Learning about leadership during an unprecedented crisis

Mark Perry, 11 June 2020

As we start to slowly move out of lockdown, at VIVID we’ve been reflecting on what we’ve learned about leadership at a time when leaders across all organisations have had to deal with a set of circumstances with little or no historical frame of reference.

As leaders we weren’t immune from the personal impact that the coronavirus has, whether that be working at home whilst trying to home school children, caring for elderly relatives or dealing with the anxiety that this crisis creates.

I’m not sure our response was systematic but rather more instinctive and based on an early recognition that these circumstances were different. We thought about what those around us were expecting from us as individual leaders but also expectations of VIVID as the largest regional housing association. For me personally I had to think about my leadership style and whether I needed to adapt my style to facilitate a successful transition for those around me.

At first this was just something in China that might impact on VIVID slightly. And in the blink of an eye we were decanting our offices, reshaping service delivery, interrogating our business plans, working out the financial impact and most importantly assessing how we could support people to get through this in the best shape possible – our residents, our employees and others in the communities where we work.

We recognised that we’d have to make decisions quickly and sometimes without the usual amount of information, empowering people to get on with things in a way we hadn’t done previously. We established a set of principles, aligned with our values to steer us through, and against which we could test our decisions and measure impact.

New KPIs were developed for the Board to have oversight and exercise their governance role effectively. They understood that the way they governed also needed to change and recognised that we needed operational freedom to get things done. We set up weekly conference calls using them as a sounding board, keeping us on course and challenging our assumptions.

We knew through our regular engagement that our customers and communities would be hit in many ways. Support needed to be delivered quickly, and so within a week of lockdown we made extra budget available – £125k to support local foodbanks, £125k to support community groups on the ground doing the things we couldn’t, and a deal with Vodafone to supply 400 sim-enabled tablets, so that those socially isolated or kids home from school without the right technology could get connected.

These weren’t things we had previously planned but a human catastrophe required a humane response. Our communities were hurting and we were determined to do something about that.

Through our leadership we needed to create a sense of security and a clear route forward, reassurance that it was under control and that VIVID could deal with whatever was thrown at it. But this couldn’t just be rhetoric, so we supported it with communication. Loads and loads of communication.

For our colleagues we rolled out laptops and Microsoft Teams at a pace we never could have imagined so they could stay connected. We communicated every day as government advice changed, used our existing communication channels and mega-sized them.

The strength of our partnerships helped us through and again we invested heavily in understanding how we might support them through the issues they were facing.  Key to this were our local authority partners, where we worked together to sort empty properties for emergency lettings to get homeless people somewhere safe to be.

Now, as we restart services that we’d suspended, open offices and get used to working in a more remote way, I’m not sure that we’ve learnt anything fundamental but it has renewed our sense of purpose – that a million ordinary activities can make a huge difference, that our strength at VIVID is in our people and if we mobilise their capabilities, great things can happen. And finally, that the work we do makes a real difference to people’s lives, not just through this time but always.

As the Chief Executive of VIVID, I developed four factors for success so that I could gauge whether I’d done a good job: keep our employees and residents safe, protect the long-term viability of the organisation, keep staff employed and remunerated, and that we’re valued more as an organisation on the other side of this rather than less.

To date, I’m on track but one thing we’ve learnt through this is that things can change very quickly.