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Exercising effective leadership during troubled times

Date : Oct 27 , 2020 | Featured,Opinion

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 care.

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:

  1. Being true to our mission of serving the slum communities we work with
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

Managing the head-heart pendulum

The 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.

Vanessa D’Souza has been the CEO of SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action) since March 2013. Prior to that she worked with Citibank India for 21 years in various positions, her last role being Director, Citigroup Private Bank. She holds a BA in Economics (Hons) and MBA with a specialisation in Marketing Management. She also completed a Management Executive Development Program at Stanford University, sponsored by Citibank. She completed a Post Graduate Diploma in Public Health Nutrition in 2016. She is a Fellow of the Dasra / Harvard Business Review Leadership Program 2014. She is a recipient of the Social Innovation and Iconic Leadership Award by World CSR Congress (2016) and the Mother Theresa Scholarship to attend a program on “Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management” at Harvard Business School (2017).

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