- Leadership is an action, not a title
- You can learn a lot by networking with your competitors
- Don’t forget to celebrate small wins
By Meghal Shah CA
In 2017, I was approached by a young charity in financial distress. It provided aged care and disability services, but the introduction of Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme had wreaked havoc on its business model. Its CEO and founder resigned unexpectedly. The fate of 50 staff and hundreds of clients hung in the balance.
At the time, I was a corporate warrior at the Commonwealth Bank yearning to make a difference in the not-for-profit sector. I’d recently joined the charity’s board. (I’d prefer not to identify the charity.)
Being close to Christmas, there was neither the time to hire a new CEO nor sufficient money in the bank to pay one.
So I made a choice. I quit the bank and took on the role of interim CEO, knowing I would be paid very little, if at all, for the next 10 months.
When opportunity knocks, it is often dressed up as an ugly problem. The personal risk of failure was extremely high. Yes, I was scared. But in that moment, I became a leader.
Picture: Meghal Shah CA.
“When opportunity knocks, it is often dressed up as an ugly problem.”
I became a leader not because of the CEO title but because I had chosen to do something for others.
As fate would have it, in 10 months my team and I turned around the organisation substantially. We not only survived but thrived.
The number of clients we served more than doubled. We more than doubled our number of employees from 50 to 120. The organisation’s unrestricted reserves tripled.
How did we do it? Here are nine lessons I learned along the way.
1. Leadership is an action, not a title
During this crisis, many of our employees emerged as leaders through their actions. A handful of employees took a pay cut and others chipped in through doing voluntary overtime. Generosity inspires generosity. When I told them I was not going to draw a salary until we were out of the red zone, it inspired others to go above and beyond. As a result, our road to recovery had already begun because the organisation had many leaders who cared about it as much as I did.
2. Axes always need to be sharpened
I am a self-development nerd and during this time I read a lot of books on leadership and turnaround. Simon Sinek [author of Start With Why] emerged as a key influencer. Sinek is a big believer in the concept of Servant Leadership (in which the main goal of the leader is to serve). I encouraged my team to understand the importance of leading in this manner to ensure our employees felt supported despite the many adversities the organisation faced. I also gathered strong mentors around me who I could lean on for sound advice at key moments.
3. Don’t shy away from making tough calls
Our goal was to do the best by our organisation and its people. But after three months of relentless focus on getting new clients and collecting old debt, it was clear the current level of overhead costs was not sustainable. Needless to say, five people lost their jobs. At a personal level, I felt like a failure and a fraud as I didn’t deliver on my promise of survival for these five people. This is where your support network comes in handy. In my case, my wife and my mentors made me realise that anyone in my shoes would have made this call. Delaying it was only putting the future of the remaining 45 employees at risk.
4. See your competitors as your peers
Crisis or not, it’s always good practice to network with your counterparts in other organisations. You can learn about what’s working in their organisation (and what isn’t), understand whether your organisation’s challenges are unique or standard across the industry and whether there is room for you to help each other. Because I was new to the sector, I had to rely on industry events and cold calling to set up meetings with my counterparts. It’s daunting work but, if you are genuine, three in four people will make time. At one such meeting, I learned of another organisation facing similar challenges to ours. Open and honest dialogue led us to convincing our stakeholders that by merging the two organisations, we would have the best chance of fulfilling our mission. This outcome would have been impossible to achieve had I seen my peer as a competitor.
5. Get used to being under the microscope
As a leader what you say or don’t say, how you say it and when you say it will all be analysed. It’s critical, therefore, that you are genuine about everything you say. Reducing the gap between what you say and what people hear is key. In my experience, I was able to minimise this gap through seeking timely feedback. I was grateful that all my direct reports felt comfortable enough to share my shortcomings honestly with me. One of the best pieces of feedback I received was: “You always listen but don’t always do as I want you to.” This validated two things: 1. My team felt they had been heard; 2. I was comfortable enough to make the decision I felt was best, even if it wasn’t the most popular outcome.
6. Focusing your energy on others helps you discover the most about yourself
During these 10 months, I’ve focused 100% on doing the best by our clients and employees. In the process, I learned about myself. In order to do the best by others, I had to reflect on my actions and reactions to assess whether what I did was helping us move in the right direction. As a result, I saw an improvement in my ability to deal with stress, in my confidence in making decisions, my ability to bounce back from failure and, above all, my ability to bridge the gap between what I say and what people hear. Those improved skills are permanent and transferrable.
7. Make one call each day to help the organisation move forward
I formed this simple yet powerful habit on day one: make one call a day outside business as usual (to people who were not expecting to hear from me). For example, I would call a frontline employee, an old supplier, CEOs of other organisations. It helped the organisation achieve a number of things: new clients, improved employee retention, attracting new employees, gaining mentors, acquiring another organisation, saving thousands of dollars in expenses through better pricing with suppliers, collecting eye-watering sums previously written off as bad debt.
8. Don’t expect to be accepted on day one
As a leader who happened to be one of the youngest in the organisation, and not having any industry-specific knowledge, I never expected immediate acceptance from the team. I knew I would have to earn it. One day 1 I told them my biggest ask was accountability and assured them they could expect the same from me. That everything I’d do in my role would be to help the organisation, even if it was a detriment to me personally. By day 90 they saw me repeat and act on it. I had 30% buy in. By day 180, they saw me make tough calls that helped the organisation. I had 60% buy in. By day 270, the organisation was out of danger and they saw that the only job lost due to the acquisition was mine. I had 80% buy in. As long as your words, intent and actions are consistent, people will learn to accept you regardless of age, race or gender.
9. Be your own cheerleader
In a crisis situation, your day is full of hope and despair. In order to provide hope and stability to others, you need to be your own cheerleader. I celebrated small wins by taking a coffee break, fist pumping, listening to my favourite song, and literally telling myself, “Well done!” When the day is filled with 80% bad news and 20% good news, celebrating the 20% will give you enough energy to get through the 80% with a smile.
There is no shortage of challenges for many organisations as we now cope with the legacies of COVID-19. Ask yourself, as a leader, are you doing enough to turn this challenge into an opportunity for your organisation?
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