Public Leadership Through Crisis 10: Lessons from experience

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

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As we ponder how you as a leader should consider organizing your organization(s) to respond to the crisis, let’s listen to some advice from someone who has led through various crises. Below is a podcast interview with Shruti Mehrotra, who  has advised various Heads of State on effective government and statebuilding and currently helps oversee George Soros’ Economic Development Fund and Economic Advancement Program. She has worked in a variety of leadership roles on crises in contexts like Sudan and Liberia and beyond.

Here are some points from the  interview that relate to organizing yourself and your organization/team to lead through crisis.

1. Three lessons for leaders

Shruti notes that leading in these situations requires that you:

  • recognize there are no obvious, clear or easy decisions (or perfect decisions); what you need to do is get the best information you can to make  decisions (even though you know the information is imperfect),
  • need to have a process in place to discipline how you engage the information (access it, interpret it, debate it, etc.) and monitor the process (ideally from some kind of situation room), and
  • need trusted people (advisors) around you—including people with expertise in the subject matter (the technical dimensions)—to help make the decisions.

As she says: “there will  be debate, [but] as a decision maker and a decision making team, one has to go through that debate process and come up with a conclusion that is trusted and can be communicated to foster trust with the population about choices that were taken.”

An emergent idea, then: It is important to think about the information sources you  have, the process  you have for interrogating information, and the team you have doing this  work (“your trusted people” and the “technical experts”).

Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 10: Lessons from experience

Leading Remote Teams during Covid-19

Guest blog written by Lindsey Marchessault

In the last few weeks, many organizations around the world have had to pivot sharply to remote work due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This shift can be a daunting transition. However, there are many strategies and tactics that can help teams to maintain effectiveness, productivity, and a sense of normalcy during this challenging time.

At the Open Contracting Partnership, I’ve managed a global remote team since 2015 and I’ve worked from home since 2017. We have staff in Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Germany, Nigeria, Ukraine, the UK, and the US. In addition, our wider Helpdesk team (composed of staff and contractors) sits in New Zealand, Paraguay, and the UK.

My organization supports governments, civil society and business to improve public contracting outcomes around the world. This work involves advocacy, technical assistance, and learning activities. Ultimately, our goal is to empower our partners to implement transformational reforms.

Traditionally, our activities have involved a combination of remote and in-person support. For example, in 2019, we remotely supported 112 partners from 44 countries. We also undertook 46 ‘high-intensity’ engagements (involving significant staff time and/or resources) involving both remote and in-person support. Finally, we delivered 34 training events in 29 countries, most of which were in-person. In 2020, due to the Covid-19 outbreak, we envision conducting most (if not all) of our support and training activities remotely.

So, how do we as an organization manage all of this remote work effectively?

Clear Strategic Targets

The most critical element is to have a clear organizational strategy. This strategy should be codified in clear organizational targets with regular reporting and reflection calls on progress towards the targets. We do this reporting and reflection quarterly. Organizational targets, however, are not enough. We found that clearly defined individual work plans and targets are required to help each team member prioritize their tasks and take responsibility for their own workloads.

Efficient Meetings

When you manage a remote team, it’s important to maintain the types of interactions you would have in a typical office setting. That’s why every Monday morning we have a virtual team meeting that is accompanied by a shared google document. In advance of the meeting, each team member documents the tasks they completed in the previous week and lists their tasks for the week ahead. During the meeting, the management team will also share important updates that are relevant for the whole team. Furthermore, each team member has the opportunity to ask questions to management or other team members, make requests for other team members, and to offer assistance for tasks outside their domain of responsibility.

In addition to these full team meetings, smaller teams within the organization will meet on a regular schedule to cowork and coordinate on tasks. The senior management team meets virtually every Wednesday to make important decisions, share key updates, and reflect on our organization’s progress and performance. Each manager also holds individual biweekly virtual meetings with each of our direct reports. These check-ins are opportunities to discuss work-life balance, assess progress on specific tasks, and strategize to overcome challenges.

Knowledge Management

In an ever-evolving global field that cuts across public financial management, tech, and advocacy, knowledge management is vital to keep us on track and to help us capture lessons learned from our engagements. We use a customer relationship management system (CRM) to manage the support requests from our 100+ partners from different jurisdictions around the world. With the CRM, we can assign issues to each other and add team members as ‘watchers’ so that they receive updates about the issue even if they are not responsible. We also use Google Drive to file our key shared documents, such as our organizational policies, the process documentation for our regular tasks, and detailed descriptions for each engagement, training, research project that we undertake.

