Leaders must master two styles of leadership during a crisis: acute, to respond to the initial chaos; and chronic, to manage the long and often uncertain path to recovery. 

That’s the view of Gartner, expressed in a recent report titled, “Acute vs. Chronic Leadership during the Covid-19 Pandemic”, authored by Gartner analyst Mary Mesaglio, who outlines the difference between the two phases of a crisis. 

Mary Mesaglio, VP and Distinguished Analyst, Gartner

“Acute response is akin to a paramedic responding to an emergency. They have a short window of time in which to perform a narrow set of activities that often mean the difference between life and death,” Mesaglio writes. 

This is the period where leaders must make hard choices while looking for the least bad outcome. For example, moving staff to work-from-home arrangements to keep them physically safe and slashing costs to ensure a business’s long-term survival. 

“The acute phase ruthlessly exposes good and bad leadership.” 

While the acute phase is characterised by taking rapid, drastic actions, the chronic phase requires the discipline to make incremental improvements over many months. 

“Chronic response is akin to a physiotherapist teaching a stroke patient to walk again,” Mesaglio writes. 

When it comes to COVID-19, the crisis is moving from the acute phase to chronic at different rates, depending on the public health situation in each geography. Progress is also not linear. A business may lurch back into a crisis, as evidenced by Victoria’s second wave of infections, or a renewed surge of panic buying.  

While actions taken during the acute phase are more likely to be rewarded and recognised, the complexity of the chronic phase should not be underestimated, the analyst writes. 

“Chronic leaders are good at methodically moving forward, anticipating needs, and creating resilience over the long term. Leaders in the chronic phase are focused on the secondary effects of the crisis, like unemployment, changes in strategy and employee mental health.” 

“As stakeholder expectations increase, and people no longer tolerate the sacrifice of the acute phase, leaders focus on creating more sustainable practices.” 

Mesaglio notes people are less resistant to change in the acute phase of a crisis, but their patience will eventually wear thin; working from the kitchen table at home might be OK for weeks, but it’s unsuitable for months on end.

In the chronic phase, this could mean creating a healthier work-from-home environment, or establishing a more robust performance measurement approach in this new environment. 

The chronic phase is distinct from business as usual and may require questioning the assumptions that inform BAU strategy. For COVID-19, this includes determining how consumer behaviour will change following the pandemic. For example, will they exclusively have their groceries delivered in the future? 

We tested Gartner’s analogy with Sue Jauncey, the CEO and Founder of Appellon, who has been working with NT Health on its response to the threat of COVID. We started by asking her whether the lessons from that experience support Gartner’s argument.

“Absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt,” she told Which-50. 

During crisis, managers often have trouble responding dispassionately, she suggested.

“When it comes to leadership, people are often not aware that it is their own selves and the way they are personalising what needs to happen.”

Sue Jauncey, founder and CEO, Appellon

By personalisation, Jauncey means internalising the implications rather than remaining objective.

“They don’t have the objective ability to come together and just focus on these issues without needing to have their own view validated and accepted.”

In the case of NT Health, Jauncey said the health service was ultimately able to exceed expectations in terms of the processes it put in place during COVID emergency.

“When you hear that team and how they worked together, they have used the experience to reflect on what happened, and how they worked together to make decisions that they weren’t able to make during the previous 12 months — and, importantly, maintain this way of work together thereafter.”

According to Jauncey, the realisation the team came to was that they needed to remain objective about the issues they were talking about. “They also were careful to reflect and understand what made them made them work so well together in crisis, so they could take that and translate it across the normal way of working,” she said.

While Gartner uses a medical model to describe the issue, and Jauncey’s experience validates it, beyond health the analogy holds up strongly, according to the executives with whom Which-50 spoke.

Business as unusual

Most retailers have been in response mode for the past six months, according to Steffen Daleng, the CMO of Booktopia. “We went from bushfires to low Christmas trade, to COVID-19 to Black Lives Matter, and now round two of COVID-19.”

The rapid market changes, along with regional volatility, meant that Booktopia saw double-digit growth in some regions and declines in others, as the public in those markets responded to COVID-19.

Steffen Delang, CMO Booktopia

“From a leadership perspective, myself and my management team needed to ensure that the true north of customer satisfaction remained clear amidst an opaque environment with plenty of new situations that obfuscated expectations of both colleagues and customers.”

The shift to working from home arrangements for everyone required a stronger ‘virtual’ presence and repetitive articulation of what ‘great’ looks like on that day. That then needed to be tied back into the mission of exceeding customer expectations every day, he said.

“There was a strong need to re-emphasise the cornerstones of our business that remained the same, while colleagues tried to wave off kids and cats in our daily stand-ups. We needed to create a sense of “different, but the same”.

Daleng says that during the first weeks and months of COVID-19 his team spent most of their time reacting while developing frameworks (playbooks) that would counteract the severe acuteness.

“We took the daily learnings and created frameworks and operational procedures that better allow for tactical pivots and a different priority matrix based on different business objectives while adhering to long-term goals. We are now developing scalability in these frameworks and are introducing them as long-term operational procedures, as most were created on the principles of cost of sales reductions to improve EBIT, that will remain ever relevant,” he says.

