How has leadership changed since the outbreak of Covid-19 and during lockdown? A Q&A with leaders from across Cambridge Assessment

by Guest Blogger, 14 October 2020
Collage of Cambridge Assessment senior leaders

This year many organisations have had to adapt and innovate due to Covid-19. Many employees have had to change their working habits in order to try and ensure business operates as usual. And leaders have had to make decisions, lead organisations and manage people under circumstances they never could have imagined.

Cambridge Assessment’s Women in Leadership staff network caught up with members of our senior leadership team to find out how their professional and personal lives have changed and adapted during these uncertain times. Jill Duffy (Chief Executive of OCR and sponsor of the Women in Leadership staff network), Fran Woodward (Chief Executive of Cambridge Assessment English and sponsor of the Women in Leadership staff network), Saul Nassé (Group Chief Executive), Guy Nicholson (Group Print and Operations Director), Elizabeth Cater (Managing Director of CEM), Jane Mann (Managing Director of Cambridge Partnership for Education), Chris Spratt (Director of Group Services and Property) and Xavi Ballesteros (Cambridge English Country Director, Spain and Portugal) share their thoughts and experiences of leadership during the pandemic.

How have you found working during lockdown?

Jill: I quickly got into the rhythm of working at home during lockdown, and very early on I realised that I needed to place some structure in my day. I'd start the day with a short walk before starting my working day and sitting down in my office. I'd finish around 18:00 to go for a run or to play tennis, as I can do now. So, very consciously, providing a break between the working day and my evenings. I am finding being on Teams all day quite tiring. And there's very little variation, if you like, and I'm missing having face to face contact with people or having trips into schools or other sorts of meetings outside of my virtual office. But having said all that, I'm enjoying having a better work-life balance and spending more time with my family. And I'm appreciating, much more than I have done before, my local neighbourhood and the natural world that I can get out into and have walks in.

Chris: I think I have to admit I’ve felt it to be a relatively positive experience. I joined the organisation in May. And in my previous job, I was based in London. So, the most significant change, of course, was not having to brave the daily commute. I think I therefore felt more invigorated, more fresh during the day. And as a consequence, hopefully a bit more productive. I did miss the buzz and convenience of the office environment, though. But as part of the organisation’s' Covid Response Incident Management Team, I was kept very busy, so I didn't have time to dwell on the change of routine. I'm conscious I've been lucky, and I know that lockdown hasn't necessarily been a positive experience for everyone. I think setting yourself a routine is really important. One benefit I found working from home was finding time to kick start the day with a half decent breakfast. I also found it important to set time away from all those teams meetings, whether it was to grab a cuppa, catch up on the news, read some emails, do some work, make a phone call, all that sort of stuff. Otherwise, you’re really in danger of just seeing each day disappear in a fog of virtual meetings.

Have your leadership styles changed since lockdown? If so, how?

Xavi: My leadership style has been modified during lockdown as I think the circumstances required it. Under this scenario, I gave much more into account of the well-being of my colleagues. As I understood it, many people were struggling at home because of the situation of the crisis that surrounded us. And I have to admit that I was also struggling at home. I think all of us were, one way or the other. So, it's a question of being empathetic and trying to put yourself in the shoes of your colleagues. From my point of view, I think that one of the success stories of Spain and Portugal was that we were all supportive of each other. We were all there to help each other, to reach out to each other, to speak with each other. And I think that was really positive.

...many people were struggling at home because of the situation of the crisis that surrounded us. And I have to admit that I was also struggling at home. I think all of us were, one way or the other.

Saul: I think my leadership style has evolved a bit in lockdown. I think there's also been a thing of phases. I was very conscious in those first few days and weeks of lockdown when we were having to make very quick decisions that I'd become much more directive in my style. I'm naturally quite a consensual leader and one who likes to, you know, discuss and bring people together around a topic. And actually, it was all a bit of ‘bish bash bosh’ at the beginning. I’ve actually had to make a conscious decision to pull back and start modelling the wider range of leadership styles that one has available. In that sense, I think that's probably the biggest thing that's changed for me as I'm being more meticulous in my thinking about how I want to be as a leader in different situations, rather than just being sort of instinctive about it.

