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5 things I've learnt as a business leader from COVID-19

5 things I've learnt as a business leader from COVID-19

Today marks one month of the UK lockdown. From remote working to home schooling, it’s turned lives upside down the world over.

Without the commute or busy social schedule, there’s been a lot more time to think, to reflect on what’s important - both professionally and personally.

Leading a 100-year-old business comes with a heavy sense of responsibility. As its current custodian, it’s my responsibility to create the conditions for success for the next 100 years and beyond.

Thinking back over the past month, here are the five things that coronavirus has brought home to me as a business leader.

1. People first

For every story that hits the headline about businesses doing right by their people, there’s two more about leaders that have been left red faced after putting profits before people.

I have always believed that people are a business’s greatest asset, and this crisis has converted that belief into a fact.

In times of crisis, it’s so easy to make a quick decision - a decision about the here and now. But taking the time to push that horizon out a bit and think what that decision will mean for your people in 3 weeks, 3 months, even three years is what should be guiding all leaders.

It’s your people who you need to put in the extra hours to keep your customers happy, who you’re relying on to embrace that growth mindset and take on new challenges. It’s your people who you’ll need to rebuild and recover.

People will have long memories when it comes to the aftermath of COVID-19. From who they want to work for to who they spend their hard-earned cash with, putting people first is the best decision business leaders can make during a crisis. So even when tough decisions are inevitable, the “what” will be understood as long as the “how” is conducted in the right way.

2. Focus on the right things

Between reduced staff numbers and people juggling work and family responsibilities, COVID-19 has forced us to think really hard about what we spend our time on.

Time is such a precious yet undervalued commodity. Involuntary home working has given me the space to reflect on what takes up the majority of my time and whether that really delivers for the business.

Like many businesses, we’re used to setting priorities for the year. Coronavirus forces us to communicate, reflect and pivot on a daily basis, making sure we’re always working on the right priorities.

To enable us to do this, I’ve asked all my leadership team to build thinking time into their new routine. Though I’ve always tried to set aside thinking time, it’s too easy for it to get bumped in favour of that important meeting or task that’s suddenly come up.

Coronavirus has shown me that to respond in an agile, timely and appropriate way, ringfenced thinking time has to be an essential part of a leadership team’s diary, not a nice to have.

3. How productive resilient teams can be

I continue to be blown away on a daily basis by what my team’s been able to achieve in such a short space of time and in such challenging circumstances.

Everything from work ethic, commitment and strategy, to quality of execution and compassion has oozed out of our business and made me incredibly proud.

As well as focusing on the right things, pressure has played an important part in that performance.

There are a lot of negative connotations around the word ‘pressure’, but whether it’s in business or elite sport, human beings need pressure to drive high performance.

Good leaders are able to manufacture pressure to drive high performance at the right time but can recognise when pressure is turning into strain, relieving pressure to avoid burnout.

Great leaders train and empower their people to understand and recognise their personal pressure-performance curve, learning how to oscillate back and forth between comfort and stretch zones to deliver great results in a sustainable way.

Over the past two years, Westfield Health has benefitted from a significant turnaround in culture and performance which I’ve been extremely proud to witness and lead.

Coaching our people, delivering training around pressure and performance, working on articulating our values and culture - they’ve all been a key part of that change.

Investing ahead in these key things helped us step up to the challenge of COVID-19 and deliver.

4. The real meaning of balance

When you’re asking a lot of your team, giving them enough time to relax and recover is essential to creating a sustainable business where staff are engaged.

The coronavirus outbreak has brought home to me just how important the simple things are in life. For example, having dinner with my family each day has been lovely - something I haven’t been able to enjoy consistently since the girls were born.

I used to think that being visible, walking round the office was a high priority. Having a now fully remote team has taught me that being a visible leader is much more nuanced than being present. It’s about supporting your team - whatever that looks like for them.

Before lockdown, I had a misconception that ‘balance’ would take something away from the business; yes, it might benefit me, but it would cost the company in some way.

Having had this time to reflect, I now see that balance doesn’t take something away at all - it can actually add to the business.

That boost of being at home and sitting round the table as a family means I approach the next day restored, ready to face whatever new challenges it brings. Balance makes me a better leader.

5. Preventative healthcare has to be a priority

As a business, preventative healthcare is what we do; making a healthy difference is our mission.

It might seem like a strange time to think about preventative healthcare during an acute outbreak, but it’s important to acknowledge the enormous strain our healthcare system was already under going into this crisis.

Type 2 diabetes, for example, accounts for about 10% of the NHS’s budget; obesity is responsible for more than 10,000 hospital admissions a year and now looks to be one of the highest risks factor for more serious cases of COVID-19 needing intensive care.

Coronavirus shows us how precious - and precarious - our health can be.

Governments, business leaders and citizens - we’ve all been taking our health for granted at the cost of thousands of lives during COVID-19 alone.

When we think about healthcare, we think about treatment. We’re preoccupied with locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Going forward, prevention has to be a priority. It’s a big ask and there’s no quick answer.

Until we systematically and holistically create the right conditions (socio economic, environmental and medical) we will always be on the back foot when it comes to our health and wellbeing.

Having had such a stark, poignant lesson about how precious health is, the most important thing we all have to learn from COVID-19 is that for individuals, communities, countries, even continents, health is wealth. We all have a responsibility to step up and safeguard that.

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