COVID-19 has brought many challenges but today I want to focus on one in particular – leadership. Leaders set direction, build an inspiring vision and help guide a team towards the same goals. With anxieties running high there has never been a more crucial time for strong leadership but coaching and guiding fragmented teams, who are also dealing with lots of sudden changes thrust upon them, is not easily done without careful thought and planning.
James was recently involved with a panel discussion as part of the Norfolk Chambers of Commerce series of virtual events, which focused on leading effectively remotely. He was joined by Rachel Cowdry, CEO of Break charity. John Gostling, Managing Director at Breakwater IT and Lisa Collen, Director of People & Workplaces at Flagship Group. The panellists discussed a range of different topics and some great conversations were had, but it got me thinking and there was more I wanted to find out from James about how he has coped with leading through the pandemic so far.
James touched on his biggest leadership challenge during the panel event, but I asked him to expand on it further. He admits not being with the Swans in person is the hardest thing and says: “Not being with the Swans is like being apart from your family. I miss the daily collaboration, banter and love that comes from all of us. I miss seeing people walk in each morning happy to be at work.”
He added: “As Managing Director, I am making decisions all the time that effect people’s jobs, roles and how their time has been spent over the last 4 months and how it will be spent moving forward. To not be able to do this in person is difficult, but I believe that myself and the Management Team have done a fantastic job in working through this challenge and have continued to communicate, collaborate and achieve things as a family, even though we are not in the same room. This will only add to the success of Indigo Swan and the success of the leaders and the other Swans in the business as we move towards the end of 2020 and into 2021.”
Some of the difficult decisions James has had to make involve putting Swans on furlough. This was never going to be an easy process, but early into lockdown he knew we had to identify the members of the team what were needed and non-negotiable. These were roles which are key to the business, keeping our clients happy, suppliers informed, and our presence felt within the marketplace. James said: “By taking this approach we were able to identify Swans from each section of the business that would be required to achieve this and also be able to clearly explain to the furloughed Swans, why these decisions had been made. After this we needed to prepare for a drop in revenue and due to this, we have created a COVID-19 Indigo Swan 5 level plan.”
Much like the government, we know what action we will take at each stage and this plan will be communicated to all the Swans in order to make sure the honest communication channels are kept open. James added: “Thankfully we are at Level 2 at present which is bringing people back from furlough, no redundancies and revenue on track. We could however easily slip to level 4 or 5 so it is important to know what action we would take if we did fall to those levels and react. We want to be proactive not reactive and I believe the plans we have in place allow us to do this.”
One of the things both Indigo Swan and James are well known for is positivity. Throughout lockdown James has been instrumental in boosting team morale but he’s had to come up with new ways of doing this remotely. In James’ words: “By taking the leadership approach I have over the last 10 years I have been able to build strong relationships with all Swans and I have a good insight into what works for them. They are the source of my ideas; they are the inspiration for wanting to maintain and boost morale and they are the reason I get out of bed every day. We boost and maintain morale together through strong relationships and a family like bond. We also operate through 100% open and honest communication at all times.”
Trust has always been an important part of Indigo Swan. When I asked James whether it had become more important now than ever before he replied: “When working remotely Trust is vital and the key to any success we are going to have. It is more important than ever before and I am fortunate that due to the foundations and groundwork we have put in over the years, that Trust is something we don’t have to worry about. We all trust each other to do the best job we can do and we all trust each other to get the job done, put the hours in and do whatever is needed to help the company not only survive but thrive throughout lockdown.”
James then mentioned that the most important element of trust for him was that the Swans trust him as Managing Director. “They trust me to make the right decisions alongside the Management Team and they trust me to guide the Swan Ship through the choppy waters to the other side. Knowing they have this trust in me and their colleagues allows us to focus on other issues, challenges and opportunities which have a beneficial impact on the short-term and long-term success of the business and for that I am grateful.”
It is no secret technology has played a vital role in helping businesses to continue to operate during lockdown. From laptops to Zoom meetings we’ve all had to utilise every window of opportunity and try new things in in order to succeed. We were in no way setup to work from home before COVID-19 and had to act quickly back in March in order to make sure the Swans could work safely from home. “Thankfully because of Andy our Head of Operations and Breakwater IT we were able to get to work from home within 24 hours of lockdown on the 23rd March. I believe we adapted quickly and we have shown that whilst as a company of 10 years we have never worked from home we can and we can all support each other, be productive and still perform a business as usual approach whilst working from 20 different Swan HQs” James said.
Although technology will never replace face to face conversations it has made our lives just that little bit easier. “The fact that I can wake up, set a challenge via a WhatsApp video, jump into a team meeting, have face to face catch ups with the Management Team and Key Accounts at anytime and anywhere is not only helpful now, but will continue to be helpful moving forward. It has allowed me to form even greater relationships with the Swans and to be even more connected with them than perhaps I was on a day to day basis in the office.”
I was keen to find out if James thought he had changed his leadership style during lockdown. James answered honestly with he thinks it has, in the sense that he has needed to get emotional connection across via Facetime calls and not being in the same room as someone. “I can’t get my energy across as much as I can when I am in the office buzzing around, talking to all the swans, high fiving or dragging the drinks cart around on a Friday afternoon. I can however show my energy through my morning videos, I can energize the team with a laugh and virtual drinks on a Friday, I can lead by example through Webinars, Swan TV and the Podcast. I can show the team that its ok to be vulnerable and to not have great days. Becoming a more vulnerable leader is something I have gained through lockdown and for that I am grateful.”
He continued: “I have needed to be even more aware of having all the facts and figures at my fingertips at all times. I have needed to structure my days more and be much clearer in what is expected and by when, so there is no confusion. I have also needed to make sure my message is on point because it is not as easy for people to ask questions when we are all sitting on Microsoft Teams and you can’t always get a feel in regards to how people are taking the message you are giving.”
For James, he believes it has made him a better leader and I couldn’t agree more. No one expected to be faced with the recent challenges when we started the year. No one could have planned for it, but James has certainly tackled it head on and seen it as an opportunity to adapt and better ourselves for the future of Indigo Swan.