Lockdown leadership top of mind at first online CHRO SA summit

More than 50 HR leaders gathered to discuss life during and after coronavirus. 

CHRO South Africa hosted a momentous online summit at which more than 50 CHROs and HRDs from across the country came together to engage in dialogue around the impact of Covid-19 on both business and the socio-economic landscape.

CFO Enterprises MD Joël Roerig kicked off the discussion by thanking the partners that allow the CHRO SA community to continue thriving, naming principal sponsor Workday as being “key to us continuing to connect in these trying and uncertain times.”

Associate partners for the summit and future events were Skillogical, SAP Concur, Sanlam, ClarkHouse Human Capital, Momentum Consultants and Actuaries and Compliance Online.

Ian Russell, speaker, author, independent freelance business advisor and professional non-executive director, delivered the keynote address for the historic digital gathering in which he highlighted a number of issues that business leaders in general and HR executives in particular are having to grapple with.

The most important thing, he said, was to be mindful that the eyes of the country are on every organisation. He said consumers, employees, and society at large are watching how businesses are responding to the crisis and that their response will shape the way those organisations are perceived going forward. 

“Authenticity and integrity in the way we lead and make decisions are what will be remembered, and these outweigh certainty. People will remember how you behaved and not necessarily what you did,” said Ian. “In the UK, there were two businesses that were singled out for irresponsible comments one of which was pub chain J D Wetherspoon whose CEO stated publicly that he didn’t understand why people couldn’t go out drinking anymore. That business will now be associated with those irresponsible comments for a long time.”

Ian said that this was not the time to be thinking about profitability. If anything, companies should focus exclusively on survival during this period. To do that, they should establish what their priorities are. Priorities in times of war may differ from those in times of peace but the fact is, Ian said, “but there’s no doubt about the fact that we are currently at war.”

He added: “In these times, your first priority must be your employees. Your second is your consumers. Third, are your shareholders. And, unfortunately, suppliers come after that…You need to pay as many people as you can for as long as possible. But that doesn’t mean paying them the same amount or even paying them in the same way.”

BC & AC

Ian pointed out to attendees that the world as they knew it has changed for good. Covid-19 has accelerated the need to adapt and companies no longer have the luxury of pondering how best to engage in the age of disruption, or how to effect a digital transformation strategy. The time for strategy is gone. Businesses will die if they do not act now. There is no turning back.

“Just as the business will change, so will your customers. This is the same for consumers of your products and services just as it is for HR’s customers – your employees will change too.”

Ian said the world will now be separated into ‘BC’ and ‘AC’ to signify the difference between challenges faced before and after the coronavirus.

As an example, he referred to the business performance of the company behind Zoom, which incidentally was the platform that was used for the online summit.

“Zoom’s market capitalisation has doubled in a couple of months to $40 billion. Meanwhile, the combined market cap of the top three airlines in the US has dropped from $80 billion to $43 billion. Which means Zoom almost has the same market cap as that of the top three airlines in the US,” he said, adding, even though markets would eventually correct when the crisis was over, things would never go back to normal.

Lockdown leadership

Following Ian’s presentation, HR leaders went into breakout ‘rooms’ in which they shared their ideas around ‘lockdown leadership’ and what that term meant for them. They each spoke about how the lockdown was impacting their businesses and employees.

Beiersdorf HR director Russell Coleman said they were ramping up their Employee Assistance Programme to help employees whose mental health was undoubtedly being tested by the forced isolation period.

In response to how leaders could help employees manages worries around job security and financial distress, Ian said it would be helpful to give employees something meaningful and important to do for the business because “you tend to worry less when you are busy.”

There is also the matter of what companies are going to do when this is all over, because, as Ian had just mentioned, there is no chance of ‘things going back to normal. Life after Covid-19 is bound to come with its own surprises and companies need to be prepared for that. Ian presented those in attendance with some harsh realities and challenged them to find solutions for these – some of which will involve collaboration with other businesses and even competitors. 

HR managers spoke about how they were preparing for that uncertain future, with Royal Bafokeng Platinum HR executive Vicky Thlabanelo saying they had already set up teams to put together a post-Covid-19 HR strategy to be implemented once everyone was back at work.

Redefine Properties group HR manager Renske Coetzee had the perfect analogy for the situation, saying the lockdown was like being stuck in the rapid while white-water rafting: “Don’t look up – look down, work hard, focus and get out.” 

Among all attendees, there was clear conviction that many of the lessons and resulting changes from this “war” would be positive. The hosting of an online summit for more than 50 HR executives is a case in point. Such a thing would not have taken place without Covid-19 making it necessary, and yet, once it was in motion, the learning, sharing and support offered to the community was valuable, and hugely significant at the challenging time faced by all.