A Reflection of Personal Leadership of a New Role in a Pandemic.

Rob Rees MBE DL was proud to start a new leadership role just 10 days before the Covid-19 pandemic meant a State of Emergency was declared in Victoria, Australia.

Rob, formerly known as the The Cotswold Chef and MD of The Wiggly Worm charity in Gloucestershire, is a visionary social entrepreneur whose work has had an impact on the positive health of millions of people around the globe.

Since becoming a QuoLux LEAD alumnus and moving to Australia in 2015, Rob has worked with many partners to make change happen, challenge the status quo and improve the nation's well-being and economy, including the successful and popular Kitchen Challenge Australia that he introduced.

Having now completed 40 days and 40 nights in his new role, Rob has shared some personal reflections on leadership during these unprecedented times.

"On March 2nd, 2020, I was privileged to join an experienced food systems and community asset-based non-profit in the role of Chief Executive Officer. An organisation with a heartbeat full of joyful dedication to the people that it serves. An organisation well-governed and led superbly by the former CEO and its people, equally as great. I see my appointment as a chance to grow its impact and build on its greatness by developing its offer, collaborations and process.

"A Chief Executive Officer has three key elements to focus on – its people, its story and its finances, and to make those the best they can in order to make more positive impact. Of course, these are all aligned to organisational mission, vision and purpose.

"Today on 8th May 2020 I am 40 days and 40 nights into that employment. I felt it was time to consider documenting my reflections as a leader during one of the fastest global attacks on our systematic way of work and living in our modern times.

"There are religious links associated with 40 days and 40 nights – for me, I would like that to reference the temptations of leadership and the balance between styles, theories and actions required to lead.

"A new job has new plans as a leader. I topped up on all the rules and tools required to walk into a business working with 19 staff, across multi sites, mostly part-time and all driven by purpose. The operation of business runs deep into my blood and veins being the subject of food and people. As a leader in a new role you must listen, engage and involve your team; make no judgement and gather feedback as early as you can on your own way of working.

"Leadership at all levels but particularly as a CEO requires emotional intelligence and empathy. The early days as any team member in a new job requires you to have gratitude and humility. This extends to include all levels of the organisation. It takes time to learn where the files are on the system, who people are, what locations they work in and strengths they have, let alone what the payroll system and financial reporting looks like, HR opportunities and so forth.

"Then as a CEO you must be aware of your Board. Their role, their collective and individual personality are so important for a CEO to understand. It is not the role of a CEO to change those differences, but to gain the ability to understand their thinking, reasoning and focus and in turn add value, build upon debate and support growth and management. Those first few days in a new organisation are about the need as a CEO to share your vulnerability, be confident enough to own where your growth lies, and to slowly set out your style of working, your personality and hopefully your genuine availability and approach to decision making.

"Five days into this new role I start to draft a Pandemic Policy. What was I thinking? My question to colleagues in the office space moved from details of roles, to trying to understand better how people travel to work, how many have vulnerable conditions, how robust are our mental health and wellbeing at work schemes and what would our workforce look like if, say, 30%, for whatever reason, would be unavailable. The responses were nervous laughter and unsure reactions to the new guy in charge!

"Four working days on from that – we went into Lockdown. The board correctly also placing myself and my finance officer into self-isolation for the duration of the State of Emergency.

"This unprecedented situation told me everything I need to know about the people I now work with. They are an agile, adaptable, resilient team. I would go into battle with them and the board again at any time. My pride in their work goes beyond words. Their purpose unites them. Their impact defines them. It also confirms that every single one of us can see external influences on our lives via very different lenses – and that is ok.

"As a leader, traditionally we would need to focus on nurturing the good performers to become even better and lead their teams. In this current situation of remote and home working, I believed it is my role to take more time with the individuals who make up our organisation and respond to their situations. As a leader working with the unknown, every rung of the situational leadership ladder had to come into play.

"From being clear and specific with delegations of standards, to keeping the entire workforce safe, to being far more democratic about tasks and deadlines and the emotions of communities we serve. It is important to regularly reiterate the need to focus only on what we know, and to take just one small proportion of a task to try and complete each day instead of aiming for many. It is important to encourage team members to see achievement each day, however small and to focus more on behaviours required to achieve them. It is important to remain authentic in my style. I would often hear myself saying “I do not know, if I did not know still”. I needed to dig deep in my charisma pocket – friends will know it is quite deep – but I believe I reached in and found some.

"As the time rolls on, there remained huge levels of ambiguity in trying to forecast or resolve matters. It was complex for all of us. The crisis quickly opened opportunity for collaborations and conversations with others. These collaborations have truly helped to unite leaders in a common purpose. To drop perceived barriers to threats or competitions, to align our focus with those we are here to serve. As a leader, it has helped provide a different element of focus and some clarity around direction if only for a short-term period of the lockdown during the stages of relief and recovery. It is exciting to bring in a new concept into the organisation during the crisis that helped create a movement amongst the workforce with a view that it will reshape our future beyond Covid-19.

"Now, at day 40, it is a pleasure to start to involve the team in discussion about any thaw in lockdown and lessons learnt to impact our way of working. We have time to manage this with strong team involvement when compared to the short rush to lockdown. Understanding what has brought the joy or challenge during these circumstances, understanding future work from home ideals and seeking out feedback from the team to how safe they feel with my leadership, are important to understand.

"As mentioned previously, a leader’s relationship with the board is also fundamental. The board have known when to question and when to stand back. Early into my appointment, and not just due to Covid-19, during the first few days, each and everyone has said, “If you need help just ask.” I did ask. Why would a CEO not seek advice from a collective group of diverse and experienced individuals? Quick strategic issues needed input and decisions – funding schemes, pandemic policies, human resources issues to name just three. At the same time, it was important to remain focused as much on the day-to-day duties and direction of the business. The board helped maintain that focus.

"Upon reflection of my first 40 days and nights, I remain highly motivated by the organisation, its people and what it achieves. Its robust leadership prior to my arrival allows it to be ready for the unknown. Time will tell if some of the actions taken are for the best or not. I certainly have got some things wrong.

"I find myself in an extraordinary role, working with extraordinary people, in extraordinary circumstances. Leadership can be lonely. Leadership can be exhilarating. Leadership can be frightening.

"Leadership with this team, in these times, is inspiring.

"Thanks for reading.

Rob Rees MBE DL"

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