you’ll need an hour of planning time. By sticking to this rule, you’ll create a more efficient workflow that helps everyone understand how much time they have to both think and execute.

The more senior the team member, the more time they should be spending thinking and planning – and then enabling their team to execute (helping them think and plan). As you cascade down the org chart the ratios reverse, with people spending more time executing than planning.

"A culture of teamwork starts with the art of leadership. As a leader, it’s important to have your team’s back and take responsibility for the ultimate outcome."

Build a culture of teamwork
The only way to weather a crisis is if you have a genuine culture of teamwork. Unfortunately, that’s not something you can create in the moment. It’s a practice and a habit and investment you have to make in your team before the crisis hits.

“At HazardCo, we’ve consistently worked to build that type of culture, and it’s served us well during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Iain noted. “It was this teamwork that enabled us to continue to plan and execute even when we couldn’t be together in the office. Trust in each other allowed various tasks to be quickly completed, and we had practice with the tools – such as Slack and google docs – that allowed us to keep working without really skipping a beat.”

A culture of teamwork starts with the art of leadership. As a leader, it’s important to have your team’s back and take responsibility for the ultimate outcome. Yes, everyone is responsible for his or her own professional judgement, but by taking responsibility for the overall aim, you can give people confidence to act. In addition, you must know when to push people while being conscious of breaking points. People can go further than they think, but everyone has limits. Just like you need reset time to be an effective leader, so do your employees. When everyone is in the pressure cooker, it’s important to lead calmly, share the load, and know when to forego perfection for the sake of something that is good enough.

Leverage advisors
One of the most effective strategies when managing a crisis is doing so with the help of external advisors. In an ideal world you would have a relationship of and trust with the advisor prior to an unforeseen event.

Iain continued, “Advisors offer a detached point of view and fresh perspective because they aren’t caught in the weeds. Think about it this way: As a CEO or executive leader, you can’t necessarily use your team as a sounding board on every issue or they may not have the experience to bring to bear on a problem – that’s where advisors become irreplaceable. They can act as that sounding board by asking the hard questions, simplifying the problem at hand, and helping you deal with difficult decisions. However, advisors are only as good as the people they’re advising, and you have to put effort into those relationships to maximise the output.

At HazardCo, we are lucky enough to have this relationship with Natasha and the EM Advisory team. They have been actively involved in our strategy development over a number of years. When COVID hit, they were right there to help the team work through the scenarios, and help us formulate our plans for this crisis and beyond.”

Whether there’s a crisis or it’s just another day at the office, the root of effective leadership stays the same. It’s about human connections and bringing together the right capital, planning, people, and resources. Then it’s a matter of allocating those resources and equipping people to implement. When all of this aligns, companies can weather the storms that will inevitably come and navigate tumultuous circumstances to build better, stronger organisations.