Navigating the first 100 days as CEO in the era of COVID-19

Simone Gupta had only just begun her role as CEO of Havas Group's public relations agency One Green Bean, when the country was thrown into isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, she reflects on her first 100 days in the role and how she is leading the agency that is working from home.

I had just discovered there was a decent coffee machine on level six, when the Havas Village office became Havas from Home.It was a few weeks into my role of CEO of social and PR agency, One Green Bean (OGB), when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia.

It was clear that the health crisis was turning into an economic and social welfare crisis; time to pull my leadership socks up and figure out my role in navigating the business, its people and clients through the biggest shit storm we have faced in our lifetime.

I have been in the privileged position of advising many business leaders how to lead and communicate through difficult periods.

What I have learnt is that we possess the tools we need to do the job well. We just have to use them. Every damn day.

My mantra is simple – exemplify good behaviour first, empower people second.

Take a look in the mirror

It starts with me. Only by being aware and reminding myself of my own strengths, experience and capabilities, can I then motivate others. How am I maintaining my physical and mental health? A negative mindset is not useful in a crisis.

The challenge, for me, is to maintain a solution seeking brain, when information and decisions are being processed thick and fast.

That said, when the bad days hit – Wednesday of week four was a shocker – I took it easy on myself, went to bed early and started again the next day.

It has also been useful to reflect on the learnings from when I took another Australian business through the global financial crisis. Businesses do bounce back. Maybe not in a way that we expect at the time, but in fantastic ways that we can’t imagine.

Communicate honestly and often

Every PR person worth their salt is advising this to clients, now to apply it to myself.

Communication channels that were new five weeks ago are now the new normal. How quickly humans adapt!

Daily all staff video calls have evolved from ‘updates from the CEO’ to include the announcement of a very happy pregnancy (who won’t qualify as a lockdown baby), yoga and breathing sessions, introduce your pets, kids and flatmates, quizzes – with questions like ‘Which team member once snogged Chris Hemsworth?’ – and updates from the ultra-competitive OGB Run Club (1000km and counting).

A weekly survey gathering feedback on mental health, WFH ergonomics and other team needs is proving to be very useful as we shape what we do next.

A buddy system, where everyone gets a daily non-work RUOK? call, has helped to ensure that nobody slips through the net, particularly if they are struggling.

Plan for the long haul, but take it one day at a time

Don’t try to solve the whole world’s problems in one call! Take time to apply all those strategic planning skills that agency folk are so good at.

Clients are in a variety of situations – stability in some sectors, drastic crises in others – but asking the right questions helps break down the problem for the immediate, short and mid-term solutions. We are already helping clients plan for the end of the year and beyond.

It takes a Village (pardon the Havas pun)

Throughout, I have leaned on the other CEOs in the Group – Host Havas’ Laura Aldington, Red Havas’ Sarah Trombetta and Havas Media’s Matt Houltham. They are a brainy and kind bunch, which has made this period significantly easier to manage. When I ask for help, it is reassuring to know I have it in spades.

The holy triumvirate of CEO, CFO and Head of HR has never been more important in daily all staff updates, to help disseminate government announcements and explain how we’ll navigate the next months.

Look for the best in people and play to their strengths

One of the silver linings of the current situation is to have seen how the OGB and Havas Group team of integrated experts have stepped up.

We have pulled together and proved what an agile, resilient and creative thinking bunch we are.

The social media team has jumped into event and sponsorship meetings to help pivot campaigns, and the Host Havas strategic planning team has worked overtime to publish a COVID context, Meaningful Brands research in a matter of days, so that we all have tools and insights to help clients better plan.

The co-maker influencer team has set up a content creator hub to help teams and clients access creators and producers when it is hard to produce any kind of content. The list goes on.

And it goes without saying that it’s both thrilling and rewarding each time we win a pitch we’ve presented virtually. Of which I’m proud to say we’ve won several.

Finally, listen, listen, LISTEN

Practicing good listening is one of the key ways we build trust. Being a trusted leader, employer and client partner will see us out the other side.

OGB is a creative and agile business with original ideas baked into its DNA, and I have followed and respected the business and its founders, Kat Thomas and Anthony Freedman, since day one.

It now has the maturity and robustness that Havas Group has to offer locally and globally.

This period of intensity has galvanised the good decision I made in coming here, and I remain optimistic that we will pull through this into a different shaped industry, economy, and Australia, that will continue to offer opportunities that we can’t even imagine yet.

Simone Gupta is the CEO of One Green Bean. She has previously been the managing director of Mango Communications, managing director of @London and managing partner of Ogilvy London. 


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