What kind of team do you need in times of crisis?

What kind of team do you need in times of crisis?

By Kavita Khanna, Director of People + Capability

In late February 2020, COVID-19 touched down in Aotearoa New Zealand and we were suddenly part of the global pandemic. It appeared that Tonkin + Taylor – as was the case with so many businesses world-wide - was not going to be left untouched. The Business moved swiftly to set up an emergency response team – a multi-disciplinary group with representation from New Zealand and Australia.

We met for the first time on 3 March. It was awkward. We were a collective of all sorts of personalities. Some of us had worked together before. Others – never. Some were introverts, some extroverts, some had been with the business for a very long time, others just a couple of years. And we were charged with preparing the Business for the unknown.

Tonkin + Taylor Group is a traditional professional services organisation with offices across New Zealand and in Melbourne. To add to the complexity, our civil and environmental consultancy business is complemented by a civil engineering testing business. Geotechnics is its own brand with its own culture and staff spread across separate offices in New Zealand and Melbourne.

There is, however, a strong similarity of culture between T+T and Geotechnics and that is that our people are empowered to work with a high degree of autonomy but are also strong consensus builders.

Decisions about the Business are not resolved unilaterally. Almost a quarter of our people are shareholders, and consequently we have a robust stakeholder engagement programme – it’s a prerequisite for successfully executing any organisation-wide initiatives.

This means processes traditionally take time to implement – inevitably several rounds of engagement and then incorporating changes to suit the wide range of stakeholders’ views. Nonetheless, speed was of the essence.

We needed to get the business moving to working from home, managing virtually and still delivering to the same high standards that we are respected for across the civil and environmental engineering industries.

Not only did we need to transition more than 1000 people from working in the office, lab or onsite to working from home, we needed to do it on steroids. 

We had to reshape the way we worked, where we worked from, how we interacted with each other and most importantly, for business continuity, how we stayed connected to our clients.

But it wasn’t something we did once, the variables kept changing and the changes kept coming.

This is what I learnt and want to share with everyone about leading change in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world.

  1. Team work on steroids – Our team worked because we were united in our passion to help the business thrive. The leadership responsibility was not vested in one person. We all shared leadership and took accountability. The Response Team director was there to enable the team. She stepped in to deal with politics and egos (yes those exist everywhere and rise to the surface when people are stressed), she made the calls when needed but, most importantly, she ensured we all listened to each other. This was an inclusive team and if we forgot that, we were gently reminded. Stuff happened, as stuff does – so flexibility was critical. For example, the operational representative stepped in when the communication manager was busy fighting other fires. The People Services Manager wrote the intranet content as and when needed and the People + Capability Director (me) reviewed HSW protocols, while the newly appointed GM for Australia edited emails. The Geotechnical Director worked with our L+D team to ensure that learning content was fit for purpose.
  2. Not knowing was OK – We admitted very early that we did not have all answers. Yes, we were experts in our individual fields, but we did not get it 100% right a lot of the time. Our people were fine with that, but we got burnt when we failed to listen. Yes, that happens, especially when you are rushing to respond, so as a team we shifted our behaviours. We became comfortable admitting within the team that we did not have all the answers. This then allowed us to go find the answers from people on the ground. We began listening more to the user – because the truth was there was no expert at dealing with a pandemic. Humility was hard but once we practiced it, we found it to be refreshing.
  3. Mistakes were OK – Early in the response, we were putting in upwards of 60-hour weeks. Everyone was working extra hard to make sure that the Business had all the information it needed. Then would come the criticism. You got this fact wrong, this was old information, it hadn’t been updated, etc. At first, we got defensive. That made things worse. Then someone in the team admitted they got it wrong – and the team rushed to support them. We then learnt, from that courageous individual, that it was OK to admit you were wrong. In fact, all we could do was try as hard as we could but, hey, things could go wrong and for most part, people were willing to understand once you were willing to admit it and set things right. Fail, fix and communicate. Our mantra became, “this information isn’t complete but it’s what we know right now”. This enabled people to move forward and take the next step. The alternative was to wait for all of the information and hold everything up but that was never going to come and so it just wasn't an option.
  4. Communication is key – Communication was the focus of our efforts. Get the basic information to the people to enable them to do their work – and most people will figure out the rest. We were not about writing pages of policy. We believed people would do the right thing and came up with instructions that demonstrated that we trusted them. You want multiple screens and a chair to work from home – by all means, take what you need - we want you to be safe and comfortable. You want to take some time off to settle your kids – we will give you a time code to charge your time to while you adjust and the Business will pick up the tab. Every now and then someone would want to press the ‘rule’ button, but we reminded each other that we were here to serve and make sure our people made it through the period safely. This really paid off and we were able to deliver results as though the pandemic had never really happened
  5. The patriarchy is dead – There was no top down leadership here. Everyone pitched in and did what needed doing, regardless of their roles and titles. Traditional corporate structures aren’t fit for purpose in today’s world or a pandemic. Good leadership is about enabling and supporting people to be self-enabling. Good leadership is about having humility and being self-effacing. It is not the age of the charismatic leader but the age of the wise gardener.
  6. Team culture – The structure we adopted works beyond an emergency pandemic response. Being inclusive and agile, not catering to egos or hierarchy or titles. Allowing robust discussion, recognising we are not all the same and ensuring everyone has a voice. That’s what successful teams will look like in this post-COVID world.

The second time around with the resurgence of COVID-19 in New Zealand, the Response Team has been more functional. 

There’s still a lot of uncertainty; we don’t know where this will go and when it will end but we do know that this team has been well tested and, when the world is drowning in chaos, we will keep our people and our Business safely afloat.