One year on: what have corporate affairs leaders learned from COVID?

COVID-19 has thrown its fair share of spanners at businesses across Australia, but as Anna Whitlam, founder and MD of Anna Whitlam People, discovered there is plenty to be learned for corporate affairs leaders.

Last Tuesday I did the unthinkable. I put on a suit and a pair of heels, boarded a plane (remember planes?) and flew from Melbourne to Sydney to reconnect with clients and colleagues, and host a round table lunch in-person.

After 12 months working from home in my Birkenstocks whilst enduring some of the world’s strictest lockdowns with my fellow Victorians, it felt like I was going to New York. For an extroverted road warrior with cabin fever, it was magic.

I wanted to be with Sydney’s corporate affairs and communications community again and share the lessons we had learned in the year since the pandemic arrived and brought immense global suffering and with it, unparalleled challenges for our profession.

Vivienne Bower, Group Executive Corporate Affairs & Community at QBE Insurance agreed to host my colleague Vanessa Liell from Commtract, the marketplace and community for professional communicators, along with 25 respected corporate affairs and communications leaders face-to-face.

I had so many questions: how had everyone managed with no blueprint, what new behaviours had we added to our toolkits, which bad habits had we thrown out? I got answers to all the above and more in 90 short minutes from an incredible group of leaders.

Amongst many, here are five key lessons every corporate affairs and communications professional needs to learn from COVID.

Ambiguity is here to stay; you’ve got to roll with it 

One communications leader recalled reading through their HR department’s description of a candidate for a senior role and being surprised to read: “Does not like working in ambiguity”. Needless to say, it was an immediate strike out.

For over three decades we have heard the popular managerial acronym “VUCA” – lifted from the military, short for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous and a blanket term for “it’s wild out there”. When COVID struck “VUCA” actually got real.

The pandemic taught us that greater stability and corporate clarity does not exist, we have to lean into a world that is not going to give us that. We are hired predominantly for our judgement and increasingly need to flex, lean in and problem solve with limited structure, data or information.

Like the most successful CEOs I have dealt with, the people in our profession who thrived in the past 12 months will continue to do so because they were able to step outside of what they might have thought their job was and deliver anyway.

Ambiguity is here to stay, as is the need for executives who can work amongst it and deliver.

Keep it simple, silly.

COVID has given us permission to drop tasks that were not worth picking up in the first place: to let go of the “busy work” that has no place in a world that requires rapid judgement calls, agility and meaningful outcomes.

One corporate affairs director described a “phenomenal feeling of liberation” when their organisation was forced to turn on a dime to make big decisions and implement them at scale in a way that it had never done before. Anything with the word, system, framework or process was thrown out of the window and leaders just used their judgement (to great effect judging by the brand’s much-enhanced reputation).

Another executive recalled their company changing 10,000 people’s rosters in a few days, a decision which would have taken 18 months and tortured negotiations in normal times but just got done.

With a vaccine roll out underway, the key now is to ensure we do not slip back into hierarchy and decision-making inertia and paralysis. At the right time, bureaucracy can save your life, but if it dominates it will suck the life out of an organisation.

Trust: your employees, your leader and yourself

Paradoxically, keeping things simple is not easy, but having trust in yourself, your community and your leadership makes it all possible.

“Trust” was the word that came up most often over our lunch for obvious reasons: COVID has galvanised team spirit and brought out our best in so many cases. In the early days of the pandemic, we were all in the same storm in different boats and needed each other to help navigate.

Unlike the GFC, when many companies undertook slash and burn, this time employers paused – guided by the better angels of their nature and wise corporate affairs professionals – and worked hard to protect staff personally and professionally. They thought through the implications before making big cuts too early.

As a result, levels of trust between employees and organisations have vastly improved, helped by our collective experiences working from home but more connected than ever through technology.

Thanks to Zoom and Microsoft Teams we know our colleagues and their homes, pets and kids better. We trust staff that they will get the job done even when they are working remotely. In return they are more trusting of leaders, especially those who have been honest when they did not have all the answers but led anyway.

Executives reported that trust had improved between their businesses and government and their businesses and the public. That is a great position from which corporate affairs leaders can begin to articulate our region’s growth strategy for the next 20 to 30 years, as one executive pointed out.

Another noted that it all starts with trusting your gut: “Take, charge in the moment, seek forgiveness after and if it doesn’t work 100% to plan it doesn’t matter, you can pivot.”

For me if you create trust, you create community and you create safety, which allows people to flourish. As another lunch mate pointed out: “I don’t think anyone is going to go back to stupid any time soon.”

Behave! Lead with optimism and develop an “infinite mindset”

In his 2019 book The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek argued that leaders who advance a just cause, build trusting teams, study their worthy rivals, prepare for existential flexibility and demonstrate the courage to lead, will build stronger, more innovative, inspiring, resilient organisations.

He called it adopting an “infinite mindset” and it is almost as if Sinek knew COVID was coming when he wrote it because it reads like a handbook on how to lead in a pandemic.

To me “infinite mindset” means valuing open mindedness, flexibility and innovation over core technical skills. We know how great it is to be surrounded by people who are optimistic and willing to give anything a go, and my lunch mates reported that it was those people who had shone through when given that flex.

For one executive who lost their CEO during COVID, that involved a junior staffer proposing new ways to reach staff now that the comms function has lost its key communications channel to employees. It is the colleagues who have shown bravery and spark that have fared well.

And it is a mature comms executive who feels comfortable not sending out the five pieces of communication just because you might normally do so, confident that the value you provide comes in different ways, not just in the volume that everybody sees your department pump out each day.

It all comes back to values.

A lot of people have suffered in the past 12 months, a lot of them were employees, customers or other stakeholders. That made it incumbent upon organisations to show up in the right way, without “look-at-me” jazz hands but with clarity, compassion, decency and vision.

Many did, by aligning with what is ethically right, using discernment and then backing themselves – supported by corporate affairs and communications leaders who so often acted as the conscience of the organisation and in some cases finally got a seat at tables previously denied to them.

If COVID has highlighted one thing to me professionally, it is that organisations need leaders who understand social impact and community expectations and ways that corporations can thrive against that backdrop.

The CEOs that had a good pandemic-to-date were natural communicators who engaged their people. That is a corporate affairs skillset, and it is why I predict that moving forward the role scope for a CEO is much closer to a head of corporate affairs than say a finance director.

Provided, that is, that boards realise that the old ways of operating no longer work and that COVID has changed nearly everything.

Anna Whitlam is the founder and managing director of Anna Whitlam People. 


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