In our second episode of Any.Talk, we discuss what it's like to manage a company during a crisis.
Looking after staff and providing transparency
Anywise Managing Director Adam Evans said coming from a military background has some advantages for situations such as this because of:
How messages are delivered
This is rehearsed time and time again, which he believes gave the ex-serving people at Anywise a slight advantage during the first wave of COVID-19.
Anywise General Manager Steven Kouloumendas said the best praise he received for the company's handling of the pandemic were due to:
Creating a sense of calm
Creating a sense of community
During the first wave of the pandemic, Anywise set up a daily coffee chat call where anyone could dial in to have a chat. It wasn't just management delivering messages but rather a space where everyone could keep in touch and discuss things that weren't work-related.
Listen to the full episode below:
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Host: Annie-Mei Forster
Guests: Adam Evans, Steven Kouloumendas
Annie-Mei: It’s hard to remember a time in Victoria, or anywhere for that matter, when COVID-19 case numbers weren’t the top story on the news each night.
Victoria thought it was in the clear after June when restrictions started easing but after COVID-19 case numbers started climbing again and the state went back into lockdown, no one knows when life will go back to normal.
Australian businesses both big and small have taken an enormous hit during this time so I spoke to Anywise managing director Adam Evans and general manager Steve Kouloumendas on what it’s like to manage during a crisis.
I’m Annie-Mei Forster and welcome to Any.Talk.
Annie-Mei: Thanks Adam and Steve for joining me today. Adam, I’d firstly like to talk about how Anywise was doing before the pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about any hardships or crises the company has gone through in the past and how the Anywise team was able to navigate its way through them?
Adam: A crises to me means an unfamiliar environment where change has happened faster than the organisation’s ability to keep up or has the potential to move faster. For me it’s very much about the way the organisation is responding to a changing set of circumstances.
We’ve had staff deployed into Europe on the fringes of a terror attack, which whilst they were perfectly safe that situation had the potential to move much faster than the organisation’s ability to keep up.
More recently last year, a key client of ours made the decision to abruptly cut off access to contract opportunities to government contracts for SMEs, which again presented a shock of sufficient size that the organisation had the potential to get behind.
We have a number of examples, which demonstrate the way which we respond to crises. But certainly nothing to the scale that we’re all experiencing now. I mean, this pandemic and the economic impact of the pandemic are beyond significant. Right now in Victoria it’s playing out in terribly tragic terms for hundreds if not thousands of people.
I think in some ways a military career might prepare you for that because in essence you rehearse crises all the time. So the communication, the kind of decision making, the manner in which messages are delivered have been rehearsed in some regard which I think ex-serving folk in our company, gave them the first time round at least a bit of an advantage.
It also very much helps having a director in the company, my wife who is also ex-serving and for the last 12 years has been an international disaster, relief and security specialist for all the big non-government organisations around the planet.
So the couch conversations on a Friday at home after work often turn to, “Oh, I’m having this issue. How might we solve that?” And I get to tap into decades of experience in crisis management.
So I think that prepared us in some regard to what we faced and what we are facing now. I think also almost as a kind of by-product of the kind of company that we are. Nobody predicted this. We didn’t have our business continuity plan in place. We were caught flat-footed along with every other, most organisations. But I think we were well-balanced and because our staff are fluent with the language and the methods of innovation and because universally our staff are motivated to improve and to adapt to change. Potentially because we made those decisions around our disposition and market diversity, I feel like we were and still are able to absorb information and as calmly as we can, make decisions and respond to change quickly. I think that’s certainly been good to watch throughout the entire organisation.
You know, we talk about the executive team, the inner core of the company. But I see it with project managers having difficult conversations with their clients because the Anywise team has made decisions and adapted before the client’s larger bureaucratic organisation has. So in a lot of ways I’ve watched them coach and mentor our clients [to] adapt to this crisis as well. Which has been really rewarding.
Annie-Mei: Thanks Adam. Steve how would you say your leadership style has changed since the pandemic hit?
Steve: Really good question and the pandemic is not on a scale that most people have seen because it has touched every single person. Certainly I think the way we perform crisis management and the like, is intrinsically tied to our values. What we talked about before about our values being core to integrity and these family-like values. When something like this happens, as a father of two kids it was amazing how much that type of paternal and parent-like instincts certainly come into the company as well. So certainly when you’re thinking about the leadership that we provided at the company level and first and foremost is people’s safety and wellbeing and ensuring everyone has that message. The way we can communicate with everyone, the way everyone can communicate with each other.
One of the things that has made this pandemic unique is everyone being in isolation. That creates another barrier. Humans are social creatures by nature and one of the ways people deal with this stress is to communicate with each other and you often can’t replace that through Zoom calls and video calls. So doing our best to offer environments, albeit virtual to foster that. We very quickly spun off these virtual coffee meetings, some more family-like environments, virtual quizzes and the like. An opportunity to just communicate and shoot the breeze and talk about whether it be the pandemic itself or talk about other news and other ways that people are coping and mechanisms in it.
