Leading through a crisis: I’m only human, after all

04 May 2020

Are design and build leaders leading through the current crisis with a long view or merely managing the present? From overseeing ongoing projects to managing cash flow, clients’ expectations and creative teams remotely, design leaders are now faced with overwhelming challenges to manage their day-to-day work and trying to sustain their businesses. But, are they able to step back and reflect on their leadership?

During the recently held webinar co-hosted by OFIS and Cosentino, Lucy Kidd, a business psychologist and leadership consultant, and design and build industry leaders – Kristina Zanic, Keenan Grote and Mariam Halim Kamel – shared their truths on how they’re currently navigating their teams through the coronavirus crisis while staying humans – after all.

LEADING FROM A DISTANCE: The courage to adapt

Over the past 20 years, Lucy Kidd has worked with 100s of leaders, helping them adapt to different challenges and changes and identifies curiosity, courage and compassion as key leadership behaviours for success.

“Curiosity to ask more questions than you give answers; the courage to step into the unknown and try something new, particularly when usual business processes are threatened. And finally, compassion and care, which means being able treat your employees with kindness even when you’re forced to make some tough choices,” explains Lucy. Setting a clear and compelling direction is a critical component of leadership, and even more so when that leadership comes from a distance and there is more opportunity for misinterpretation, distraction and even panic.

Kristina Zanic, CEO at Kristina Zanic Consultants, runs two full-fledged design studios in Dubai and Bangkok, currently managing more than 60 people out of her living room. And while Kristina and her team are gradually returning to their offices, Kristina shares with us how she’s re-evaluating her business priorities.

“Our priorities have not changed, deadlines still need to be met and we have been interestingly more productive because our clients have pushed forward their projects and we have to navigate the clients’ new priorities,” she says.

3SixtyConsult is a Dubai-based regional project management consultancy, currently overseeing multiple construction sites across the UAE. Keenan Grote, its managing director, leads the team of 15 project managers, making sure that their on-going projects run smoothly despite the challenging working conditions caused by the Coronavirus outbreak.

“Rather than stopping projects, we looked at the opportunities that this situation might create as well as working more closely and collaborating with our external partners and consultants,” says Keenan.

Mariam Halim Kamel, senior project manager at Al Tayer Stocks, who oversees and manages more than 2000 people, including construction workers, explains how she’s connecting with her teams to keep them engaged, motivated and focused.

“As a contracting company, we have multiple sites that are active so we had to create teams A and B, to make sure that our work doesn’t get interrupted. Team A being on sites and team B as a back-up and what we found was that most of the team B members wanted to go back on sites, even inspecting their sites over the weekend. On the other hand, we also had some people in our team who were afraid of going on sites and we had to manage it by offering them choices. As a leader, it is interesting to manage both ends and to get the teams safely through this crisis. All of our sites are now stable and we’ve reached a happy medium but it’s the challenges we face every day.”

For Keenan, before the coronavirus outbreak, it was quite challenging to get his team together for their Thursday morning meetings, even though they were mandatory.

“Over the past five weeks, we have been able to have team meetings weekly because the team has been able to connect more frequently, even if remotely. Also, this has allowed the management team to give training sessions to the project team as well as engage with the team more regularly than before the crisis,” explains Keenan. “As a business owner, I also have to look at the turnover and bring the new business in so I haven’t always been available to provide that personal time to ensure that I’m fully engaged with the team, and that has changed.”


THE HUMAN FACTOR: Connecting with compassion

As Lucy Kidd further explains, responding to the pressures of COVID-19 has brought the need to lead with the human factor to the forefront.

“Treating people with respect, kindness, and compassion matter more than ever as everyone faces their own challenges from a mental, financial, social, emotional and physical health perspective,” she says.

