Exercising effective leadership during troubled times
Oct 27 , 2020 |
Vanessa D’Souza, CEO of SNEHA, shares leadership lessons drawn from her experience of heading a healthcare non-profit during a pandemic.
On March 9,2020
Mumbai recorded its first case of Covid-19. The city went into a frenzy fearing
the worst. Soon the country went into a prolonged lockdown. We at SNEHA, a Mumbai-based NGO working to improve
the health of women and children in the most vulnerable slums, with a
population of about one million, realised that it was not going to be business
as usual for us. We would no longer be able to visit homes for door-to-door
counseling on health and nutrition, gender-based violence, mental health and for palliative
With no past experience to
draw from or a roadmap prepared for the future, the only certainty we had was
that our communities needed our support now, more than ever. The question was,
how do we keep our staff safe, while continuing to support our communities?
As Brian Tracy once said, “The true test of leadership is how well you function in a crisis.” Leading my organisation at a difficult time like this, there were two things I felt strongly about:
- Being true to our
mission of serving the slum communities we work with
- Being true to our
team by keeping them safe, equipped to work and motivated.
The goal posts, in a sense, was well defined. The challenge was placing the ball into the net without any formal training in football!
Working with diverse stakeholders
Our stakeholders range from
women in slum communities who are not familiar with the use of mobile phones to
doctors who were working overtime in the pandemic and donors who were
struggling with their own businesses. We had to reach all of them through new online
platforms, in a timely manner. Everyone was struggling in their own way to deal
with this unprecedented situation.
As we spent the next few weeks
connecting with each of our stakeholders, I learnt a few things:
- Be the calm in the
storm: As a leader in an unprecedented crisis, you too are grappling with the
situation. But your team looks to you for stability, decisiveness and
direction. While non-profits usually have very participatory decision-making,
this is a time when you have to make some big decisions quickly — and make
them alone. But for this, you must have great clarity in your mind about the
criteria and goals for making these decisions. It calms people’s nerves to hear
one voice and hear the same priorities. It gives them a sense of security.
- Ask the right
questions: Don’t second-guess your
stakeholder needs. Use your team like your tentacles to bring in the voices of
your stakeholders. Then act swiftly. There was initial apprehension from the
teams about our ability to undertake food relief due to fear of contracting
Covid-19. But given that such relief was the need of the hour, the question to
ask ourselves was, “How can we do it in the safest possible manner?”
- Innovate and
calibrate: New needs emerge during a crisis – as a leader, it is important to keep
a close watch on these. In the Covid-19 world, a critical and ongoing need is
the dissemination of information on to stem the spread of the virus. With new
information emerging every day on Covid-19 and misconceptions and stigma
spreading fast, we needed to act quickly. We were able to meet the community’s
needs for information by making quick decisions on providing data packs to
frontline workers and volunteers, building capacity to use online platforms and
using locally available communication channels like Cable TV and WhatsApp.
Effective feedback loops also helped us calibrate the information.
- Operate in good faith: Maintaining trust is an important part of navigating a crisis. Working remotely, distributing food in the community or safety gear to public health professionals required us to rely on a host of stakeholders. The belief that everyone will act in the best interests of the communities we serve is integral to working effectively with stakeholders.
- Have honest conversations: This was a time when we had to keep our top donors on speed dial. Sharing our situation and concerns honestly helped us evoke empathy in our donors and a desire to support our efforts. It was heartwarming to see how supportive people were and how they rallied around us to see us through.
Leading and motivating teams
A crisis brings people closer together like nothing else can. It also reveals human nature — you see what lies below the iceberg. At this time, how can we as leaders let our teams know that they are truly our highest priority?
- Communicate clearly and consistently: As soon as the
lockdown was announced, clear communication on our overarching priorities was
critical to guide everyone in the same direction. But communication also needs
to be consistent, regular, and directed at addressing the team’s challenges.
Daily team meetings helped understand the changing situation on the ground,
take timely decisions and disseminate the information across the organisation.
This also helped teams to switch to online platforms (a challenge given our
diverse team) and continue our routine health intervention and Covid-19 work
and keep the momentum going.
- Time to let go: During a crisis, leaders play
an important role in getting the engine to move smoothly on the track. But we
also need to listen to signals when the train is moving smoothly so we can step
back and give our teams the space to manage themselves.
- Time for abundance: Despite all the funding
constraints, I took two important decisions: not releasing any staff and giving
annual increments. It required a huge leap of faith that we would be able to
raise adequate funding in a difficult time. But more importantly, that seemed
like the correct thing to do for our staff, especially since 70 percent of our
team lives in the slums we serve, with other family members out of jobs. We
have got to let teams know that we have got their backs!
- Bonding and self-compassion: As our teams went way beyond
the call of duty, some even risking their lives, we could feel the fatigue and
mental strain set in. We started Friday learning sessions on themes such as
‘happiness’, ‘workload management’ and ‘improvisation’, and discussed practise
of our organisation values, thus creating a safe space for staff to share,
learn and grow as a team.
- Be realistic about team performance: These are difficult times,
professionally and personally. The psychological costs of fear are steep. Don’t expect your team’s performance to
improve significantly because it could be difficult for them to match what they
could have done in normal circumstances. Reassess priorities and timelines.
They are also trying new ways of doing things; be kind and patient!
Managing the head-heart pendulum
pandemic led to an outpouring of empathy everywhere. More so in the non-profit
world where we witnessed, at close quarters, some of the most challenging times
for the most vulnerable. Migrant workers walking for days, overnight income
loss by daily wage earners and food insecurity, coupled with intense fear of
contracting Covid-19, made our hearts bleed. Every decision was weighed with
empathy. As a leader, managing the head-heart balance is always a challenge.
- Taking calculated risk: As a health NGO in a pandemic, we were called upon to help public health systems to screen for Covid-19. We understood the criticality of this exercise and made sure our teams had protective gear and all the necessary information to keep themselves safe.
- Balance between ‘doing’ and ‘being’: The pandemic has forced many of us leaders to strike a fine balance between delivering on the mission and also being sensitive to our teams and their needs, more than before. Apart from usual work on strategy, business development etc. in the past few months, there has been the emergent need to work on building morale, helping teams manage uncertainty, being empathetic to challenges of ‘work from home’ and also being more vulnerable by sharing and talking about our own challenges, to bring people together and build trust. In a recent zoom meeting, we could hear a young child going through an online school session while her mother was presenting to the team. On another call, a staff member had to handover her presentation to another colleague mid-sentence as she had to run to attend to the cries of her young child. It’s all become par for the course!
- Harnessing peer networks: I don’t think leaders have ever connected with so many of their peers at such a level before as they have in the past six months. While discussing important topics at hand, there has also been sharing of challenges, fears and embracing their own vulnerabilities. This sharing has also led to joint efforts at problem-solving which has then helped with more prompt responses and playing to each other’s strengths and the ability to take up larger challenges and help more people.
The pandemic has been a crisis in a million ways, but not in leadership. Crisis moments create opportunities and help us seek clarity and find direction. They ignite our creativity, push us to our limits and force us to think outside the norm. By and large, it has brought out the best in leaders. Pushed to their limits, leaders have emerged wiser, more resilient and more compassionate. Real leadership is leaders recognising that they serve the people they lead. They are centred, grounded, and comfortable with their values, who they are, and how they present themselves. This is the place from which they will always make their best decisions and be of most service to others in troubled times or otherwise.
Become a change leader. Apply now for the ILSS Leadership Program.