Guy: In the early days as the situation was unfolding and we had those daily briefings from Downing Street, there were lots of changes around lockdown, and around education and exam taking around the world. I think it was important to react quickly to that and make decisions promptly. And I think I probably turned to a more directive leadership style, perhaps more fiery red in my outlook. I think more recently, I've dialled up perhaps more of my sunshine yellow, as it were. I've definitely become more conscious of the pastoral aspects of management and leadership. It's been a real kind of people-first approach at DC 10 and DC 20 (Cambridge Assessment’s distribution centres). And I know for the organisation overall, as more and more people have come back (to the office), it's been important to make sure that they are both physically and psychologically ready to do so, and I think I've probably dialed up that side of my leadership over the course of the last few weeks.

Elizabeth: My core leadership style hasn't changed, but what has changed is that I've really tried to dial up the communication element of my leadership style. And to make sure that there is perhaps a heightened focus on well-being without intruding in people's private lives, but being aware that everybody's working in different circumstances and some are feeling good about it and some less so. Another thing I've been trying to dial up is a question of empowerment. So, making sure that things can happen without me being in the room, because there are so many projects that we've been working on over the last few months and needing an approval from me on everything wouldn't work. So, trying to understand how to engender empowerment across the teams has been a focus as well.

It is often difficult to lead people/organisations virtually, what suggestions can you give to other team leaders/managers as well as employees on staying connected and being influenced?

Fran: I think the opportunity to regularly meet with your colleagues is vital. So scheduling in regular team meetings, not long meetings that are going to take the whole day, but regular meetings that enable you to understand what everybody's doing, what the priorities are, so you can flex those dependent on what's coming in and out at any one time to stay connected. I think it's really important that we don't lose those one to ones. In fact, you may even want to increase those. Making sure that you're having that one to one dialogue with your line report or your line manager is important, because that's when you get an opportunity to have a chat about work, but also about family and friends and the situation outside of work and how people are coping. It enables you to really see how people are feeling and what's the best support you can give.

What I would suggest to other colleagues regarding working from home under these circumstances, is to connect with other people, to speak with other people and then to speak with them again and speak with them a third time. Just don't let the conversation stop.

Xavi: What I would suggest to other colleagues regarding working from home under these circumstances, is to connect with other people, to speak with other people and then to speak with them again and speak with them a third time. Just don't let the conversation stop. If you were accustomed in the office to just standing up and going over to a colleague's desk to talk about something or to ask something, do the same now on the phone or connect with that person through Teams. I would say exactly the same thing about our examination centres, about our preparation centres and about our different customers. For example, if in the past we were accustomed to a monthly meeting with a customer, let's continue having that monthly meeting in a virtual format, let's continue having that conversation. On a more personal level, I would suggest trying to find a hobby that you could do from home. In my case, that hobby is reading. I make sure that I dedicate at least half an hour to reading a chapter of my latest book before I start working in the mornings, which is what I used to do before the pandemic, on the bus, on my way to work.

Guy: I think one of the major things that I've learned is to make time for both the formal and informal engagement at work. On the formal side of it, I've continued my regular one to ones with my assistant directors and I have my daily touch base with my boss, Dave Bulman. But it's also about making time for informal communication, the stuff that you might do when you see or bump into people around the office or the distribution centeres. I think like most people, I found organising a virtual tea break every day for my senior leadership team, really, really valuable. We do talk about work to some extent, but it's also an opportunity to chat and to socialise a little bit, to shoot the breeze. I think certainly for my well-being and my feeling of connectedness at work, that's been really important. It's also been fun to be involved in some of the social activities that my SMT (senior management team) have organised. We've had a few virtual quizzes along the way which have been really nice, involving people's partners, children and pets. We even had a fancy dress one as well, which was not only fun, but it was a good way of staying personally connected with the team during the lockdown period.

What has been the best thing to come out of lockdown?

