Date posted: 22/07/2020 8 min read

Never let a crisis go to waste

COVID-19 has created testing times, but with innovative thinking we could come out the other side better.

In Brief

  • Most leaders under age 50 have never lived through an economic downturn as damaging as COVID-19.
  • Now is the time for managers to not just be communicating with staff, but connecting with them.
  • For some businesses, the crisis really is an opportunity to work differently and even expand.

Since this article was published in the June/July issue of Acuity, Cormac Denton has lost his job as chief financial officer at Kapura hospitality group in Wellington, due to the impact of COVID-19 on the hospitality sector.

By Stephen Corby

Living in New Zealand, amid some of the world’s toughest COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, Cormac Denton CA – the chief financial officer of Wellington’s Kāpura hospitality group, had plenty of time to think.

Three weeks into the government-imposed isolation, which he spent at his in-laws’ home with his wife and two sons under the age of four, he’d seen people outside his own family just twice.

“Other than two runs to the supermarket, I’ve not physically seen anyone outside of our little bubble,” he told Acuity in April 2020.

“We can’t get deliveries or takeaways from restaurants, because the government here decided that even that was too much of a risk, which has already put companies like Burger King into liquidation.

“It’s cost us, too, because we were attempting to pivot our business into takeaways – we’d planned for that – but then it was all gone.”

Denton is used to spending time alone with his numbers. As CFO of a particularly fast-growth company – which had doubled in size every year for the past five years to more than 35 bars and restaurants, a craft brewery and an events business – he had spent many days, and a few nights, poring over the books in his office, planning and checking.

The role of CFO can be a solitary one at the best of times, even in a bubbling hospitality company, but this was different. Not only had the pandemic crushed Kāpura’s booming business, spilling red across Denton’s previously beautiful balance sheets, he’d been unable to put an arm around the shoulders of staff who are doing it tough as everybody self-isolates.

“It’s been very difficult on the personal front, for me, looking at the numbers, but it’s very demoralising for my whole team,” he said.

“I was speaking to another CFO of a restaurant group and he was really down, because they’re looking at laying off half their staff, and we’re looking at making some tough calls, too, with our 950 people.

“We’re all at various levels of grief, but we’ve known for a while what it’s going to do to us. I speak to others and they’re still at those very early stages of grief, mourning the past.” 

Harsh reality of isolation

While the GFC is fresh enough in the memories of most people of working age, most leaders under age 50 have never lived through something as damaging as this (the recession of the late 1980s and early ’90s is the only thing that comes close).

Working remotely and being separated from colleagues at a time of high stress is just one of many challenges executives are struggling with, according to counsellor Bev Aisbett.

“The biggest challenge at the moment is that people are being thrown up against themselves like never before, and forced to spend time in isolation, with the distractions of the workplace taken away,” she explains.

“That’s going to be tough for a lot of people and we’re going to see a lot anxiety and depression, because anxiety is very much about those ‘what if?’ questions.”

Sydney-based Brett Kelly CA, founder and chief executive of Kelly+Partners Chartered Accountants, is focused on keeping up face-to-face communication with his staff as much as possible, even as he’s forced to run his company from home.

“I’ve always been down on the work from home idea,” he admits. “To me it was like trying to have a relationship with your wife entirely by phone, because most of the important things that have happened in my career have happened because I’ve seen the other person’s face or I’ve felt their vibe.

“I like people, I care about people, so I’m not looking to hide away from people, and so we’re insisting that everyone is on video so we can at least see people and see their faces.”

Brett KellyPicture: Brett Kelly CA.

Kelly has also instituted twice-weekly personal-training sessions for all staff, via video, and has hired a wellness coach to get online with them. After taking the lead himself by telling an accounting joke to staff each day (best example: “How does an accountant stay out of debt? He acts his wage”) he’s also hired a “fun coach” to provide some frivolity each week.

