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What I learnt from leading my team through a year of COVID

Inventium chief executive officer Michelle Le Poidevin has shared the top four lessons she’s learnt in leading her business through a pandemic.

What I learnt from leading my team through a year of COVID
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  • Michelle Le Poidevin
  • July 16, 2021
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I vividly remember the day that s**t hit the fan, COVID-style. I blissfully walked into my usual café to start my morning “deep work” session when I received a phone call from one of my teammates. She was concerned about this new virus and how it was going to impact her family and her work. 

In that moment, I recalled one of the best pieces of leadership advice I’d been given: to lead with optimism. I proceeded to give her all the positive reassurance she needed.

By that afternoon, everything had changed, and within a week, that teammate had to be made redundant. It was hands down the hardest week in my professional life and at my organisation, Inventium.

But fear quickly turned into opportunism and concern into action — this would be one of the best challenges of my career and as a CEO. While it’s far from over, this is what I’ve learnt so far.

1. Actively create certainty

People are actually fine with change. What they don’t like is uncertainty. With COVID swarming, many organisations were quick to place indefinite “freezes” on things. By adding to the uncertainty, employees would only end up feeling frozen, too.

At times where there is a lot of uncertainty, the best thing you can do is actively find ways to create certainty. In the short term, we kept all team routines and rituals such as team meetings, review cycles, celebrations, and planning rhythms intact. They looked different, but I learnt that it’s far better to change, than cancel. 

Reconnect your team with your purpose to keep them focused on the long term. At Inventium, we revisited and rephrased our company purpose and values to ensure they were clear and aligned to the behaviours we needed to thrive long into the future. This enabled people to better imagine the path ahead and, in doing that, they could feel more prepared. 

2. Get crystal clear

At our recent end-of-financial-year performance review, I asked my teammates to reflect on why we have had such a successful year (yes, we are one of the lucky ones) despite many COVID-inflicted challenges. The consensus: they were crystal clear on their role and their goals. 

We recognised early that our goals and priorities needed to shift. Practically, this meant diligently reviewing all employee goals and distilling them into their simplest version.

The hardest part was having to say no to things, but doing this ensured that the focus was firmly on what would be most impactful in the months to come. It was also important to ensure that they were realistic in the new context; regular wins would be critical for team morale. 

At Inventium, we use a simple goal setting technique called OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) which enables us to set challenging, non-fuzzy goals with measurable results. Each team member has three to five OKRs which directly ladder up to company goals.

This process helped to alleviate any fearfulness by giving team members total confidence that if they achieved their own goals, then we would succeed as a company.

3. Genuinely care

COVID placed more stress and complexity on all of our plates. Juggling home schooling, remote working, caring for dependents, and various ongoing logistical nightmares has had a huge impact on employee wellbeing everywhere. Organisations need to do more than just send a care package. One of the best ways you can genuinely care for your employees in a far more practical way is to give them flexibility.

At a time when I needed my team to be at their most productive, I counterintuitively reduced working hours by introducing a Four Day Week. Employees still receive a full-time salary and work regular-length days; however, they were given the gift of time, in the form of a day off each week.

This enabled team members to better manage their personal and professional responsibilities, through simply reducing the amount of unproductive time in their regular work days. As a result, we saw significant increases in productivity, wellbeing and job satisfaction, along with a reduction in stress.

And don’t forget about caring for your customers. It sounds obvious, but remind yourself to actually talk to them. It’s so easy to get caught up in solving your own problems and to make assumptions about your customers which may lead to poor decisions. Find out what their new needs are, quickly adapt to meet these and err on the side of compassion where required. They will repay you in the long run. 

4. Have courage

Unless you believe in crystal balls, no one knows what is around the corner. The courage to try is a powerful antidote to uncertainty. Many organisations have jumped into experimentation mode, moving quickly and decisively to uncover new customer needs and find opportunities to protect their businesses’ bottom line. You can’t afford to sit around doing things the way they’ve always been done. 

To empower your team to experiment, leaders need to create a culture whereby risk-taking and innovation are encouraged. Rather than debating whether an idea will work or not, go straight to setting initial hypotheses, creating a Minimum Viable Product, testing, and then iterating.

If an experiment fails, ensure that it’s talked about and learnt from, not swept under the carpet. Experimentation also enables teams to make better decisions based on actual data and to bust through any red tape that often holds up progress.

This method is exactly how we approached introducing the Four Day Week, an idea that is often met with scepticism. After an initial six-month experiment, we had the data to support permanent implementation and the learnings to make it even more beneficial for our team. 

In the coming years, these four C’s are sure to be critical factors in determining whether an organisation thrives or struggles to survive.

By Michelle Le Poidevin, CEO, Inventium

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