Leading your team through a crisis

by AB08 Jun 2020

There's no denying we’re facing unique and challengingtimes at present. To complicate matters further, the state of play seems to be changing daily.

Restrictions have been imposed by the government and then slowly wound back. Workplaces and incomes have been massively impacted and then supported via hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of stimulus packages.

As the situation continues to evolve, it’s up to the leaders in our business community to shine a light on the most effective and efficient ways to move forward. And that begins by keeping everything in perspective, argues Brendan Wright, CEO of mortgage aggregator FAST.

“These are very difficult times, but we won’t be here forever,” he says.

“This is a crisis, and the pandemic is having an impact globally, which means it’s really important to focus on what matters. How do you focus in a crisis? There are three key things that matter most: one, take care of ourselves. This allows for number two – so you can look after each other. And number three is to deliver what matters. These three things are crucial in a crisis.”

“You can be a leader in your role, and you can take a leadership point of view ... and you don’t have to be running the show to do that”

Wright’s first point, about looking after yourself, draws parallels with the instruction we’re given before take-off on a plane: the one that reminds you to fix your own oxygen mask in an emergency before attempting to help anyone else.

It sounds admirable in theory, but in practice it can be challenging to administer self-care when there have been so many logistical, mental and health issues to address along the way.

Wright says it starts with certainty through recognising the unexpected rewards, however insignificant they may seem.

How to foster resilience in a crisis

“Now that people are working from home, many of them have been able to tidy up their home offices and set up a space that is organised, uplifting and really makes them feel good about spending time there,” he says.

“Then there’s the value of autonomy: it’s important to maintain a sense of creating structure in your day. From keeping track of how much water you’re drinking throughout the day to ensuring you get some exercise in, it’s about moving your body outside and getting active. It really makes a difference around the loss of autonomy that can come with [living through a crisis like COVID-19].

”If you set yourself up as best you can to succeed, this puts you in a position to give customers the best possible service.

This is where Wright sees the current environment as providing “a leadership opportunity as well”.

“You can be a leader in your role, and you can take a leadership point of view and behaviour within a business – and you don’t have to be running the show to do that. Anyone can step up and show their value as a leader through their actions in these times,” Wright says.

“Whatever role you’re playing, remaining calm is critical because it enables others to see a way forward. When you’re calm, you’re able to be clear about the situation and the actions you need to take and the progress that is being made. Calm doesn’t mean laid-back; it means you’re being measured and thoughtful – and being consistent in your language, in your actions and in your behaviours. This is particularly important given the uncertain and challenging times we are in right now.”

“The value of mindfulness and connectedness plays a key role these days around how people deal with stressful situations, crisis and change”

The pandemic is teaching us a number of lessons about resilience, he adds, while also prompting us to refl ect on previous challenges and the strategies we used to overcome them.

“The industry has experienced some interesting and challenging times before COVID-19, through which we’ve learnt about the importance of working together from an industry perspective. If you think about the journey we’ve had as an industry over the last couple of years, from the ASIC review into broker remuneration, which flowed through into the royal commission, it’s really brought us together,” Wright says.

“The one thing you can always count on is change – it’s happening all the time. In a changing environment, those who can leverage diversity, be inquisitive, and involve those people who are impacted most in the decision-making process will be the most successful. As a leader, simply saying, ‘Here it is – this is what’s happened and this is how we’re doing it now’ will understandably scare people, especially those who are recipients of the change. However, if you can involve the people who are going to be impacted and have them contribute to the process, it creates ownership  and understanding of the change.”

Wright also believes that, in terms of effective leadership, mindfulness and connectedness play a huge role that shouldn’t be underestimated. It was significant before COVID-19 but has become integral since the world as we know it was essentially flipped on its head.

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“The value of mindfulness and connectedness plays a key role these days around how people deal with stressful situations, crisis and change,” Wright says.

“It’s about, what are you doing to give yourself some headspace? How are you clearing your head and getting crystal clear about what’s going on in your life right now? Having structure in your day makes a really big difference.”

Wright points to a small but significant change he made recently in an effort to practise what he preaches – by adapting his technology habits.

“Something that I have done personally, and this is backed by science, is address the ‘blue-light disco’ – the one that comes from your iPad or phone. I took the micro step of removing those devices out of my day an hour before I went to bed. I’m not even reading a book on my iPad. If I’m going to read before bed, I’ll read a book,” he explains.“

Locking those devices away an hour before I go to bed means the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is not reach for my phone. I have an old-school digital alarm clock, so I don’t fall into the trap of saying, ‘I need my iPhone for the alarm’. I started doing this last year, and I am genuinely sleeping better because I no longer have that blue light messing with my melatonin levels and impacting my sleep.”

Adopting mindfulness habits also extends to setting clear boundaries with your workload so you don’t “run the risk of burnout”, Wright says.

“If you’re looking at emails and replying at 10.30pm or in the early hours of the morning, that’s sending the wrong message to your people, your management team and your clients as well,” he says.

“Brokers have always been, always are and always will be essential to a healthy finance system”

“Having some discipline with your inbox demonstrates that it’s OK to switch off on a daily basis, to spend time away from the devices, and that you genuinely care about that balance between work and life.”

Alongside all these efforts to look after yourself and look after your people so you can deliver what matters most, brokers are also navigating a new business environment.

Right now they are at a unique intersection: one that places brokers in between banks (handling an unprecedented storm of hardship assistance) and customers (hit by loss of income and freedom of movement or joblessness).

In this landscape, how can brokers reinforce their worth and commitment to Australian businesses and the economy?

“Brokers have always been, always are and always will be essential to a healthy finance system. In times like this, so much innovation has come to light from a lender perspective on how things are done – from processes and digitisation to updated policies. There’s also a wide range of support that lenders are providing to customers, including businesses, then there is the comprehensive support that federal and state governments are giving. It is a lot to navigate,” Wright says.

“How brokers understand that level of support and how it relates to their clients, and how well they communicate their service and value to their clients is the real opportunity for brokers at the moment. They are so well placed because brokers themselves are business owners. This enables them to have a unique mindset and offer insights from their own personal perspective. They can really demonstrate empathy and understanding.”

As restrictions continue to ease and the economy transitions out of hibernation, “some things will go back to the way they were, and some things won’t, but that’s OK; innovation has been accelerated with long-term benefits for us all”, Wright adds.

“In the environment we’re in now, the forthcoming best interests duty formalises what brokers are mostly already doing. It puts a legal framework around that and enables brokers to go to their clients and say that we are required to demonstrate to you and others that we put you and your needs first,” he says.

“We do that every day already, but we’re now required to do so by law, and that creates certainty for consumers.”