Finally, for our technical work on the Open Contracting Data Standard and related software, we use Github (a platform for open source development) to document and work collaboratively on tasks and issues.

Decision Making

When you work as a remote team, it’s important to establish clear lines of decision-making and identify mechanisms for relevant staff to be informed of key decisions, especially relating to budgeting, expenditures, travel, and communication. Over the years, we found that it is extremely beneficial to have a shared document available to all team members that documents explicitly who is authorized to make types of decisions under different scenarios, and who needs to be informed. This approach mitigates uncertainties or blurred lines that can cause stress or affect our work.

To ensure that decision-making is prioritized, we also encourage staff to write concise emails inspired by the advice from this Harvard Business Review article. This way colleagues and managers understand when they are being asked for a decision, for input, or are simply being informed of an important decision.

When issues are too complex to solve through emails, decision calls are scheduled with the relevant team members.

Collaboration and Team Bonding

One thing I miss is being able to go for coffee with colleagues. Coffee breaks are nice for unstructured conversation about our work. To make up for these coffee runs, I sometimes schedule ‘virtual coffees’ or short Google Hangout chats with colleagues when time and workload allows. And to keep as much personal connection as possible, we use a Whatsapp group to share photos and other more ‘fun’ content.

Our organization does meet in person at least once a year for a team retreat. This in-person meeting provides an opportunity to reflect on the implementation of our strategy, agree priorities for the year ahead, and bond as a team. Our team retreat this year was supposed to be in New Orleans this last past week. However, we canceled it in response to the emerging Covid-19 guidance.

Instead, we held a virtual team retreat (using Google Meet and Google Documents). While it was not quite the same as an in person retreat, we managed well since we are accustomed to virtual interaction. Due to time differences, we scheduled only 1.5 to 3 hours per day for the retreat and managed to get through most of the objectives. Our team building exercises also had to adapt. For example, instead of using sticky notes to document progress and priorities on a world map, we used the Conceptboard tool to replicate this task virtually. We are still discovering the many great virtual tools available to enhance our remote work and engagement.

Balancing Work & Childcare

Most schools and daycares have closed due to Covid-19. Having young children at home and working from home presents an additional challenge. During these times, it’s important to work with staff to identify how they will adjust working hours and manage their work and home responsibilities. Ultimately, it comes down to having a bit more patience and flexibility.

The Road Ahead

The breadth and pace of Covid-19 is unprecedented. In this time of social distancing, working remotely is necessary to halt the spread of this outbreak. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t be productive. With the right targets, approach, and adaptability (including toddlers on laps during video calls), your organization can stay on track and keep performing to the best of its abilities.

 

 

Coronavirus and behaviour: Why leaders need better ‘risk communication’

Guest blog written by Peter Harrington

Last week I wrote a post on how the Coronavirus pandemic, like Ebola, needs to be understood as a complex adaptive problem which requires mass learning to solve. In this post I want to focus in on one area of that learning – the behaviour change required to stop transmission, and the leadership and risk communication methods that are needed to make this happen. Coronavirus is both a biological and social phenomenon, and leaders neglect the social dimensions at their peril.

Let’s first establish how behaviour change relates to the epidemic. A couple of weeks ago a viral article called for radical action by authorities to replicate the Wuhan lockdown, in order to save lives and prevent the overload of the health system seen in Italy. A graphic was presented (below) which showed the effect of the lockdown on ‘true’ cases (the grey bars). It then took about two weeks for the effect of the lockdown to be visible in official cases (gold bars). As soon as a lockdown started, new cases plummeted. This is what underlies the lockdown policy in most countries – the only way to stop transmission is if people stay at home. Behaviour change, whether enforced or voluntary, directly translates into lives saved.

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The problem is, many many people in countries with a serious number of cases are not complying with guidance about social distancing, home-isolation and closures of business and various establishments. A public and private tug-of-war is raging between those who take this epidemic extremely seriously and are urging others to observe social distancing and stay at home, and those who see over-reaction and hysteria or don’t want to change their routines. This is going to lead directly to deaths. So what is happening here? Why are leaders’ entreaties being ignored? And should the authorities simply force everyone to stay at home?

