Chair of the Super Netball Commission, Ovarian Cancer Australia and The Walkley Foundation, and a non-executive director on the boards of Energy Australia, 7-Eleven, Autosports Group, Pro-Pac, Adore Beauty and Booktopia.
How to lead in a crisis
This blog is part of our Expert Commentary series, bringing you insights into some of the unspoken challenges women face in the workplace, from experts with lived experience. The series explores a range of topics and perspectives to highlight the ways inclusive and compassionate leadership practices can benefit everyone.
There has been no greater immediate crisis in recent times than the pandemic that the world is currently living through. Organisations and leaders that have never had to deal with chaos are getting an on-the-job lesson in real time, across an extended period.
One of the many hats that I have worn in my career is Chair of the Super Netball Commission. The impact of Covid-19 on most sports was devastating in 2020 and that continues with increased pressure throughout 2021. For a national underfunded women’s league like the Super Netball League, the impact could have been catastrophic. What saved it from the point of no return was the approach from leadership, which swung sharply from trying to please as many stakeholders as possible to focusing on the one clear objective of organisational survival with an eye on human impact.
During a crisis, leaders must look beyond their usual style in order to ensure the most effective and efficient response.
Every organisation has a natural rhythm and pace that stakeholders are comfortable working with. That gets thrown out the window during a crisis with speed of decision-making being of the essence. And often the decisions that need to be made to meet that one clear objective can be hard and uncomfortable for some.
In crises where there is uncertainty, leaders face problems that are unfamiliar and poorly understood. A small group of executives at the highest level of an organisation won’t be able to collect information or make decisions quickly enough to respond effectively.
Setting clear priorities for the response is a critical starting point. If everyone knows what the new target looks like and they are empowered to determine and implement solutions that meet those priorities, there will be an increased likelihood of getting through the crisis in the best possible position.
The 2020 Suncorp Super Netball season was scheduled to start on 2 May but was delayed to 1 August due to the escalation of the pandemic.
Once it became clear that a national league with teams flying around the country could not go ahead, the team needed to scenario plan. The first decision was to determine the financial and reputational damage of cancelling the season entirely or only playing part of it - both of which were shown to be worse options than adding costs to run an entire season in a hub in one State. The impact on revenue would have been far greater than the impact of additional costs.
The team then proceeded to stress-test the execution of an entire 14-round season in one State. They needed to consider the financial as well as the human costs.
The additional financial costs were prohibitive for the sport to bear, given its already perilous state. So, the League worked with the State organisations to secure State government funding to cover the additional costs.
The human cost was significant. For the season to go ahead, the League required the players of six of the eight teams to agree to leave their families and jobs for three months and live in a hub with strict Covid protocols in place. Thankfully the State that provided the financial support was also the State that most of the players indicated as their preference.
We knew that it would be a season like no other that anyone in the team had experienced before and we had to be prepared to make big, potentially radical, decisions to secure the optimum outcome for our commercial partners.
A number of decisions were made under crisis discussions that didn’t follow the normal, often convoluted process. There wasn’t time for it in a crisis situation.
In hindsight, the mistake made was in not understanding that a number of stakeholders did not have the same level of understanding of the stated objective and what needed to be achieved. In not taking the time upfront to educate others in the ecosystem of the new ‘crisis’ mode of working, angst and resentment harbored unnecessarily in the system and created roadblocks that had the effect of slowing things down. The difficulty was in making time where there was no time but clearly it would have been more effective if we had worked out how to run and walk at the same time.
As a result, we learned that effective communication remains key and that the operational leaders need to communicate clearly, decisively and often. The League understood how it needed to get from A to B and quickly but in not setting that expectation early with stakeholders, some were left behind with all of the negative behaviours that build as a result. And even though I was in countless meetings where the needs of stakeholders were discussed at length, that wasn’t known or understood by the people who felt left out of the new crisis-determined process.
In summary, it is clear that effective leaders in a crisis:
- Communicate effectively
- Demonstrate empathy
- Make decisions in the face of uncertainty
- Operate with deliberate calm and bounded optimism
- Utilise the network of teams to respond to crises.
Marina Go is Chair of the Super Netball Commission, Ovarian Cancer Australia and The Walkley Foundation, and a non-executive director on the boards of Energy Australia, 7-Eleven, Autosports Group, Pro-Pac, Adore Beauty and Booktopia. Marina has been actively progressing equitable outcomes for women and culturally diverse Australians in her working life and as a volunteer for more than three decades.
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