Kristina Zanic shares her experiences on what has been working well so far for her as a leader in supporting her people through these challenges: “On a personal perspective, not having to travel and I’ve been traveling two to three times a week, that’s been interesting and I don’t think that I’ve been at home for three weeks in a row for the past 10 years, and I like it. Mostly, our team has missed the human contact and social aspect of working from the office. While technology has been great, allowing people to connect via screens, it cannot replace the importance of the human contact aspect.”

Mariam further shares her experience as managing teams at ATS and how she’s balancing these human factors with the tough choices that need to be made to act with compassion and integrity. “It was interesting for us to understand and identify, which team members were more vulnerable and susceptible to the virus meant that we were not only engaging with our team members but also their families,” says Mariam. “It was fascinating what we found out about our team. For example, we have staff whose spouses are doctors and careworkers on the frontline of the Covid-19 battle so we have to ensure we could assist these families in coping with the situation. It was a learning experience for all of us. There are no right or wrong decisions, as we are all trying the best we can to get through this.”

Mariam adds that her team members had different levels of understanding of the situation, based on how well-informed they were about the coronavirus outbreak and implications. She adds: “We’ve also organized special training sessions for our labor workers so they understood the potential risks of coronavirus as well as the hygiene and safety procedures and guidelines that we set in place.”

Keenan has been using this opportunity to connect with his team on a more personal level. “I’ve noticed that I’m reaching out to them much more frequently to see how they’re doing and talk about life in general, their living conditions, and their families. In difficult situations, we’re all responding as a collective, and my approach was much more on a human side, making sure that the team is not only working well but also being well.”

From a leadership coaching perspective, Lucy Kidd shares practical advice for all business leaders on how to reach out to their teams: “Instead of asking your team members, ‘how are you?’, you can ask them: ‘How are you, today?’. The subtle difference helps people to check in with how they are feeling at that given moment rather than just giving a generic response. This helps to take care of the mental and emotional health of the team by creating more meaningful connections together.


From a developmental perspective, the current challenges also present an opportunity for leaders to step back from their day to day habits and routines to reflect on who they are as leaders. “The impact they are having on others and the legacy they will leave on their lives can stimulate self-discovery and accelerate self-awareness and growth,” explains Lucy.

With this in mind, we asked the panel what they have learned about themselves and their leadership at the moment and what’s the leadership legacy they ultimately want to leave?

“I’ve learned that I’m a people person,” starts Mariam. “It makes a big difference for me to talk to someone face-to-face instead of engaging with people via screens. This situation also forced me to prioritize my time, making sure always to keep close contact with the team.”

Being a business owner and design leader, for Kristina Zanic, some of the lessons learned during the lockdown is to explore possibilities of more flexible leadership.

“We do work in teams, and we rely on one another, but I’m thinking that maybe there are ways of occasionally incorporating work from home, especially for some of our employees in Thailand office, who are often traveling two hours just to get to work. On the other hand, when you are not leading the company but also owning the company, there are different challenges and factors that you have to think about,” she comments.

Furthermore, Keenan says that his productivity throughout the day had exponentially gone up because he’d cut down the travel time across the emirates and between the site visits and client meetings.

“Now, I’m able to get a lot more done and I hope that industry, in general, will embrace new technologies and the possibility of having on-line meetings more frequently. As a business owner, there is always that element of second-guessing, both retrospectively or during the decision-making processes, and what I’ve noticed is that one of my leadership styles to make quick decisions has helped us transition very rapidly to this new work environment,” he says.

And while the work gradually returns to the new normal, Lucy Kidd advises all leaders to use this time to challenge themselves and truly reflect on what kind of leadership legacy they’d ultimately like to leave.

Lucy recommends: “Imagine yourself right at the end of your career. Try imagining yourself at your retirement party, looking back over your life and career and asking yourself what are the key moments that I want to look back on with pride and joy? What are the big projects I want to be involved with; what do I want my team to remember me by? It gives us a different lens to look at the future self we want to be and ask ourselves how does this drive the choices that I’m making today?”

Image credit: Leadership Style blog by Steelcase 

You may also like: Infographic: Reimagining How Leaders Work 


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