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The words of 2020 – unprecedented, pivot, crisis, pandemic, reinvent, work from home, lockdown, isolation, mental health and wellbeing, stress, social distancing, hand sanitiser, elbow bump. While many of these are not new words per se, they have been such dominant words in our conversations at work, with family and friends and in the media, that at times it has been challenging to hear a discussion of more than two minutes that hasn’t centred on them.

While this is understandable, we also realise that we are fatigued, even exhausted, by both our COVID world and by these words. We are in need of hope, of holistic health, of spontaneity, of fun.

In a recent article by Korn Ferry they spoke with several high-profile CEOs, including Tim Schmid, Johnson & Johnson and John Donahoe, Nike. They asked them what they have learned this year and how they can best lead and support their staff in this ongoing COVID crisis and recession.

I found two aspects particularly pertinent.


1. The Power of Being Human and Vulnerable

We often share with our clients that business is made up of two parts, your processes and your people.

In the last 20 years, we have focused intensely on improving business by improving processes. As a result, enterprises are leaner than ever, in fact, there is not much more you can ‘squeeze out’ of process improvement. And most of your competitors, at least those still in business, have done the same thing. Every company is leaner and better, so the competitive advantage you once enjoyed has been eroded.

The people side of the equation is now where the significant advantage lies for a business. Unleashing the power and potential of your people will enable you to get a competitive advantage.

To realise that potential, your people need to be ‘lifted’ not ‘squeezed’ and that has become even more important, and even more difficult, during the COVID crisis. As a leader, you need to lift them by building a sense of hope, showing them a vision of a future that is inspiring and worth striving for.

Tim Schmid, from Johnson & Johnson has some interesting ideas on how best to do this. He said that his most significant learning as a leader through the pandemic had been the power of being human and vulnerable.


Tim Scmid


‘This year has taken a toll on everyone, the pandemic has been the most disruptive event most of us have ever endured, and it has taken a significant toll on our personal and mental wellbeing.


At Johnson & Johnson we realised there was a need to get training for everyone in energy management, to focus on mental health and wellbeing. In every training session, our leaders talked about their own personal experiences. They showed their vulnerability and it had a profound impact. It showed us how being human, showing compassion and being vulnerable doesn’t erode confidence, it actually builds confidence and trust.’


2. You are Not a Machine

As a leader, there is a tendency to think almost exclusively about your staff and yet, to weather this crisis and emerge stronger from it, you cannot ignore your wellbeing. In reality, you are most valuable to your team when you are at your best. Looking after yourself enables you to be calm, confident and forward-thinking for your staff.

Tim Schmid, Johnson & Johnson described the impact of the pandemic on his mental health and wellbeing. He realised he could not simply continue like a machine.

‘The pandemic has created many challenges, lots of stress and many tough and scary moments for all of us. But the toughest moment for me wasn’t just about work. It was all about the confluence of professional and personal family pressures brought on by the unfolding pandemic. The 24/7 work cycle, children home-schooling, a daughter stranded on the other side of the world and ageing parents we could not get to.


In the midst of the Singapore lockdown, I hit a low point. I felt lost, I felt overwhelmed, I felt anxious and completely exhausted. My behaviours were changing, I was less patient with my colleagues and family. I realised I was on the verge of burning out and needed to do something different.


I took some time off and focused more on things that gave me positive energy – I exercised more, spent more time with family and friends. And I told my story because I know I’m not alone with struggling, we all have a story of hardship. Sometimes we see this struggle as a sign of weakness, but more than ever, we have to acknowledge and address these issues as leaders if we really want our teams to deliver the highest level of performance.’


John Donohoe


John Donahoe, Nike spoke about a lesson he learned from a previous manager.

‘One of the greatest mentors of my career was Tom Tierney, who was my predecessor at Bain. Early in my career, when I was stressed out and he was my boss, he said to me: “Donahoe, when I come in and I’m distracted or stressed or irritable, do people notice?”
I said: “Yeah, Tom. We definitely notice.”
He said: “Does that make you guys work more effectively?”
I said: “No, Tom. We actually just talk about how stressed you seem.”

He said: “When I come in and I seem rested, present and calm, do you guys notice?”
I said: “Yeah, Tom. We love it when you’re like that.”
He said: “Does that make you guys work more effectively?”
I said: “Yeah, because we feel comfortable and at home.”

He said: “Well John, I would encourage you to spend more time taking care of yourself—it is not the selfish thing to do but actually the selfless thing to do. It’s a really important part of being a leader, especially in stressful or uncertain times because you need to be present, calm and nurturing.”

And he was right. So during this pandemic, I’m working out more, I meditate and I need eight hours sleep. I’m not afraid to say that anymore. I’ve done the hero thing about not needing sleep, and it really doesn’t work.’


As a leader, are you looking after yourself …… really? Have you shared some of your struggles and fears with your team? Are you scheduling time for the things that give you positive energy so that you can be your best self, for your staff and your family?

Try not to ‘wait until there is time’ because there never will be time and burn-out has a habit of biting hard at the most inopportune moment.