Leading in a crisis and beyond

Photo by rob walsh on Unsplash

Last week, I was fortunate enough to join Tech Circus on one of their Design Leadership panels, where the topic of conversation was leading through a crisis. If you’d asked me whether I’d be comfortable speaking about this a few months back then I’d have probably said, “errr nah, thanks”, but fast forward to now and it’s something I’m actually desperate to talk more about.

Why? Well, I strongly believe that now more than ever, and during a crisis in particular, a different type of leadership is needed from what we’ve been taught in the past. It’s a strong “see ya later” to overly assertive, and often aggressive styles of leadership that are devoid of emotion and empathy. That means that it’s a big fat “hello hun, where you been all this time?” to softer styles of leadership which opt for creating safety in uncertain times, rather than delivering insincere rallying cries to the masses.

I thoroughly enjoyed the panel discussion we had and I thought the questions crafted by the awesome host, Sunil Pithwa, were really great. So, I decided to turn the chat into a blog so that I can share my thoughts with many more of you. I should also add that my fellow panelists — Nur Gul Karadeniz and Kévin Boëzennec— were fascinating to hear from so I’d recommend checking them out, too!

How would you describe your leadership journey?

I actually started my career in banking on a graduate scheme around 10 years ago, an experience which I’d probably describe as a ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ ordeal for the most part. Not once was this more true than when I had to manage a team of 30 anti-money laundering analysts during my second placement on the programme. It’s safe to say that I was well and truly thrown into the deep end and it was a rather ungraceful introduction into what it’s like to lead a team. Nonetheless, it was a hugely valuable experience where I learnt a tonne around how to empathise with people and build trusting relationships early on so it certainly wasn't all bad.

Fast forward to the last 5 years or so and my leadership journey has really been split into two parts for me. On the one hand, I have led and continue to lead projects with mixed teams of designers, technologists and client stakeholders, where the focus is to align around a common goal and set of outcomes, while creating spaces conducive to creative and collaborative thinking. On the other hand, I’ve also developed my style of coaching through various management positions which has led me to my current role as part of the leadership team at SPARCK as Head of Culture. Part of this role involves being responsible for leading and coaching our Squad Leaders (our version of team managers) to make sure that our people are supported, empowered and engaged, and that our culture is strong and embedded across all of our offices.

I’m incredibly proud of my leadership journey and I believe that one of my keys to success has been my ability to empathise, understand and build rapport with people, whether that’s my team, my clients or even those that I meet at a networking event. I don’t think I would have had the same journey had my leadership style been based purely on ruthless assertiveness. Not to say that I’m not assertive, I’m sure many of my colleagues would acknowledge that I can be a pain in the ass when I have a strong opinion on something but my assertiveness has never come at the expense of being a good human being.

What’s the main challenge you’ve faced while leading through this crisis and how have you overcome it?

At SPARCK, one of the biggest challenges for us has been the lack of human connection with each other as a team, but also with our family, friends and loved ones. Many of us are pretty tactile and thrive off of being around other people so it’s been tough to be isolated from that for many months now. We’ve also seen people’s vulnerabilities put into the spotlight, in ways that we’d never have witnessed before the covid crisis. These vulnerabilities vary and can be anything from new or exacerbated mental health issues due to living alone or in uncomfortable living conditions, through to the opposite where parents are feeling the pressure of maintaining a normal work life while their home life is so far from normal.

We certainly can’t solve for all of these issues but we deemed it important early on that we’d ramp up our communications significantly in an effort to overcome this lack of human connection as much as possible. Many of our teams are meeting daily for informal coffee chats, gratitude check-ins, virtual team-building games and even the occasional daytime dance party! It’s these little moments that break up the day, put a smile on someones face and can really make the difference, especially when we’re feeling low due to reasons out of our immediate control. We’ve also upped a lot of our regular meetings, from leadership and operational meetings to 1:1s, which are now mostly weekly to make sure that people are getting that connection time and no one is left behind.

And finally, we’ve introduced new rituals into our meetings such a mood check-ins, mood boosters and playful movement-based activities such as one of our favourites called the ‘Stretch & Share’ — this is where each person on the call introduces something about themselves and does a stretch. Everyone else on the call copies the stretch as the person is talking. It’s worth mentioning that it was a brilliant colleague of mine — Kat Murray-Clark — who introduced a majority of these exercises, so do reach out to your teams to see who has ideas to break up the monotony of the day, you might be surprised! The best thing about all of this is that I feel like I know many of my colleagues better and more personally than I did before the lockdown and that has been especially great.