“This week he’s teaching us how to make cocktails. It’s all about taking the approach that you should take your work seriously, but not yourself – because if you can’t laugh in a crisis, you’ll probably end up crying.”

“There’s a whole profession called diversional therapy, typically used in nursing homes to keep people from just staring at the walls, and I’m using that mindset.

“It can’t all be debits and credits with your people, and we’re trying to create that ‘bump into each other’ space you normally get at work, the ‘Hey mate, what happened at the weekend?’ You really need to have that.”

“It can’t all be debits and credits with your people. We’re trying to create that ‘bump into each other’ space you normally get at work… You really need that.”
Brett Kelly CA

Finally bringing our whole selves to work

Gabrielle Dolan, who mentors executives and leaders and is the author of Real Communication: How to be you and lead true, agrees that now is the time for managers to not just be communicating with staff, but connecting with them.

“When leaders can be vulnerable and share stories about how they’re not coping, it makes it normal for other people to say, ‘I feel the same way,’” she says. “People really need that right now.

“I’ve been speaking to a couple of clients who say they’re finishing off their virtual meetings with silver linings – people sharing stories of how they’re coping in innovative and creative ways.

“The fact is, people need to find that time to talk about it, rather than just be all business. People in virtual meetings actually have a chance to show their home environment, for example. There’s an element of them in the background.

“We’ve been spending years trying to get people to bring their whole selves to work, and it’s taken people being forced to work from home to achieve that.”

“We’ve been spending years trying to get people to bring their whole selves to work, and it’s taken people being forced to work from home to achieve that.”
Gabrielle Dolan

Aisbett says people need to focus on the immediate future rather than the unknowable distant one, and to try and give each day structure, leaving their minds less time to wander into unhelpful areas.

As for those managers trying to run teams remotely, she says it’s important to share. “I think as managers, the more candid and open you can be, the more people will feel free to express their vulnerability. It’s about being very real with each other at this time,” she adds.

Gabrielle DolanPicture: Gabrielle Dolan.

Opportunities in a crisis

While Kelly+Partners has had to make some tough decisions: cutting wages, head count and every possible overhead, Kelly remains bullish that the current crisis is actually a time of great opportunity. Indeed, he’s seen and seized such opportunities before – tripling the size of his business in the GFC by making acquisitions.

“The fact is, when people are making money, they need someone to count it, and when they’re not, they need someone to give them the certainty that they’re going to be OK. If you’re in the business of helping people, it’s a good time to push on rather than be depressive,” says Kelly.

“We believe that when there’s a crisis, people are more open to change, more open to new ideas and willing to make more effort to make things work. It’s a fantastic time to push ahead. There’s a bit of electricity in the air, people are awake and they’re saying, ‘Hey, what can we do now?’”

In New Zealand, Denton says he, too, is dealing with the struggle by focusing on what he can control, and looking to the future.

“We’re not expecting normal revenue to return until November – or January. But beyond that we might see Australia and New Zealand opening up to one another, as we might have achieved similar things. That could be exciting; we might even start looking at a single currency, being closer.”

“It’s a fascinating time, if you try to take your own worries out of it. The fact is, you’ve only got a certain level of control; the whole world is screwed. All you can do is focus on your own little circle, your family unit, and enjoy this extra time you have got with them.”

“It’s a fascinating time, if you try to take your own worries out of it. The fact is, you’ve only got a certain level of control…”
Cormac Denton CA

Read more:

From the CA Library

Leadership in the Eye of the Storm: Putting your people first in a crisis

A practical guide to help leaders cultivate the skills required to deal with challenges during times of crisis, as well as create opportunity from chaos.

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Your COVID-19 Resources hub

This dedicated hub is regularly updated to ensure members are equipped to navigate the serious long-term economic and business impacts from this pandemic, including the latest updates on available government packages, guides for your practice or business and support to maintain your mental health and wellbeing.

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7 ways work will be different after the pandemic

COVID-19 is shifting how we think about work and our approach to it. These aspects may change permanently in its wake.

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