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  • Writer's pictureDan O'Driscoll

Leadership & Engagement - are they on the back-burner?

Over the last 4 weeks I have been talking to lots of people about the impact on their role during social distancing and how their organisation is providing leadership during this challenging period. Our ways of working have changed so much in a short space of time and we have all had to adapt, but should engagement and leadership be put on the back burner when we need it most?

What it has highlighted to me is the huge variance in how organisations have been engaging and working with their employees and volunteers. It’s also thrown up a lot of questions about staff retention. How staff are treated now will lead to how they feel and connect to the organisation when this is over, especially if that organisation could have supported their people more.

There have been lots of articles written about leadership during a crisis which are worth reading, but I wanted to talk to people about how their organisation is focusing on leadership during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Recently I interviewed Erin Hallett who is Head of Alumni Relations at Imperial College Business School. Erin and her team oversee the 19,000 plus alumni at the Business School keeping them engaged and connected with Imperial College. During our conversation we spoke about compassionate leadership during the crisis, senior leadership showing their human side and how investing in your staff now is needed more than ever before.


Can you give a sense of what it’s been like working for Imperial College London during this crisis?

I have to first acknowledge that working at Imperial, even at a distance from the Faculty of Medicine, is a huge privilege right now with the Covid-19 research taking place and so many of our colleagues involved in fighting the virus. I have so much respect and admiration for my colleagues.

In many ways, it’s been a relatively smooth transition to remote working. Communications from Imperial’s President to our Information Systems teams has been regular, informative and supportive.

The most difficult thing, as for everyone, has been the lack of face-to-face engagement. Particularly in a team where so much of our activities involve human interaction! I definitely miss seeing my team and our alumni.

How have senior leadership reacted? – What’s changed? The Business School’s leadership have been incredibly visible during this time and they’ve vocalised their support at every available opportunity. They have also been vocal about recognising that staff are having different experiences during this time and flexibility is critical to everyone’s success and well-being.

Personally, I don’t feel there has been much of a change but rather that this situation has brought some of the most important leadership qualities – compassion, flexibility, communication – to the forefront.

What do you think will continue in the way that senior leadership has engaged with staff? I hope that senior leadership will continue to build on the School’s improved communication and staff will feel empowered to bring more of their ‘real’ selves to work.

How are staff being engaged and supported during this period? Both Imperial College London and the Business School have been great in recognising they need to find creative, non-traditional ways to support staff during this time and that it’s not ‘business as usual’.

The Business School has a Professional Staff Council and they have been actively creating online activities and resources across all areas using Microsoft Teams. We have things like an online book club, weekly photo contest and the Council will host an online pub quiz this week. One of our academics even created a ‘Time Waster’ channel where we share things like silly memes and YouTube videos. There are also channels for parents, fitness, health and well-being.

Imperial has similar initiatives, and also excellent resources from the Human Resources and Learning and Development teams.

At a higher level, there are weekly updates from the President and the Dean of the Business School. The Dean has also hosted informal professional staff drop-in sessions where staff can ask any questions they may have.

For me, it’s important to ‘see’ my team so we have a daily tea break. It’s super informal and often involves a combination of saying hello to people’s children and pets, talking about our Netflix favourites, and our grocery shopping adventures.

I think all of these things help build an engaged community and work especially well because it is reaching staff across all levels and their different areas of need.

Have there been any initiatives that Imperial have introduced? Imperial has been working with the NHS to provide clinical and non-clinical volunteers during the outbreak. Once a staff person is accepted as a volunteer, and agreed with their manager, they can take time to volunteer during regular working hours.

Overall, there has definitely been a stronger emphasis on flexibility and mental well-being, including signposting to existing internal resources and external resources like the NHS web pages and mental health charities. But mainly Imperial and the Business School have made excellent use of existing technologies to strengthen engagement and improve communication.

What do you think will be differently at Imperial once this has finished? I think this experience has both humanised and humbled everyone at all levels and made us all aware that our colleagues have lives outside of work – sometimes complicated and messy! We have all seen different sides of each other, including senior leadership. I hope we remember these less perfect versions when this is over.

I also think the experience has highlighted all of our teams’ resilience and collaboration in how we interact and how we have still managed to work at a high-level and produce successful outcomes.

In many ways, I believe our teams will come back stronger and with more confidence both in their personal and professional abilities.

Finally, I hope senior leadership will continue to see the value in vulnerability and that it helps develop a culture of mutual respect and kindness.

What’s been your biggest learning during this period? When this situation started, a person I admire said to me, ‘What your team needs now is compassion’. Their comments stuck with me and I have tried to lead from a place of compassion, both for myself and for my team.

This period has taught me that compassion isn’t about weakness or pity, and that resilience isn’t about pushing through to the point where you are mentally and physically unwell. It’s taught me the value of flexibility and that being flexible still allows for productivity and success. It’s helped me become more comfortable with uncertainty and existing in the present.

I hope I come out of this a better leader and a person. Work has always been the largest part of my identity and this period has made realise there has to be more room in my life for other things.

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