23 February 2021 - Global

4 things I've learned about leading in the first year of a global pandemic

After a decade of building and managing teams in times of change, 2020 was the hardest year I've experienced as a leader. But I am also proud to have played a role in a historic Covid-19 program response across 87 countries, reaching 12 million children. As we work our way to the end of the tunnel and continue to fight to reverse the tide of poverty, disease, violence, and loss of learning that children are facing, here are four personal lessons:

1) Know when to get out the way to let others lead: We were hit by a pandemic that few saw coming and even fewer had the foresight to be prepared for and the experience to respond. Our humanitarian team and our colleagues in Asia had been alarming us about the implications of the COVID-19 outbreak since January 2020, but it took all of us a while to grasp its impact. Before the pandemic was officially declared, emails from our colleagues from all over the world came in asking for guidance on how to continue to deliver programs for children. 

The Health and Nutrition Director on my team had sounded the alarm bells and was ready to lead on this effort. I realised she was best-placed for this role, so I made sure that she joined our global response task force, and helped her focus on the different phases of a response in our program guidance. She put together a team of global experts from all across the organisation, and they developed a program framework and guidance in all of our areas of work. 

While I had doubts about my role, and felt like I was not "leading" - I was in fact doing it by getting out of the way for her and the task force's day-to-day business, and away from second-guessing their actions. This can feel very uncomfortable at times, especially to those who are more used to the command-and-control mind-set and experience of "feeling in charge at all times".  

The results confirm this approach: Our teams on the ground responded with such ingenuity. From putting health messages on soap bar packaging in Mozambique to working with governments to rapidly expand financial support for families whose incomes had plummeted, and delivering remote learning materials to children - via radio, TV and even camel! Our program quality leaders in the Asia region started a brilliant research effort with children and nudged us to take it global

LESSON LEARNT: In a crisis, capable individuals will step up. As a leader, your role is to identify them, guide them when they need support, and help them move obstacles out of the way. Focus on people and results first, not hierarchy – and communicate that clearly.

2) Showing your vulnerability can give strength to your team: In a global humanitarian organisation with more than 25.000 colleagues in dangerous places, we hear weekly stories about loss, loved ones at risk, or even the death of a close colleague. But I cannot remember a year in which I've said or written "I am sorry for your loss" or "I hope you recover soon" or "please take good care of yourself first" as often as I have in 2020. 

But how much of your own emotions, anxiety, challenges, and frustration can you show, when so many people around you are struggling? 

During the first few weeks of the pandemic hitting, I could literally feel the anxiety build up in our teams. At the end of March 2020, I sent a very personal message to my team about the Persian New Year at spring equinox, and how it had always felt as renewal to me and my family, even during difficult times. I've rarely received so many messages to an email, particularly from junior staff, who wrote to me about their anxiety, their relatives who are serving at the frontline of the healthcare system, or who have fallen sick themselves. 

I've tried to build on this lesson throughout the year, though it felt uncomfortable at times to admit to my senior team members that I am not feeling as effective as I'd like to, or that I need to rest myself and focus on my own daughter and her needs during lockdown. Being transparent about how I felt helped my team step up in my place and we grew stronger as a team. 

LESSON LEARNT: We should challenge the notion of the “heroic leader” who always has all the answers and is always in control. Sharing more about how you feel opens a safe space for others to do so too. 

3) Ask for help when you need it, and help others when they need it: "I think you have a self-limiting belief here" said my colleague from El Salvador to me after a coaching training session. During some very challenging months last summer, I had signed up to our internal Senior Leaders Coaching Program, an annual and intense training run by experienced external coaches. Three other senior leaders and an expert coach were listening in as I shared a challenging situation I had faced: I had to communicate to my team that despite months of non-stop and high-quality work and results under challenging conditions, we have to cut positions and restructure. At the same time, I felt I was unable to step up my communication about the important work we were delivering on the ground effectively.

One of the tricks the voices in your head can play on you when you are under stress is to tell you that "no one can understand your situation and they have better things to do than to help you". 

The opposite proved to be true in my case. My peers’ questions and the advice and experience they shared with me were priceless. How do you manage to lead a team after losing close colleagues to COVID-19? How do you deal with the pressure you feel trying to be a calm and emphatic leader in an unprecedented crisis while home-schooling your own children and managing your own doubts? As uncomfortable as it felt at first, opening up to peers about the pressure I felt proved to be liberating and helpful. 

LESSON LEARNT: Asking for help and seeking to become a better coach and a better listener makes you a better leader. The realisation that you are not alone in making tough decisions and that your peers have been there too can work wonders especially in times of crises. 

4) Focus on the end goal and the people closest to achieving it: Every one of us who has been working or leading teams in humanitarian settings knows well, that the first few weeks of the response can be chaotic and enormously stressful. Though we are a humanitarian organisation, responding to COVID-19 was different – it is not a conflict, nor a geographically limited natural disaster. It is a volatile threat everywhere and to everyone and did not fit neatly into our emergency categorisation and procedures. 

In March and April of 2020, myself and many leaders I've spoken to in Save the Children and other organisations felt overwhelmed and out of control at one point or another. I struggled with the ambiguity of these initial weeks. My colleagues helped to remind me that our only job is to serve our program and advocacy teams close to where children are. That meant we had to prioritise advice and guidance for program adaptation. We also implemented a shift in the way our globally dispersed expertise is offered by using a market-based and demand-driven approach, responding to requests from our colleagues on the ground.  

Sticking to this principle of service to those closest to the children we serve, paid off in a big way. In late November, the results of a feedback survey from over 300 of our worldwide leaders on the ground had come in: More than 90 percent of them said that the global technical guidance my team created to adapt our programs to the pandemic had been helpful to them. 

LESSON LEARNT: In a crisis, it’s even more important to remind yourself and others of the core leadership principles of service and accountability to those at the frontline - in our case to our colleagues on the ground close to children. It can be your North Star to lead through uncertainty and ambiguity. 

This pandemic is far from over and the impact it has on the most vulnerable is unparalleled. Let’s continue to learn lessons on leading the way out of it together.

We stand side by side with children in the world's toughest places.