Miles Crisp, CEO of Tarsus Technology Group of South Africa, said his group has been working on its leadership structure for six years.
“Six years ago, we started a complete overhaul of the organisation. We adopted a legitimate leadership framework and did workshops across the entire organisation for about 18 months. They were about what intent we wanted. Accountability was also important – we involved people in the whole framework around means, ability and accountability.
“You never really know in a measurable way how this is impacting. Over the period we gradually reduced numbers in the organisation and became more focused in what we do. We became a much leaner organisation.
“Then Covid came. We made a decision 10 days before South Africa entered full lockdown in March 2020 to move a large number of our people to work at home.
“We moved 450 people off-site in three days (we have since decided to move them off-site permanently).
“You don’t know whether they have the means. Some people didn’t have computers. Some people couldn’t afford data, etc.
“It’s impossible to control the situation, you have to stand by. The anxiety I personally experienced was that I didn’t feel I was doing enough. I wasn’t busy enough. So it was the ultimate in surrender to other leaders in the organisation.
“You are subject to the ingenuity of your people, even down to quite junior people, who have to figure out for themselves what they have to do in the situation.
“That’s when I realised it could not have been done if we had not been deliberately working on trust and on holding people accountable to trust their subordinates. In a hierarchy, trust must come from the top down – you have to give the trust first before you can expect it.
“We had been doing this for six years, and holding people to account. Training is not only about equipment and technical capability. If you are not trusted, you are not empowered.
“As a leader there was so much going on and so many moving parts, not just technically but also knowing where everyone was at, and policy-wise.
“For instance what policy do you have around working hours and sick leave and other types of leave? Some people were sent home but they were not capable of working from home. You can’t send a forklift driver home because there is nothing to forklift there. Do we put them on half pay or on leave?
“There are all these little decisions. And in the finance department, suddenly we were confronted with an audit. That department was working 18 hours a day.
“We found that because we had trust, we instantly agreed on things. For instance that people should all be paid as normal, noone should be forced to take leave, everything would be kept as close to normal as possible. We instantly created ‘Covid leave’ because we didn’t want people who had to come to the premises (some people still come to the premises) to be afraid to take leave if they felt sick.
“So I started by simply watching my teams doing it, not seeing the bedlam – and it was not bedlam.
“Then, with the lockdown, there would be no sales for a whole month.
“Our turnover is about half a billion rand a month and we have to finance the stock arriving at the ports. The ship is on its way, it has to be paid for.
“But, seeing yourself as a project, you must not panic: you have to understand what the priorities are, the big issues, what can sink you. In our case it was the bank. They decided that they would not increase our financing facility. And because of the rapid deterioration in the rand currency in the period, we had to pay R390 million more than we ordered, which came right out of our cash flow.
“This could generate panic in anyone. I realised my main job was to be calm, understand the different moving parts, ask the right questions, and then stand in absolute awe at the power unleashed by over 700 people. With not one complaint from them … it was just extraordinary.
“Then I realised that all our prior work in building trust was coming to fruition.
“So we, the small exco, and our small communications team, sat down and started communicating to everyone, and cascading the communication at different levels.
“We battled with connectivity and realised we had to use every means of communication. We used videos and Zoom sessions and SMSs and emails.
“We realised we had to share a lot of information, the bad and the good news.
“And I started communicating personally. I have saved my emails from that time, including the ‘thank you’ emails and emails from people I didn’t know asking how I was doing personally. In fact, I was doing fine.
“We had the unsold stock piled up in Durban port. Then our biggest customer was allowed to re-open a month later, on 1 May. They wanted to get stock straight into their shops so that they could start selling straight away.
“So we had to get the stock through shippers and through customs. We changed shippers halfway through. The logistics coordination to move R700 million of goods in two weeks was amazing to see – for the collaboration with the suppliers, shipping companies, trucking companies, our customers. The solving of the crises that we had, the trust that we had.
“We had bought the computers when the rand was at 14 to the dollar and we now had to pay for them when the rand was at 19 to the dollar. How to deal with that? This could have sunk us.
“I couldn’t make all the decisions, there were too many! But I used to go to my team and ask, ‘Can’t you give me more work?’
“Our communication was successful and we let our people do their work!
“Sadly we had to retrench 100 people, which our very small HR team did.
