Over a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic brought uncertainty and ambiguity into our lives. As a team leader serving my colleagues and clients, I wondered how I could best navigate this new environment while keeping up with the pressure of juggling personal goals and added responsibilities.
My responsibilities as a manager aren’t exclusive to team supervision and project planning. A manager also has to be an efficient communicator, mentor, and decision maker, and I had to live up to all those expectations — especially during the pandemic.
Projects were already complex and hectic prior to the pandemic, but when we shifted to remote work, the challenges just kept escalating. As an organisation, Redhill was able to transition fairly rapidly to remote working, but I’ll admit that I struggled. It was tough to go from face-to-face interaction and instant communication to home confinement, emails, Google Suite collaboration and Zoom calls.
Having said that, every cloud has a silver lining. In the process of overcoming these struggles, I learned many key lessons and takeaways that ultimately made it a valuable experience. I have also been privileged to receive great advice from mentors and industry leaders in this time — virtually attending the Campaign Leading Change conference, in particular, made a significant impression on me. I’d like to pass them on to future leaders as we continue to find our footing in this ever-changing landscape.
At a dynamic PR agency like Redhill, things move quickly. Tight deadlines and concurrent assignments are often the norm as we try to deliver great work to clients to the best of our abilities. There’s no doubt that doing everything online is slower than being able to communicate and meet in person, and being completely technology-dependent would have greatly frustrated me prior to the pandemic.
However, it soon became clear to me that adapting to a new way of working also required a recalibration of expectations. I realised that some challenges (like connection issues) were out of my control, and ‘normal’ standards of work speeds could no longer apply due to these significantly different circumstances. This was very helpful for me to accept the new reality and manage my expectations.
“Self-awareness is not weakness” is a mantra that has been instrumental in helping me cope with changes. It made me realise that asking for help is okay — after all, we are all powering through the pandemic together. Experiencing the limitations of remote working myself helped me greatly empathise with the struggles my team was facing. Not only did it strengthen our bond, it also helped us work together to become even more efficient despite everything.
While rethinking my own expectations, I found that I also had to balance these with client expectations. Regardless of the whole WFH issue, clients still needed our help — especially to cope with the pandemic and in some cases, manage crises—and we still had to find ways to deliver fast. I’ve had to field a few crisis-related calls from clients by now.
Thankfully, the fast-paced nature of PR work had previously taught me to think on my feet in any situation and that came in very handy when trying to adapt. I had to be resourceful and work with my team to build a task force quickly and handle the issue even with the WFH limitations. High-stress situations like these showed that soft skills are just as important as hard skills, especially when there’s a lot at stake.
“Self-awareness is not weakness” is a mantra that has been instrumental in helping me cope with changes. It made me realise that asking for help is okay — after all, we are all powering through the pandemic together.
Leaders need to both be confident and be able to project confidence. This reassures your team and helps keep them focused, which is even more important during a crisis when everything is haywire and uncertain. Consistent learning and practice are key to building rational confidence — I say rational because your confidence must be backed up by skill.
There are plenty of ways to practice your skills and maximise your learning experience. For one, you can take risks. Sure, that means you also put yourself at risk of failure, but sometimes the lessons you learn from those mistakes are the most valuable of all in terms of honing your skills — and it means you’re less likely to panic when you’re thrust into a crisis or unfamiliar situation.
During the pandemic, we had to communicate with clients and present pitches in completely new ways, primarily virtually. This was something I didn’t have much experience with, but I pivoted quickly and took every opportunity to develop new strategies and put them into practice while learning from my weaknesses and enhancing my knowledge bank. It was a challenge, but I could see my own improvement with every pitch and that experience gave me confidence. I was also able to use that experience to help other members of my team overcome the same issue.
If taking risks is not your forte, there are other means to boost your confidence. One that I’ve always carried with me to this day is network-building. The term “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” has never been more true. More accurately, I believe that who you know will greatly impact what you know.
In times of crisis, you look to those with experience for guidance. Besides the mentors who have guided and advised me, I was fortunate enough to be able to pick the brains of brilliant colleagues and industry peers within my network. These tidbits of knowledge and experience helped me make sure I was on the right track and gave me the confidence to lead. To date, they still go a long way in building my repertoire and confidence — so I highly recommend network-building to every person and leader that I meet.
To build a good network with knowledgeable people, you need to also show that you’re a worthwhile addition to their network by standing out. This requires improving your own knowledge and raising your own visibility — literally and figuratively. When most conversations now taking place on-screen, it’s worth putting in the effort to cut through the screen fatigue by projecting confidence in the way you talk, your grooming and the way you carry yourself.
Don’t be afraid to be vocal and have confidence in your knowledge and abilities, but also make sure that you’re adding something of value to the conversation. This is a definite way to prove your worth and make you memorable amongst your peers and contacts. It also gives your team more confidence in your leadership as they know you aren’t afraid to speak up.
Take risks. Sure, that means you also put yourself at risk of failure, but sometimes the lessons you learn from those mistakes are the most valuable of all.
Mental health has really come under the spotlight during the pandemic. Studies showed that the pandemic has resulted in a whopping 30 percent increase of adults experiencing bouts of anxiety and depression. We’re spending less (or no) time commuting but working longer hours than ever before. Boundaries are blurring as our homes are now the source of both work and play. We’re worried about/separated from our loved ones, always on high alert for the possibility of infection, and uncertain of the future.
While I think mental health should always be a priority in any facet of life, there’s no doubt that strong mental health also translates into better leadership ability. You’re less likely to be affected by things that don’t go to plan or worry about unfamiliar situations, which means you consistently do better work and make better decisions. Additionally, you’ll be able to steady and reassure others to keep team morale high.
It might seem like a small thing, but I think that it’s important for leaders to take care of their mental health first, especially during a crisis. If you burn yourself out or panic, your whole team will follow suit and/or lose confidence in you, and the issue still doesn’t get solved. By prioritising your mental health, you also set a good example for your team to follow, which leads to a more stable and productive team overall.
Boundaries are blurring as our homes are now the source of both work and play. We’re worried about/separated from our loved ones, always on high alert for the possibility of infection, and uncertain of the future.
The pandemic definitely took a toll on my mental health, but I actively chose to prioritise it. I found that the steps I took have always started small. Something as simple as planning days off for me-time helped me pace myself and recalibrate.
In addition to that, I was also lucky enough to be able to lean on a stable peer support network, which I highly recommend. Being in a safe place with the right people is a great source of much-needed mental support in these difficult times. Work will always be there and deadlines will always exist, but your mental health is difficult to recover once lost. It’s a lifelong matter to take care of.
When all is said and done, the ultimate lesson that I learned in my first leadership test is this: Good leadership during times of crisis is all about establishing a good balance — whether that be in your expectations, confidence, network or mental health. Find that balance within yourself, then help your team find it too. Stay strong, steady, confident and adaptable, and there’s no storm you and your team won’t be able to sail through.