Leading through lockdown: The Power of Informality

By Paul Phillips

An assumption that was made by a raft of executives in the wake of lockdown was that interims couldn’t be effective away from the office, leading to a significant number of assignments ending prematurely or never getting off the blocks. Eight months on, as we contend with local and national lockdowns, businesses are grappling with the reality that a number of staff will be operating remotely for some time and companies cannot afford to tread water forever. With the relaxing of the restrictions looking unlikely until 2021, we must all learn to deliver our objectives under the current conditions. Strategies still have to be executed (if modified), acquisitions and disposals will still need to be made, profits delivered, lenders placated and shareholders satisfied. In short, life must go on and businesses are having to learn to adapt as best they can.

Adapting is something that seasoned interims do very well and a key element of success for those interims who have successfully delivered change through lockdown was their ability to introduce informality to their formal meeting structure to allow ideas, feedback and the esprit de corps to thrive. In conversations with three experienced interims who were hired just before or just after lockdown began, I discovered that not only can interims be as effective during lockdown, they can also accelerate towards their objectives faster with better optimisation of their time and an ability to focus on the core tasks at hand. But when we are not in the office, we lose that human interaction that fosters good teamwork, breaks down formal barriers and allows feedback to flow in a relaxed environment. Finding ways to introduce this to a world run on Zoom or Teams, then, is crucial element to delivering success.

David Loseby, Interim Chief Procurement Officer at Rolls Royce, started his assignment just weeks before lockdown and introduced informality into his weekly meeting schedule from the outset. As David put it “you so often build rapport with your team members or colleagues on the way to the meeting room or getting a coffee beforehand but in these times, you don’t have that, so I felt it was important to create some time for personal discussions to build rapport”. To encourage a more human element to meetings David put together a ‘one-pager’ with a summary of his background, skills and some personal information which acted as an icebreaker and naturally opened a more personal line of conversation. This encouraged his colleague or team member to relax, share something personal about their own life and find commonalities that would more naturally come to light in person.

“You so often build rapport with your team members or colleagues on the way to the meeting room or getting a coffee beforehand but in these times, you don’t have that, so I felt it was important to create some time for personal discussions to build rapport.”

– David Loseby, Interim Chief Procurement Officer at Rolls Royce

This commonality does two very important things for interims looking to build relationships quickly: it creates a personal bond which underpins any constructive working relationship and, in the case of team members who you may never have met in person, it creates an environment that encourages a two-way conversation which is both open and honest.  This is important at any time between leader and subordinate but especially crucial when you have never met the person you are leading and need to encourage them to give honest feedback on the programme. This dynamic becomes especially important in a team environment where group discussions over video call play a huge part in collaboration. If individuals do not feel confident speaking up it’s easy to lose great ideas and input.

Kevin Paterson, Interim Transformation Director at McColl’s, the national retail business, introduced informal feedback sessions to his programme after he had completed the design phase and was ready to roll out the solutions on his business-wide change programme. Having received some feedback from a brave soul who questioned whether all parties had been engaged in the design of the new processes, Kevin quickly realised he had sped to a point where he and his team were well progressed with the delivery on their programme but hadn’t spent enough time stress testing these ideas with all of the stakeholders these changes impacted. He quickly adapted and elongated team meetings and workshops to allow time specifically for informal discussion, feedback and ideas. As a result, the outcome was not just a timely solution but was ultimately fit for purpose.

Both David and Kevin introduced ‘Skip meetings’ where they sought feedback from 2nd line reports or frontline staff who they might get to chat to on an ad hoc basis in a physical work environment but currently have no means of interacting with them unless they engineer it. Again, formally introducing the informal elements of the workplace into our remote working pattern has proven vital for effective change management.

Building a relationship with all stakeholders when trying to deliver change in a global business is a challenge at the best of times but Alex van Gestel, who joined BAT Plc as Interim Social Media Marketing Director after lockdown began, turned the situation to his advantage and set about ‘speed dating’ executives all over the world as part of his induction. As a result, he had met a huge number of key stakeholders across the globe within 5-6 weeks so he was able to form conclusions and build consensus on the right way forward which, in other circumstances, might have otherwise taken 2-3 months or more of jumping on planes all over the world.

In order to build his team, Alex introduced regular ‘social only’ time such as a virtual ‘Thirsty Thursday’ and ‘Social squads’ which became hugely important for binding a disparate team spread across the world. Much like Kevin Paterson at McColl’s and David Loseby at Rolls Royce, who both created ‘no work’ chats on a weekly basis, this became a huge part of building the cultural glue that bound the team together and helped deliver successful outcomes.

Despite the comfort of our makeshift home offices, we now know the importance of the water-cooler chat or ‘can I grab you for 5 mins’ because we have been sorely missing it. These impromptu interactions with colleagues, stakeholders and sponsors of change have been more important to the successful outcome of our projects, our team dynamics and our overall well-being than we perhaps realised. Without these informal meetings we’ve naturally jumped to a more robotic agenda of sterile meetings which mean the RAG sheet is all green but the social and human mortar that binds these structural bricks together has been missing so we’ve been at risk of allowing our good work to fail.

This is where experienced interim leaders have recognised the need to formally introduce time for informality and ensure that team members feel aligned, stakeholders get the opportunity to provide feedback and transformation programmes are ultimately successful despite working remotely.

Partner, Interim Management, Business Transformation
Paul has over 20 years experience across Business Transformation, Operations, Human Resources, Supply Chain and Procurement. Paul works with a range of FTSE, AIM and Private-Equity backed organisations across the Industrial sector with a particular focus on Business & Support Services, helping their boards and investors to overcome challenges or accelerate growth.

 

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