“Other than the retrenchments, all this was a very gratifying experience in which we improved as an organisation and now know our strengths and weaknesses much better. We are in better shape now than we were before.
“We had worked hard on our levels of trust with our suppliers. But there was one supplier who we didn’t experience a high level of trust with: our bank. They tried to micromanage us, they wanted a list of our disbursements every day. At one point they stopped paying our suppliers without telling us even though we were hundreds of millions within our financing facility with them. Some faceless person had applied a policy notice to us which shouldn’t have been applied.
“With our huge multinational suppliers, if you miss a payment, all kinds of adverse consequences are triggered mechanically.
“I was on the phone to director-level people at the bank at 9PM in the evening. In all of our relationships with suppliers, if there were problems, we shared information, the good and the bad. Generally, years of building trust with customers and suppliers is what saved the day.
“Now I had to focus on this one relationship – this one relationship without trust consumed 80% of my time. A wise non-executive director said we must calmly work on restoring the trust. We sat with the bank officials and said, ‘You can get this information, not that; and do you want to run the company or will you let us run the company?’
“Once I had put my emotions aside and discovered what their problem was on a human level, it became better. We discovered that the bank officials were sitting in credit meetings for 18 hours a day to limit their losses; they were in panic about many customers. When I realised this, we could put our differences aside and rebuild trust.
“In this I experienced the idea of making yourself the project. When I got angry with the bank, I had to deliberately say, ‘This is not going to help … stop being angry’. When I understood what was driving them, what the issue was, I was able to ask, ‘How can I help you?’ That resulted in automating daily reports which were pumped through to them, reducing the anxiety and rebuilding the trust.
“If I had focused on righteous indignation about the injustice being done to us, I wouldn’t have done anyone any favours.
“I tried every day to get one hour of exercise (though in the beginning I felt like a schoolboy playing truant). If you are going to be sustainably available to your people, and not get sick, you need to take exercise or relax. Make sure you are getting me-time. We are encouraging all of our people to do that. Our biggest potential problem is burnout and overwork with everyone working day and night for the survival of the company.
“Also, ask: ‘Are you making yourself the project?’”
Q: What about managing performance and output in this crisis period?
A: “With people working remotely and on their own, what has become so transparent is just who is contributing and who is not. When everyone is milling around in an office of 400 people, you see them sitting at their desks and they look busy. Now suddenly the outputs are there or they are not. Now you are hearing directly from customers about the outputs of individuals. In this remote environment, we have spent more time on indicators. But we realised that we were spending too much time on dashboards which reflected yesterday’s output; we were not spending enough time on dashboards which allowed us to focus on what we were going to do in the future. It’s not monitoring whether people stay until 5PM any more.”
Q: How did you manage the flow of information into the organisation?
A: “We have a small dedicated team doing that. This has always been a focus of ours. Because of the legitimate leadership-based induction of new people, for instance, we have always examined what we communicated, and we conducted wall-to-wall ethics workshops, for instance.
“At the top level we talked about communications all the time. In the beginning I relied a lot on emails. I sent emails with personal notes around what we were doing.
“It was a matter of getting personal communication going. And we had some lightness: we had people wearing funny hats and introducing their family members and their dogs.
“My family was lucky to have the arrival of a grandchild on during this lockdown; I put a note in some of the emails to the staff on this. There was banter and congratulations coming back from staff members I had had no personal relationship with previously. I responded to every single email with personal notes. I’ve had so many more people create direct communication with me at their initiative, regardless of their rank.
“But I make a point of never taking a decision for a manager in the organisation, to not undermine them.”
Q: What do you see as the next biggest big leadership challenge?
A: When you are in a crisis you have to trust that people remember what the purpose of the organisation is. In a crisis you do not engage in any formal induction programme showing mission, strategy, etc. But it’s important to come back to all of this afterwards; it’s important then to go back and re-examine the purpose of the organisation and make sure that people understand what their piece of the purpose is.
“In the crisis, your purpose is just to survive, but you put a time limit on this. After that time limit, go back to rebuilding the business, re-examining and refocusing the people.
“I like the Legitimate Leadership concept of inversion of means and ends. The end is a more complete person. The organisation and its tasks are the means to develop and bring people on board. We have not lost sight of that.”
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