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R U OK?

24 April 2023 Gareth Stokes

If you’ve ever watched the 1981 film L.A. Story, today’s headline will resonate. At one point the star of the movie, Steve Martin, who is going through somewhat of a midlife crisis, finds himself conversing with an advertising billboard on the outskirts of a city. It asks using the fewest possible letters: “R U OK?”

It’s funny how the mind works because this writer was reminded of LA Story during a recent ‘Leadership in times of crisis’ panel discussion, hosted virtually by Momentum Corporate. The discussion was part of the diversified financial services provider’s fourth annual Partnership Connect thought leadership initiative aimed at exploring leaders’ responses to change or crisis, among other things. It kicked off with a simple question asked in the context of today’s economic, political and social uncertainty: “How are you?” Panel moderator Bongani Bingwa expertly steered the conversation from ‘controlling what you can’ to ‘people-centric approaches to leadership’ to a range of other leadership concerns. 

Taking an interest in your team

The ‘how are you’ gem was expanded on by Musa Kalenga, CEO of Brave Group, who suggested using those three words to interrupt the fast-paced work cycles that develop and compound during crisis … and bring struggling team members back to earth, as it were. To do so requires that you stop everything and just ask: how are you? In fact, nothing supports the individuals on a team more than knowing that someone else has a genuine interest in their affairs. Also participating in the panel debate were Dumo Mbethe, Momentum Corporate CEO; Elna van Wyk, Momentum Corporate Head of Disability Claims and Technical Underwriting; Tebogo Mphafudi, Momentum Corporate Business Development Manager; and Monalisa Zwambila, Founder and CEO of Riverbed. The discussion was people-centric, with people described as being “at the very heart” of every business. 

“Looking after your employees is essential for your business’ success,” said Bingwa, in his opening statement. He described South Africa’s recent history as stumbling from one crisis to the next, beginning with pandemic and lockdown and continuing through extreme weather events; grey listing; lacklustre GDP growth; loadshedding; and unemployment, to name a few. Sadly, the outlook is not much rosier on the global stage where economies and financial markets are facing unique combinations of bank failures; energy crises; soaring inflation and interest rates; supply chain disruptions; and war… “The United Nations (UN) is now forecasting a gloomy and uncertain outlook for the near term [with] the best projections for global growth of just 2.4%,” he said, before asking how leadership should evolve during periods of crisis. 

Trust in your team to ensure resilience

Each of the panellists were asked to share their experience of the three-years starting March 2020. Mbethe compared the period to going 15 rounds with legendary boxer, Mike Tyson: each crisis shakes you to the core, but you have to get out of your corner to face the next.Someone recently asked me about [my thoughts and wishes] for the new year and my response was to wish for the first normal year in the 2020s,” he said. Alas, 2023 year-to-date has been anything but. As a result, there is a growing acceptance among business leaders that turmoil and uncertainty are becoming proxies for the new normal that everyone talks of, and that businesses must be resilient to survive such conditions. Mbethe’s advice to thrive under the new normal is to stay calm, stay focused, stay the course and, most importantly, trust in your team. 

Zwambila responded to the opening question by sharing a quote from researcher and storyteller Brené Brown, who wrote: “Our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability. Once we start to build vulnerability skills, we can start to develop the other skill sets”. Empathy, defined by Oxford Dictionary as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’ thus emerged as a ‘must have’ leadership skill, especially during times of crisis. “As an organisation we coped [with pandemic] by believing in ‘the power of care’ and its ability to move people from a passive to an active state [and] its ability to really inspire people to be part of the change that we sought at the time,” Zwambila said. 

Favouring innovation over retrenchment

The conversation turned to some of the coping mechanisms that leaders depend on to navigate the constant pressures they face through crisis including improving sales; maintaining financial stability; managing risks; reducing costs; strengthening balance sheets etc. Mphafudi identified support as a critical tool in crisis management. He noted that while leaders played a role in supporting employees and team members, they also needed support from others: “Good leaders feed off the energy and support of other people”. Both Van Wyk and Zwambila singled out ‘balance’ as an important leadership trait. “You have to care for the business, care for your people and care for the customer,” Zwambila explained. Businesses were encouraged to innovate through crisis and find way to grow revenues and reduce expenses rather than reducing employee headcounts. 

Employee engagement and employee wellbeing were offered up as interrelated employee benefits constructs that posed significant challenges to post-pandemic leadership teams. According to Mbethe, around 30% of people participating in the latest Partnership Connect study were not feeling engaged at work. “As leaders we must make sure that we create awareness of the avenues and channels that are available to our colleagues in terms of employee assistance programmes,” he said, before warning that leaders were not immune to work pressures. Even as leaders were being commended for their resilience through challenging times, many were struggling with their own wellbeing. “You need to be okay to make sure that everyone else is okay,” Mbethe said, reminding attendees of the airlines’ safety guidelines to put the oxygen mask on oneself first! 

Employee wellness ‘top of mind’

“Employee wellness is a concern across the board; the Partnership Connect study clearly showed that retrenchment has a significant impact on the people who remain at a firm,” said Van Wyk. To illustrate, she noted an overall wellbeing score of 7.5 out of 10 falling to just 5.9 out of 10 when the study focused on employees who had been affected by a colleague’s retrenchment. She sketched a worrying scenario in which business leaders were impressed by how their teams delivered more with less whereas individuals in teams were increasingly negative about their jobs and struggling to cope with increased workloads. “If you have negative employees due to increased workloads or lack of recognition or retrenchments this will impact employee engagement,” she said. 

To close, Bingwa asked panellists to share valuable lessons that recent crises had imparted in terms of employee- or self-care. Mbethe had some advice that will resonate with many overworked employees. “As a leader, you must realise that the email you send on a Saturday or Sunday creates a chain reaction that disrupts many employee’s lives,” he said, adding that knowing when to step away from work was good for leaders too. Mphafudi agreed, saying that it was important for leaders to take some time for themselves and be quite deliberate about their own wellbeing. “I have always looked at opportunity cost of looking after myself versus running the business,” commented Zwambila. “Over the years you realise that you do need to refuel and recharge … and take some time for hobbies and interests … but always approach the new week prepared and with intention”. 

The last word is left for today’s ‘how are you’ champion. “Sharp turns in the road are only dangerous if you forget to turn; leaders have a key role to play in ensuring that their team members understand how to turn,” concluded Kalenga, before resharing the sentiment from our opening paragraph… Leaders were reminded to make the time to ask how their team members are doing. 

Writer’s thoughts:
Employee engagement and employee wellbeing came to the fore during pandemic and lockdown and have remained ‘top of mind’ ever since. There are however concerns that small, medium and micro-enterprises (SMMEs) do not always have the resources to put employees over profit. Can financial and risk advice practices afford to put employee wellbeing over profit or, more importantly, can they afford not to? Please comment below, interact with us on Twitter at @fanews_online or email us your thoughts editor@fanews.co.za.

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