Just a context-free picture of me and my awesome team being weird at a recent All Hands.

How have you seen your company’s culture evolve while working remotely? How are you maintaining that culture?

I really love this question (obvs, I’m a bit biased). At SPARCK, this has been something that we’ve spoken about a lot as a team — in fact, another brilliant colleague of mine, Cecilia Mir, has written a blog about this and how having the right culture from the outset was so key. I’d highly recommend giving that a read!

For us, I think we’ve seen our culture thrive in many ways and I think that’s because many of our values empower people. For example, one of our values is around ‘trust, not control’ which is hugely important in this new, fully remote working world. Many leaders are still extremely uncomfortable with their people working from home because they don’t think they’ll work as hard. The ridiculous thing is that, for many, the complete opposite has been true and lots of companies are calling out burnout as a real business risk since lockdown so it’s clearly a silly view to have but it doesn’t stop so many still having it. I heard a story recently that really pissed me off about a CFO being legit angry at the idea of people doing their laundry during the working day when at home. I mean, are they for real? That’s one of the benefits of home working, I haven’t ever managed to get on top of my laundry but lockdown means that washing basket is finally empty and that feels GLORIOUS. Anyway, back to cutlure. At SPARCK, our people know that they’re trusted and no one is going to be checking up on them to see that they’re definitely working 9–5 and not leaving their desk unless for the occasional loo break. This means that our people can adjust their working patterns to suit them, and their wellbeing.

Another of our values is about ‘embracing ambiguity and adapting’. We invite our people to tear up the rulebook and go off road, which often means to experiment and this has been rife since lockdown. We’re seeing so many new tools and methods being used by our people as they try to creatively replicate the feeling of being physically together. Also, our ability to embrace ambiguity meant that we managed to shift the entire company to working from home extremely quickly, literally in a week or a few days. We’ve also managed to do things that we previously may have deemed impossible, like kicking off new projects with new clients without ever meeting them personally and facilitating design sprints which thrive off face-to-face interaction. Neither were easy but our teams took to the challenges with energy and enthusiasm, and nailed it!

Setting up a multidisciplinary team and picking the right people to fit together is a massive challenge. Tell us how you approach this in your business.

Having the right skills mix is obviously really important but, in my opinion, what’s equally important is having the right personality mixes, too. Think about it, you probably don’t want a team of only extroverts, or only introverts. Or super optimists, or only realists. These skewed mixes are going to create biases, and biases are dangerous in any project, but especially design projects. Instead, you want to try to put people together whose personalities complement each other and to create balance in the team. So, for example, you might match optimists and realists together — this will bring some brilliant blue-sky thinking minds into the room but with a healthy dose realism which will ask the questions around feasibility and viability. I think this is really important to be able to create the right energy in a team that’s conducive to creativity and design.

The second thing that I like to do is to consider our people’s career aspirations and dreams, so that we can try to match them to projects that are going to help them grow. This is super important to us because we say that one of our values is about putting people first and this is really one of the ways in which we do that.

The final thing I’d say is that, once you’ve chosen the team, it’s so important to organise a really good kick off. Since we’re part of a technology consultancy, we often work in multi-disciplinary teams with designers, BAs, developers, architects and all sorts. Often we come together with different experiences and methodologies or ways of doing things and so this can cause conflict if not managed well. We avoid that by having collaborative kick-off sessions where everyone is invited to share their views, expectations and assumptions, and also to co-create our rules of engagement and guiding principles. Another awesome idea which I love is to create team personas that explain each team members working style, needs and frustrations which I think is really powerful.

How do you see compassion and empathy coming to the forefront in organisations and how it’s challenging old ideas of leadership?

When I think about old school leadership, I think about micromanagement and quite an emotionless atmosphere that, at times, can feel quite scary and uncomfortable to be on the receiving end. To be honest, I think of people like Donald Trump and Alan Sugar and, ugh, it’s all a bit gross in my opinion. Aggressive and overly assertive styles of leadership create toxic working environments and encourage the types of behaviour where people are afraid to show vulnerability and ask for help. They’re more likely lie and inflate success in order to tell you what you want to hear, rather than the truth which you could appropriately take action on.