All those have been core to the response and I do think we have a bit of an unfair advantage as a smaller company. So this is, where I guess, we talk about being agile and responsive. We do have a way to do that as a smaller company. It’s probably much easier than what it is in more bureaucratic organisations, but there’s also some of those values that come into play as well.
If you think of a much larger organisation that doesn’t necessarily have innovation at its core, or adaptability and flexibility. That’s almost core to the people that are within it. These people are much more likely to adapt to the situation and find a way to see the sparkling light in a situation where others would just focus on the negative. This ability to focus on the positive and pivot towards that always helps us in our response.
Annie-Mei: Yeah, you mentioned before about having the video conference calls with the team to stay connected, so that leads into my next question which is, what have you been able to do as a management team to keep morale up among staff especially at this time when there’s a lot of uncertainty and Victoria has been hit hard by unemployment
Steve: Certainly I think those video calls and those coffee chats were strong to keep morale up.
One of the strongest bits of feedback that I think we got during this, is this ability to create a sense of calm and a sense of community. The whole rationale of these video calls was not necessarily a video call where one person speaks and everyone listens. It’s about a community where everyone had an opportunity to interact with one another and help each other through this. So, you know, we often talk about strength in numbers and this has been very true in this scenario. Even just people having that conversation and realising there’s something else and having follow-up personal calls on an issue or whether it’s ‘hey, I’ve got the design to make a mask’, or something like that.
Annie-Mei: What do you think Anywise’s greatest achievement has been during this lockdown?
Adam: Thanks, Annie-Mei. I think we’ve had a lot of successful work outcomes.
We made deliberate decisions to invest in staff upfront, put a couple of large tender responses in and we finished a couple of projects. There’s been a lot of good work outcomes. But I think they are all secondary to just keeping everybody safe.
Right at the start of lockdown 1, anxiety was really high across the board. Everyone was tied to these statistics on the news and there was a real sense of foreboding. Nobody was really sure what was going to happen. So we just quickly got ourselves into a huddle and we crafted a really simple way for all of my decisions to be made with the intention of reducing the impact of the pandemic on staff. I think that was really good feedback and counselling from a representative team of the organisation.
What it meant from that moment on, every meeting, every communications package, every decision that the organisation made throughout the organisation was designed to keep people safe. Now clearly, a remote environment where the government is saying ‘stay home’, there’s not a lot for the leadership people of the company to do other than to reinforce that message.
But as Steve said, a number of initiatives popped up around quizzes, family video calls, social or pastoral check-ins for people, buddy systems, which I think were all contributed to not any group or individual’s greatest achievement but by far the company’s greatest achievement. The grace and integrity with which the company has survived so far in response to the pandemic.
Annie-Mei: Yeah you mentioned social responsibility being core to why you started Anywise, and since the pandemic started there’s been a lot of companies that have jumped on that social responsibility bandwagon. How do you set yourself apart from those companies that are using social responsibility as more of a marketing tactic?
Adam: Yeah, it’s an interesting thing to note, isn’t it? There are some very, very large companies now that have adjusted the way they present themselves. Some, quite surprising, new age suggest socially responsible companies.
It is hard for me to criticise them though. One of the things I’m most proud of, one of the investments we made in the lockdown last time, which is still underway is that deep dive into our own values and into a commitment to realign where we have diverged a little or where we’re not quite demonstrating our values in everything we say and do.
Given Steve’s point about us having the advantage, that is a real advantage. We can do that really quickly. So whilst there are clearly a large number of companies that are now demonstrating that they are responsible and awake to the needs of diversity, the needs to provide equitable opportunity for all races, creeds, colours and backgrounds. For me, the proof will be in the pudding, right?
So core to our company is this idea of integrity. I think it’s easy when everybody’s watching to do the right thing, it’s a lot harder when nobody’s watching. And I wish all the companies that have now understood the value they can have to their staff, the community and the planet the best of luck and I hope they are as successful at seeing profit and purpose as we’ve been.
Annie-Mei: Ok great. Did you have anything to add to that, Steve?
Steve: I’ll add one thing to that. For every company that does indulge in this balance of profit and purpose and having a corporate social responsibility mantra, having this I think we can’t underestimate what affect that has on the entire ecosystem. So by Anywise leading the way in becoming B-Corp Certified and having this mantra within the organisation, the number of organisations that have approached me personally and said ‘Hey, what are you guys doing? That looks really good over there. Can you help us out? We’d actually like to pursue something of a similar nature. So overall I think it will certainly help other organisations to at least match and find their own purpose. I think that has a positive affect not just on the company but overall all the competitor companies, if you will in the market.
Annie-Mei: Ok great, we’re going to wrap it up there. Thank you so much Adam and Steve for taking the time to talk to me today.
Adam: Thanks Annie-Mei. It’s been really nice diving into some of these answers.
Annie-Mei: That’s it from us. Make sure to follow Anywise on Twitter and LinkedIn. If you’d like to make a comment about how your company has managed during COVID-19 or would just like to get in touch, feel free to shoot us a message.
Until next time, I’m Annie-Mei Forster and this is Any.Talk.