He said team collaboration rooted in empathy, integrity, respect of diversity and honesty, continues to evolve. “We don’t need to have all the answers, but we should care enough to ask the questions and change our ways accordingly.”

Mindset

Tanya Graham, the Chief Information Officer at Healthscope, said a learning mindset is critical. “Technology and customer expectations are changing rapidly. It’s OK as leaders not to always have the answers, but we must be willing to learn and have a go and ensure our teams are doing the same.”

When the crisis first unfolded there was some trepidation, a lot of unknowns, and no full comprehension of how things would unfold, according to Graham, who at the time was the Chief Transformation Officer at Alinta Energy, before moving to a new role in June.

“As we transitioned overnight to working from home, despite Scott Morrison indicating it could be for three months, most thought it was likely to be three to four weeks which made it easier to comprehend,” she said.

Tanya Graham, Chief Information Officer, Healthscope

“In those early days, strong and visible leadership was required to help people settle into a new way of working. Most of my team were already working from home one day a week but it’s very different when that becomes every day. Particularly if people live by themselves or are balancing homeschooling or carer responsibilities.”

What people wanted at that time was a connection, and an understanding of how the business was going, impacts, and decisions being made, said Graham.

“We had a daily team check-in, often nonwork-related, to replace the daily office chatter we used to have, and had been lost in the world of virtual meetings. Then, as the realisation the new way of working was here to stay for a while, different people dealt with it in different ways, with lots of different emotions playing out. It requires you to be on your toes, in tune with your people, and to be a strong coach.”

And, she cautions, “knowing when you need to involve a medical professional if needed.”

Sydney-based Graham has a further challenge. “Fast forward to now, and after a job change mid-pandemic 95 per cent of my team are in Melbourne and I’ve only met them online.”

As she maps out the remainder of the year Graham says all the skills and attributes initially required as a leader are amplified.

“It is important to be visible and accessible. My direct reports need to be the same with their teams. Emotions and wellbeing are also amplified now. However, we have lots of resources available and are better prepared. As leaders, we need to be looking after our own health and wellbeing so we can show up every day and lead our teams.”

With many challenging business situations and decisions still to come, Graham believes transparency will be key. “Make sure people feel valued, have meaningful work, and feel connected.”

At Healthscope, thinking and planning have shifted recently towards longer-term solutions, Graham told Which-50. “When we are starting to encourage people back to the office, what does this look like? How will we balance remote working and social connections? What will the office layout design need to be? How will we interact?”

There is no short-term transition back to normal, she says. “There is no normal and we need to fundamentally change the way we work and how many people are working from an office at any one time. This will be how we work for the foreseeable future.”

Textbook crisis

Tessa Court, the founder and CEO of  IntelligenceBank, a SaaS platform that helps teams better manage business processes online, said that when the COVID crisis started, from a leadership perspective, it was relatively easy to know what to do. “It was textbook crisis management — especially if you managed a company through September 11th or the GFC.”

Tessa Court, founder and CEO, IntelligenceBank

According to Court, “At IntelligenceBank, our first priority was to send people to work from home early so they were safe, overly communicate with staff and customers, and cut costs immediately. While this was a great initial strategy, we have had to significantly evolve our response to the COVID situation, as clearly  it’s not going away any time soon.”

Court believes that in relative terms, as a software company, her business is on the ‘right side’ of the crisis in that its products are in demand for digital transformation. “We were very lucky that all 55 staff members transitioned to working remotely very easily. During the darkest initial days when everyone was in extreme lockdown, from a leadership perspective I personally found this intellectually exciting and stimulating as all of a sudden I was living a Harvard Business School Case Study.”

She also said that it became clear that business as usual, was not coming back quickly (“despite my optimism”). “As a leader, I had to seriously adjust my expectations, our mid-term business strategy, and establish new ways of working to keep my team engaged.”

Court subsequently shared her approach in a Linkedin post.

Command and control

Korn Ferry’s VP APAC IT Services Bridget Gray told Which-50 that many leaders felt it was a struggle to maintain control of remote productivity while also maintaining a positive culture in an uncertain commercial and business landscape.

Bridget Gray, VP APAC IT Services, Korn Ferry

Generally, there is an appreciation that leadership is a constant evolution, but nothing had prepared us for the pace of change and style as this global pandemic has presented, she said.

“In 2020, leaders need to adopt a different approach. In most cases, that requires a remote but meaningful connection and understanding, combined with a leadership style that knows who they are, what the company stands for, what they need to achieve. And understands not just the what, but the how. It is also important to celebrate the wins — we all need recognition for our hard work, especially when delivered remotely.”

Gray says that to be effective, leaders need to be approachable, and balance the need for vulnerability with the confidence of direction and the ability to provide clarity and positive assurance.

“Given that all of us are struggling to focus on a clear lens on what will happen in 2020, leaders need to step up, be approachable and provide shorter-term attainable goals that their team can direct their attention and short term plans towards.”

According to Gray, in some cases the temptation for many leaders was to take control and micromanage their teams. But she cautioned that added to an already highly charged and stressed global environment. “This is not sustainable, and future leaders need to strike the right balance between direction and trust. Leaders must ensure clarity of expectations, and an empathetic understanding of individual circumstances while being able to provide a vision of short and longer-term goals.”

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