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Leadership Now 2: Don’t Do Backwards

Jun 22nd 2020

This is the second article in our Leadership Now series, written by Wavelength associate, Helen Trevaskis.

Written by Helen Trevaskis, Associate of Wavelength

Illustration by The Trevaskis Illustration

“If I’m honest, it feels and has felt for about three weeks now there’s no going back. So we’ve actually said to our organisation, stop worrying about physical safety in our offices – we’re not going back to our offices in the way we used to. We’re instead going to rethink what the purpose of these buildings is. By and large, we are functioning at a very high level, so let’s not waste huge amounts of organisational effort putting tape out, erecting screens for an interim period let’s instead ask some profound questions about how we work effectively together.”

COVID-19 continues to rock all our realities. An estimated 21,000 more UK businesses collapsed this March than last* and those leaders with organisations left to lead are grappling with unique constellations of crises. While many are focused on survival some are presented with opportunities precisely because things have been shaken so vigorously, opportunities that often demand letting go of business as usual.

The quote above is from Nick Walkley, Chief Executive at Homes England, and was made during a Leadership Masterclass for members of Wavelength Connect earlier this month. Nick knows a thing or two about challenging business-as-usual from a leadership career defined by unwillingness to accept the status quo. He led Barnet Council from 2008, through a period of dramatic modernisation critics dubbed ‘easyCouncil’ due to extensive budget cuts and part-privatisation of services. He led Haringey Council from 2012 through equally audacious change against a backdrop of criticism of the council’s handling of the tragic cases of Victoria Climbié and Baby P. He describes his current role heading up the government’s housing, land and regeneration agency as, “trying to fix the housing crisis” and the levels of disruption required as involving “questioning every aspect of what we do”. Perhaps it’s the uncompromising nature of this remit, which Nick played his part in engineering, that helps him resist the gravitational pull of the past, including refusing to build a socially distanced approximation of pre-COVID-19 office life. Perhaps it’s a focus on the bigger crisis ahead when furloughing ends and the economic impact on the housing market is felt. Or perhaps it is the reality that while as CEO Nick may be accountable to parliament, it is his accountability to society he feels most keenly: “Currently 15,000 people who are living on the streets are living in hotel rooms [since lockdown began**]. So in terms of giving my organisation purpose… that’s very straightforward.”

As the UK opens up, many of us are contemplating what aspects of normal life we do and don’t want back. This is on the RSA’s mind too, unsurprising given the charity’s mission is to catalyse positive social change. The framework below, suggested by CEO Matthew Taylor, aims to help leaders make productive choices for the future.*** It’s recognition that not everything created during a crisis is useful is taken further by Nick Walkley who suggests that “metronomic consistency” is often a better platform for innovation.

While how much metronomic consistency there ever is at the BBC is debatable, what’s clear is there’s been less of late. One reason is what Director General Tony Hall has labelled “the biggest education effort the BBC has ever undertaken”. The new, vastly expanded BBC Bitesize, was launched to coincide with the new school term to support children’s learning through age-specific, curriculum-compliant regionalised content. It was signed off, planned, and produced in a breath-taking four weeks following a call from the Secretary of State as the Department for Education realised that they were unlikely to be able to keep schools open. Alice Webb was preparing to leave her role as Director of BBC Children’s & Education to take a well-earned break before starting her first CEO role at Universal’s Eagle Rock Entertainment. She described to Wavelength Connect members how it was not difficult to “to step up to the plate” because it was needed, only the BBC was in a position to deliver it, and without her it couldn’t happen.

What the BBC has done in rebuilding the original revision-focused BBC Bitesize – including creating 10 hours of live TV each week, Bitesize Daily, and delivering over 150 new lessons per week on the website and app during lockdown – is extraordinary but what happens when children are back at school and the BBC is no longer in crisis-response mode? Delivering the new Bitesize involved unprecedented collaboration within and beyond the BBC with traditional boundaries, divisions, and protocols pushed aside. Is this something the BBC will ‘end’ or ‘amplify’?

There is no neat conclusion to this discussion but rather some advice from a leader to leaders: in a recent conversation on How to Lead a Virtual Organisation with Wavelength co-founder Adrian Simpson, Barbie Brewer,a career HR professional with blue chip and Silicon Valley start-up experience, and who now works as Chief People Officer for an all-remote DevOps company with team members in 54 countries, suggested that the only option right now is “To lead as if it’s not temporary – go all in.”


* Financial Times: Coronavirus claims thousands of UK businesses An estimated 21,000 more UK businesses collapsed in March this year than last and those leaders who still have organisations to lead are grappling with unique and often profound constellations of crises.

** Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Government has worked closely with local authorities, charities and health providers to offer accommodation to as many rough sleepers as possible in order to help them stay safe during the pandemic. Information collated from all local authorities shows that 14,610 people have been accommodated. This includes people coming in directly from the streets, people previously housed in shared night shelters and people who have become vulnerable to rough sleeping during the pandemic.

*** Understanding Crisis-Response Measures is a framework suggested by CEO Matthew Taylor in a recent blog as one that can help leaders and organisations make conscious, productive and creative choices for the future.

Leadership Now

This is the second article in our Leadership Now series. Check out the other two at Leadership Now 1: Face the Hurt and Leadership Now 3: Look Inside-Outside