Xavi: The two best things to have come out of lockdown is on the one hand, the tremendous amount of innovations that have surfaced during the pandemic. That's one thing. And on the other hand, to see a fantastic amount of teamwork that has been taking place to make things work. I'm very proud of the tremendous collective effort that I have seen on behalf of all of my colleagues to help us get out of the crisis, to prepare us for the upcoming months of the current situation and for a post-pandemic scenario. Because it will happen. It will come. In the end we hope people learn English and prove their skills to the world and the pandemic. We have continued to do this. On a more personal level, my boy is two and a half years old, and I'm now able to spend more time with him and share some of those milestones with my wife, some of those special moments in his development. Since the pandemic began six months ago, I have seen him start saying more words and start speaking more. I have seen him go from his crib over to his new bedroom. I have seen him go to the swimming pool for the first time and I have even seen him ride his new bicycle, which was only about three weeks ago. At least this is something really nice and positive that has come out of this situation.

I have got some great working relationships with people I've never actually met face to face. And when I think about it, I probably spend more time with people in the virtual environment than I ever would have done in a physical one.

Chris: Well, we've all had to embrace new ways of working, haven't we? And I think in general terms, organisations have realised that employees are actually very adaptable and naturally committed. The nature of lockdown has forced us to find ways of keeping in touch and I think that's actually improved relationships, not hindered them. It's also great to see so many people supporting and encouraging their co-workers. I found joining Cambridge Assessment during lockdown to be a very positive experience as well. Although now I know the business a bit more and understand the general positivity around the organisation, that is perhaps less surprising. I have got some great working relationships with people I've never actually met face to face. And when I think about it, I probably spend more time with people in the virtual environment than I ever would have done in a physical one.

What has surprised you the most?

Saul: What surprised me most is just how effective we've been able to be and frankly, just how easily we managed to switch into that working from home mode across the organisation. And that's thanks to a lot of hard work that's been put in, in particular by the technology teams in the last few years. I think if this pandemic had hit around the time I joined the organisation in 2014, I think we'd have had a much harder time of it.

Fran: Just how we can innovate as an organisation. I think it's been brilliant that very early on we realised that we would need to do things differently and flexibly and innovate fast. And out of it came a flexible delivery model for Cambridge English qualifications and online delivery of our CELTA, which is our teaching qualification, and IELTS indicator, which is an online indicator exam for IELTS, that we managed to innovate in record speed with our partners over a six to eight week period. So I suppose, it surprised me and kind of encouraged me and motivates me now, that as an organisation, when push comes to shove, we really can do things and we need to make sure that we continue that when we get through this and we're back to more normality, whatever that may be.

Elizabeth: I would say I've been quite surprised to realise and recognise how quickly we were able to adapt to remote working as a team in CEM. I think it was day two of our remote working, we had a roadmap workshop and I thought, oh my goodness, how are we actually going to do that with all of us in 17 or 18 different rooms? And yet we did it. We kind of proved the concept to ourselves that, yes, we can still achieve things. We can come out of a meeting with outcomes and we can all be present in the room even though there were separate rooms. I was pleased that we were able to prove that concept. Another thing that surprised me, from a personal perspective, is that my son went off to university last year and my daughter has an amazing social life, and it just surprised me, pleasantly surprised me, to have such a good chunk of time with those kids that I thought were kind of flying the nest. Bringing them back to the nest for a few months has been a really pleasurable bit of lockdown down for me.

How have your personal and professional priorities changed during lockdown?

Jane: I think maybe right back at the beginning of lockdown priorities became quite basic in nature. It was ‘is there enough pasta?’ and ‘is the broadband working?’. And those things became huge priorities, frankly. But as time has gone on and things have changed for me, the priorities have become more about future proofing, and that's both personally and professionally. From a personal perspective, it is how can we make sure that we're set up so that if schools close again, and we have to move to home-schooling again, we can do that more easily than we did the first time around and we can try and make sure that learning is as uninterrupted as possible. Professionally, I think it's about prioritising resilience. We're a new team and we've got really big ambitions, so it's essential that we are resilient and adaptable and flexible. And also that we prioritise staying as close as possible to the needs of our clients because they're changing rapidly.

