One year on and a lot of lessons learnt

By Emma Kane

On 20 March 2020 in a note to our team I wrote, “there is no doubt that this is a marathon not a sprint; and, as someone who has done a marathon, I know that mental stamina is key. In any crisis, the character of an organisation is exposed not made – I will do all I can to ensure that the values we live by during normal times are not lost sight of during these unprecedented ones.”  How true that has turned out to be.

So, at the outset, I made a promise that I would take decisions through the lens of our vision and values and in the interests of all our stakeholders not just a few.  In any crisis the only certainty is that the first information you receive is almost always wrong.  This has meant taking a medium-term view rather than allowing any knee-jerk reactions has been crucial.  This approach, coupled with never losing sight of our purpose, has ensured we have not got lost in the storm.

There is no doubt that it has been a brutal and relentless period.  No other crisis I have ever been involved in has been so intense and over such a prolonged period; and, we are still a long way from reaching a safe harbour, being able to look back on this pernicious virus, and some way off fearing a simple handshake.  However, at the one-year milestone, I wanted to share some of my thoughts as a business leader about this period.

The golden rules that have applied in my career have still applied but have been amplified and enhanced with oodles of creativity. 

The first is that success is a team effort.  No single person has the stamina, the experience, or the 360 vision to be all things to everyone at all times and for a prolonged period.  Surrounding yourself with the very best people is always key but it has never been the case more than during this period.  Early on I learned that when businesses are going brilliantly there are rarely issues but it is when the going gets tough, you need to make sure you are in the bunker with the right people.

I am immensely grateful to every single member of my Senior Leadership Team.  There has not been a weak link throughout this whole torrid period – they have encouraged, challenged, questioned, reminded and dug deep.  

Together, we have based our actions on facts not assumptions and have got so much better at listening and actually at asking the right, open questions.  We have conducted surveys and have practiced what we preach to our clients!  We have shared insights with and from our colleagues around our global footprint as we have entered and exited lockdowns at different times.  We have shared our thought processes and helped people to understand the context of the decisions being made and that these have been based on facts not assumptions. 

We have been more visible and more accessible than ever before.  We have shared wellness advice and joined together on remote walks, had Zoom cookery classes held by our colleagues from around our international footprint, and some of us have spent the last year learning Italian – don’t test me!  We have had picnics in the park with our teams, and walk/talk meetings… There have been surprise gifts.  We have really put a major emphasis on wellbeing – not just a random initiative but a daily push such as getting people to take time out and to step away from their screens.  We have tried to encourage everyone to protect their lunch hours and to take a walk if possible.  We incentivised people to take holiday during lockdowns so that they would actually recharge their batteries. 

We have shared a lot more of our whole selves.  We have been inside our clients’ and our colleagues’ homes, and we’ve met their children and their pets.  We have connected in so many ways over the last year including a daily, 20 minute Zoom ‘Tea with Emma’. 

And, whilst I said that this is tough but we are tougher, we have recognised that for some, it has been so much more challenging than for others.  I’ve really appreciated our five Mental Health First Aiders who’ve been regularly checking in with everyone (including me) and there have been regular reminders of the mental health helplines and up to 12 counselling sessions provided for every member of our team.

We have pushed forwards and achieved things that, pre-Covid, we could only have dreamt of doing such as launching our almost daily newsletter since the beginning of Lockdown 1.  We continued with our long-planned merger with Newington and rebranded to SEC Newgate UK and enjoyed the huge benefits and excitement of welcoming many new, talented people to our team as well as expanding the range of services we can offer our clients.

We have maintained momentum – communication truly has been the critical heartbeat of our organisation.  As people have witnessed their flatmates, partners and family losing their jobs or being furloughed and then fired, reassurance and transparency has been vital.  People looked for meaning and the nuances in every word and also in every word that is not there.  You cannot just turn the tap on or off you have to keep a steady stream and again I have been grateful to my team for keeping me on track.

We’ve also learnt that flexibility is not painful it is actually easy when there’s trust – I could never have imagined that we could all just go free range but the eggs that have been laid during this period have been golden and I know that some things will come out of this whole desperate period for the better.

Last weekend I had the amazing experience of being given my first Covid vaccine and witnessed, at first hand the army of volunteers supporting the health professionals. It was overwhelming and emotional seeing what happens when a team comes together – scientists, doctors, nurses, volunteers…  I believe that we have learnt to be more caring, cohesive and compassionate because when you go through really difficult times together, there is a really profound sense of bonding.

Whilst we have all been in the same storm this year, we have not been in the same boat – I would like to take this opportunity to thank my incredible crew.