The massive disruption to markets and to the economy ushered in by COVID-19 has created a real-time, real-life stress test for business.

Organisations that invested in the organisational and infrastructure assets of business sustainability are now reaping the benefits, while management consultants like McKinsey and Co. stress the importance of maintaining the cultural underpinnings of such programs – through diversity and inclusion.

Senior executives we spoke to offer consistent views about the characteristics of resilient organisations and of leadership. Yet, the impact of COVID-19 on organisations and the way they respond are unique to their circumstances.

Take the ASX for instance. Perhaps because of its heritage, and its role in the market, the ASX has had a longstanding focus on resilience says its CIO Dan Chesterman. And unlike many Australian companies it also had a formal pandemic plan in place and was able to implement it early.

According to Chesterman, “We had a 150,000 masks already in storage and we were able to get out the pandemic response plan, review it and really tweak it to the circumstances. But the plans really stood up to the test.”

Dan Chesterman, ASX chief information officer

The ASX increased the number of staff working from home from about 10 per cent to 95 per cent in one weekend.

Chesterman told Which-50, “Resilient organisations are those that can deal with the unexpected. They have clarity in their purpose. They can pivot the way they deliver service or the role they play and do it in a way that’s consistent with their ultimate goal.”

He also stressed the importance of having a clarity of purpose and the role that plays in keeping the workforce engaged despite difficult circumstances.

These points were echoed by Angela Coble, Director, Business Technology, Johnson and Johnson.  She likewise stressed adaptability and purpose as the hallmarks of resilient organisations. “It is about leading through times to challenge and it’s about being true to the full nature of the organisation where we’re very much led by our credo.”

Like many companies J&J moved very quickly to implement work from home arrangements, but success was a function of all the work and investment the company had made in the time before COVID-19. “To me, it was the preparation we put in the lead up to that, making sure that we had our network and infrastructure ready to go.”

“It’s interesting observing people at their best in situations where they’ve had to adapt quite quickly. And it’s the care that they’ve shown for each other.”

Angela Coble, Johnson and Johnson, Director Business Technology

Coble says resilient organisations share some common traits. They communicate frequently, they foster team connectivity, and that includes employees and partners. Of course, none of this happened by accident. Leadership is critical. So is the ability to adapt and to deal honestly with circumstances.

Executives we spoke to stressed that instilling resilience into the organisations is not like throwing a switch. In addition to having the right organisational culture and infrastructure, leadership matters.

Sue Jauncey, CEO and founder Appellon said one key trait of successful leaders in circumstances like this is the ability to remain objective.

“Now we talk a lot about a term called personalisation. And personalisation is when leaders are making decisions out of fear or in the best interests of self and what it means for them rather than making decisions just because it’s the right decision to make in the best interests of the organisation.”

“The biggest factor, when you run a factor analysis, is being able to remain objective and focussed on making decisions in the best interest of the organisation and decisions that fulfill its purpose.

While there are common success factors, there are also common problems.

Sue Jauncey, founder and CEO, Appellon

According to Jauncey,  when organisations lack clarity around their direction, or when they fail to work collectively to achieve the goals, you will start to see a divergence in priorities.

“Then we get a mishmash of communications that go out to the organisation that’s often at cross-purposes [and] create silos. People are not sure of what needs to be done.”

One common problem is that leaders believe managers and people below them understand what needs to happen and what needs to be done. “But that’s not always the case.”

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