Guy: They have changed a little. I'm really, really lucky to have a job that I love and find stimulating. But I'm also acutely aware that it's not the be all and end all. I've been spending a lot more time with my family, and that's necessitated getting involved in the joys of home-schooling, which hasn't been easy, but in retrospect has been really rewarding. And I know my kids have got a lot out of it, too, and I wouldn't change that experience for the world. It's been challenging having parents, both of whom are in their 80s, shielding quite a long way away up in North Yorkshire. It's been difficult not seeing them for a long period of time. We've worked hard to try and stay connected during that time. The experience has definitely brought me closer to my siblings, which I think is a really positive outcome. My brothers and sisters, as a postman, a GP and primary school teacher; the common experience of being deemed key workers in essential services has brought us a lot closer together. And I've found that to be a real positive. And again, it's made me think deeply about my personal and professional priorities.

I've been spending a lot more time with my family, and that's necessitated getting involved in the joys of home-schooling, which hasn't been easy, but in retrospect has been really rewarding.

Fran: Professional priorities probably remain true. I'm really passionate about what we do. The fact that we help people achieve their goals and dreams, the fact that we help people get into university, get a job and progress. I think they are still the things that drive me and help me prioritise the activities that we need to do in order to be successful as an organisation and achieve our mission. So that still rings through. I suppose what has changed is how I've had to think about our people. I thought about our people before. But I think when I say people, actually I'm thinking of it in the wider sense of people within our organisation, and our people that we interact and partner with on a daily basis. Our learners, our teachers, our school leaders and our university leaders. And just thinking about the personal health and well-being of people, it's something that you think about in normal times. But through this time, it really comes to the forefront because it's those people that help us run our business and support our teams and our partners across the globe. So that certainly has changed in terms of priority and focus.

What challenges have you overcome during lockdown/working from home?

Saul: I think one of the challenges I've had to overcome in lockdown relates to the fact I'm quite an intuitive kind of leader, and I like to get a sense of how people are feeling and get a sense of reaction. That's much harder, I think, to do when you're not having any face to face contact with people at all. That for me has been the thing I've been trying to learn. How to look more closely for the signs that will tell you how someone's feeling. I think there's also just the challenge of managing my own energy. The things that energise me are travelling, meeting customers, being with my colleagues, so it's an inherently more energy sapping kind of environment. I'm just back from my evening cycle ride. That's one of the things I've used to recharge my energy. So that's been a challenge, just maintaining and sustaining energy.

We knew we had a crucial part to play in giving students their grades this summer, so they can progress in their education and in their lives. And I think all the other demands that have been placed on me, and on us, have had to be prioritised against that context and against the really important part that we're playing in people's lives.

Guy: There have been lots of challenges, lots of work challenges. I think the biggest one has been making sure that we could continue to operate, particularly during the early days of uncertainty. Also, staying connected with colleagues on furlough was challenging and making them feel ready and prepared to come back to work safely. That was a real challenge and one that I'm glad that we overcame. From a personal perspective, challenges have definitely involved, whilst working from home, technology. I think it's not my strongest suit as I think people who know me would also acknowledge! While the kids were home-schooling and my wife was beginning a new job, which must have been very challenging for her, the broadband at ‘Nicholson Towers’ took a bit of a bashing. And I also became a sort of end user services technician for my kids, who seemed to have no end of IT problems in completing their home-schooling tasks. But anyway, we found a way, and I definitely have learnt from those challenges.

Jill: In terms of challenges that I've overcome during lockdown and working from home, it's true to say it's been a very intense time with a massive workload, so I think making sure I'm balancing that with looking after my own well-being and that of my team has been a real challenge. We knew we had a crucial part to play in giving students their grades this summer, so they can progress in their education and in their lives. And I think all the other demands that have been placed on me, and on us, have had to be prioritised against that context and against the really important part that we're playing in people's lives.

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