Over the last few years in particular, I think we’re starting to see new and softer styles of leadership that are grounded in compassion and empathy. Interestingly, this shift has been in line with more and more women in leadership roles but I’m not going to go into that today as that’s one for a blog in itself. I’ve been so inspired to see more and more incredible role models of this type of leadership, like Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s president, who is the total antidote to the Trump style of leading. It’s incredibly refreshing. I read a quote from her recently that I loved and perfectly summarises my point of view. She said:

“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”

In a time of crisis and uncertainty, emotion and empathy are needed more than ever. Our role as leaders in a crisis is to clarify what matters, like our purpose, priorities and goals, and then to create a sense of safety and stability, while also embracing the uncertainty and showing how we can adapt and pivot. All of this requires emotion and vulnerability — we have to acknowledge the emotions of uncertainty to be able to address them, so if our language only focusses on rallying rather than soothing then we aren’t going to help bring the anxiety levels down. We can’t think straight in anxious, chaotic environments so if we don’t manage these emotions, we won’t get the best from our people when we all need to pull together to figure out the best way forward.

Jacinda Ardern hosting an informal and personal Facebook Live from her home during the coronavirus crisis. Link to watch it here.

How have you personally shown vulnerability with your teams during this time of uncertainty?

There are many ways to show vulnerability in the workplace, from admitting publicly when you’re wrong or you’ve made a bad decision, to being able to crack a smile when things are tough. For me, I’ve been focused on speaking openly and candidly about mental health during this crisis, to show others that it’s ok to do so, too. Something that I have observed during my career is a tendency for people to hide and bottle up their mental health struggles due to the fear that they’ll be seen as incompetent by their managers. This is something that I’m personally dedicated to debunking. You can be strong and competent, while also dealing with poor mental health.

Personally, I’ve had my fair share of both past and recent struggles with anxiety and depression. While I was guarded about this in the past, I’ve since found the strength to speak openly about my experiences and encourage others to do so as well. During this crisis, this has involved being open with my teams about when I’ve struggled to adjust to permanent home working arrangements, which I found hugely difficult in the early weeks. I found that I was exhausted despite the slower pace of life, I had little to no motivation and I often felt helplessly down or sad. I soon realised that it was my lack of routine that was causing a lot of this and made a concerted effort to fix it. If I hadn't spoken openly about this with my teams, I wouldn’t have learnt about some of the things that my colleagues were doing to help themselves. I also wouldn’t have been able to have some of the deeply personal conversations I’ve had with some of my team members who’ve also been struggling and to offer my support.

I’m not by any means saying that we need to become fully fledged therapists as leaders, far from it. But I do believe that the best thing we can do for our teams is create a space of safety, so that people can be vulnerable when they need to and look after themselves in those moments. This means that when they’re feeling themselves again, they can thrive, rather than extending out the issue due to silence or inaction.

Are there any examples of leadership that you’ve seen during this time that you’ve admired?

Yes! I think you probably know my main answer to this — the incredible Jacinda Ardern — but I’ll share another woman whose inspired me and that’s Lauren Currie. Lauren is an amazing Design Leader and entrepreneur — she’s a Trustee at Design Council and is the CEO of a company called Stride which aims to democratise leadership training, as well as founding various other business ventures. I think she’s great because of her openness and radical transparency — she is clearly community-driven and her sharing nature comes through in everything she speaks about, writes and so on. She also has a real knack for showing her full, emotional, human side, while also being an inspirational, strong leader which just goes to show you can be a badass businesswomen, leader, mother, mentor, and everything else in between. So I’d definitely check her out!

And that’s a wrap. If you have any questions or you’d like to talk about anything I’ve written here then do feel free to get in touch, either through here or over on LinkedIn. I’d love to hear from you!

About the author

Nat is a strategic designer, with hands-on experience leading projects across all stages of the design lifecycle with a range of clients including Insights, Amnesty International, DVSA, Fidelity, HSBC, ITV and Pizza Hut.

Nat prides herself on her adaptability, helping her clients to bring clarity and narrow in on the right vision, strategies and cultures for their future. As a dedicated advocate for equality, diversity and inclusion, she understands how to bring diverse teams together to create productive and creative spaces where innovation can thrive.

Nat started her career in digital banking before joining SPARCK in 2016, shortly after it had launched. During her time there, she helped to shape and grow the company into a mature organisation, most notably by building and embedding a high performing, innovative and inclusive culture. As a dedicated people leader, Nat has proven her ability to motivate people to an aligned mission and build an effective culture where people grow and excel.

Nat now helps purpose-driven companies to design their vision, strategies and cultures to help them grow their impact in the world.

About SPARCK

SPARCK is the design and innovation consultancy born out of BJSS, a leading technology company. They are a collective of thinkers, innovators, strategists, designers and do-ers.

〰️ Co-founder: The Future Kind Collective 〰️ We help companies to define their purpose, design their culture and grow their impact