20200420 Leading from inside a bubble
Leading from inside a bubble
20 April 2020 – Vince Hawksworth tore up the rule-book when it came to starting work with Mercury as Chief Executive. With the level 4 lockdown response to Covid-19 keeping him and most of the Mercury team working from home in their bubbles, he had no choice.
“All of the leadership text books tell you that a great way to start is ‘managing by walking around’, being visible, being available to people, hearing and touching and feeling the vibe, and that was a key part of my original plan.
“I’d planned to get up to speed with the culture and get around the business and our assets on the Waikato River and the central North Island. Of course, none of that was possible.”
Vince now sees his start with Mercury as a two-phased approach: “one a Covid-19 start that is tech-driven, then another start as things open up where we have the face to face discussions”.
He is fully utilising technology to ‘meet’ the Mercury team and stakeholders, while looking forward to getting to know the people, stakeholders, places and communities that make up Mercury.
Working through ambiguity.
Vince’s previous experience in leadership has prepared him well for this challenge. In some ways the changes that Covid-19 has forced on our business and ways of working are comparable to other emergency situations – but with a key difference that this is an ongoing situation, involving considerable uncertainty.
“We talk about Covid-19 as an incident and we have incident management plan, but we’re actually living in some form of new normal that we’ll all have to adjust to.
“I think the key thing is this ability to live with a degree of ambiguity in a complex world. Being able to live with the ambiguity of not knowing how it will turn out but having to make the decision in the moment is the new normal. Being able to trust my intuition is something I’ve been working on over many years.
“If this had been my first Chief Executive role I think I would have felt much more uncomfortable,” he admits. “I do have the benefit of this being my third chief executive role, being more grounded about my expectations and confidence that I can work with people and hopefully build trust.”
“You can’t read the room on a video call.”
Vince has made over 50 Skype and Zoom calls since he joined Mercury on 30 March, and he acknowledges it has its challenges, although not in the technical sense.
“The other part of the famous ‘first 90 days’ [in a new leadership role] is to get face to face with your stakeholders and customers. That has not been possible, but I have started making phone calls to industry peers, regulators, our iwi stakeholders. That includes an acknowledgement that we will in the future have the face to face discussion, korero with stakeholders.”
And right now, it’s a challenge. “You can’t read the room on a video. You can’t see their reactions,” says Vince.
“While technology is fantastic, you shouldn’t think you would achieve the same as you would face to face. If you look at how teams and organisations operate, the fundamental underlying platform is trust. And building trust when you’re at a distance is a much more challenging task. What you can’t see as easily is those people who are really struggling with everyday challenges in their bubble”
Vince has leaned into this challenge. He believes that “as individuals we judge ourselves by our good intentions, but others judge us by our actions. So, I’ve tried to make a big effort to be available”.
He has jumped into whatever communication channel works for different groups, focusing on “what would I want to know, what would I want to hear - just being human”.
“I’ve really enjoyed the support that I’ve received, whether it’s the Skype or telephone calls, or Yammer online interaction or making a video or sending out a piece of communication that goes into a newsletter or onto the intranet. I take all of those things as really important pieces of communication.”
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