I worked in the team that coordinated messaging and communications for the Liberian’s Ebola response. This branch of the response was known as ‘social mobilisation’, working to build citizen understanding and consent, and to change key behaviours to stem the epidemic. What we learned was later documented by Princeton, and has relevance today.

It is well documented that in the early stages of Ebola, the widespread belief that Ebola was not real perpetuated behaviours (like dressing highly contagious dead bodies for traditional funeral) which helped spread the disease. People were not reporting cases, and avoided Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs). Although the affected countries lacked beds, ETUs, burial teams, protective gear, it was people’s behaviour which was paramount in the spread. This relationship between the hard infrastructure of beds, staff, equipment, quarantine, ambulances etc., and the ‘soft’ infrastructure of social networks, messaging and norms is extremely important to remember for Coronavirus too. The hard infrastructure matters hugely: when cases mount, the number of beds, healthy medical personnel and equipment will be crucial. But it is the soft infrastructure that determines how many cases develop and therefore the burden on the hard infrastructure – i.e. the shape of the transmission curve.

Continue reading Coronavirus and behaviour: Why leaders need better ‘risk communication’

Public Leadership Through Crisis 3: Be brave, calm, adaptive; there is no perfect crisis response

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

In my last blog post I emphasized the importance of leaders in crisis situations being (i) motivated for the public good, (ii) honest about—but not hampered by—self-doubt, (iii) committed to communicating more than ever (to help people deal with fear and accept change), and (iv) aware of who their key people are and how to motivate and mobilize those key  people.

We wonder if you agree with these ideas?

These may seem like simple ideas to start with, but many crisis situations are exacerbated by leaders who do not adhere to these lessons. Instead, we see many leaders making mistakes like thinking too much about themselves during crises (their careers, political futures, etc.), giving into their doubts, communicating poorly,  or centering the work too much on themselves (and failing to mobilize the key people around them or to help these people embrace change). Often they fall into these traps because they think the only thing that matters is getting to a solution, fast; actually, leading your people matters just as much (if  not more).

You need to be aware that these traps are there. And beware of them. They can cause you and your people to fall over the edge.

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Building on this, Katharina Balazs (cited in the last post) reflects on a concern we have for anyone expected to lead in these crisis situations. She talks about how leaders (and others) ‘freeze’ in the face of crises when they become defensive about the past and give in to doubts about moving effectively into the future. She, and her co-author, write that the “fear of a narcissistic injury, of having to acknowledge that the present state of affairs is not good enough, can contribute to a frozen stance [where] we seem to prefer the familiar “bad” to the promising unknown.” (Transforming the mind-set of the organization (Kets De Vries and Balazs, 1999,646)).
Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 3: Be brave, calm, adaptive; there is no perfect crisis response

Public Leadership Through Crisis 2: Know your motivation, put communications and key people first

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

When the storm, wind and rain, of crisis is coming (or has come), how do you start to lead?

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Building on my earlier blog post, we are sharing two posts today with some rapid ideas on how leading organizations, towns, cities, regions and countries might start thinking about leadership in the face of crisis (like the Covid-19 crisis). We know that the approach everyone takes will be different, and should be  fitted to context. And it is hard to offer ‘perfect’ answers. But we are trying to be responsive and helpful by pulling together some materials we think can empower leaders in times of crisis.

We are asking other academics, practitioners, and more to comment on these blogs, contact us with their own ideas, links to materials, etc. This is not a take-it-or-leave-it space, but one where we want to foster real learning and sharing by the large community of people who we know care about public service. The more lessons are shared, the more help will be offered.

My first blog raised questions, based on Nancy  Koehn’s work, about:

  1. The role of motivation in public leaders in times of crisis (and the importance of knowing you are on a ‘worthy mission’),
  2. The importance of ensuring public interest drives leaders’ decisions (being ‘thou’ centered instead of ‘I’ centered),
  3. The fact that you as a leader will have doubts (about your capabilities, and more) but the key is not giving into these doubts, and
  4. The idea that leadership is about helping others to overcome their limits and ‘do better, harder’ things in the face of a crisis.   

I want to pick up on the last idea that, as someone in public leadership, you are here to help your people get through the crisis you are all in.  Your job is not just to manage the technical dimensions  of the crisis, or the  logistics, or the timeline of activities. Your job is to help your people work through their limits to rise up and make the small and big, temporary and permanent, hard and not-so-hard changes required to get through the high winds and rough waves you are encountering. Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 2: Know your motivation, put communications and key people first