Listen, talk, trust, be open and honest. Those were the words of advice from five leading lights on the Tees business scene when asked about their leadership style during the pandemic.
They were speaking at the first Tees Business LIVE online event when more than 100 guests joined forces via Zoom to hear their words of wisdom in an event sponsored by Jacksons Law Firm.
The five-strong panel, hosted by Bob Cuffe, comprised PD Ports CEO Frans Calje, Teesside University pro vice-chancellor Professor Jane Turner OBE, Jacksons Law Firm managing partner Jane Armitage, technology consultant Dom Lusardi and Visualsoft CEO Dean Benson at the first Tees Business LIVE online event.
“We must keep encouraging our staff to look after themselves inside and outside of work,” said Frans.
“But, as business leaders, we must also be aware of the pressures from a mental health point of view.
“We know that many people are juggling their jobs with home schooling, Teams meetings, Zoom calls. It’s relentless and mental health issues will inevitably occur – they can happen to anyone.
“We need to reassure our staff that it’s natural to feel stressed. Talk to us about it and we will help you.”
For newly crowned Tees Businesswoman of the Year Jane Armitage, keeping positive yet truthful is her advice to other business leaders.
“Our messaging is: we can do this, there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “As a firm, Jacksons share every piece of good news we can find, as well as encouraging people to talk, talk, talk!”
For Dean, keeping connected is paramount. “Visualsoft have done flexible working for eight years now and the timing, clarity and honesty of communication is absolutely key, as is standing by your staff,” he explained.
“I’ve learnt since Covid that when you feel demotivated it’s very difficult and can impact mental health, so the message I’ve been sharing is pick up the phone, create a Zoom chat, send a Wattsapp. We must all check in on everyone and see how they are.”
Jane Turner, who won the Lifelong Inspiration Award at the Tees Businesswomen Awards, said: “For me, as a leader, the key thing is trust and flexibility.
“Our colleagues need to trust us with the things that we are communicating, so we need to show that we genuinely do care with deeds and not just words.
“We also need to be flexible. If someone is home-schooling, for example, then their child needs to come first and we must ensure they don’t feel pressured by that.”
Dom, the reigning Tees Tech Ambassador, agreed: “I work across a number of organisations and one thing I’ve started seeing is people criticising themselves.
“So I say be kind to yourself, celebrate the things that you are achieving, the little things that make a difference to your day.”
As business leaders, our panel revealed that they had all found that their approach to life and work has changed greatly since the first lockdown in March 2020.
Jane Armitage revealed: “Personally, I have learnt to be flexible, imaginative and empathetic, to be brave, have confidence and use my instincts to make the best decision possible at the time.
“When it comes to communication with staff, I’ve made it a priority not to sugar coat things. Tell people what is happening and what you intend to do and employ regular honest communication – from the heart.”
For Frans and Dom, stepping back or delegating has preserved their own mental health and kept them strong enough to be leaders.
“When Covid happened I initially had the urge, because I’m the CEO, to think I needed to be there for every single decision,” said Frans.
“I soon learned to leave it to the team, and if there’s an issue they can’t resolve themselves then they come to me. Delegating authority has been working like a dream. You have to trust people.”
As a leader living with late stage ovarian cancer and going through weekly chemotherapy during the pandemic, Jane Turner has more pressures on her than most, so how does she achieve her work-life balance?
“The answer is, I don’t beat myself up too much,” she replied, when asked by host Bob Cuffe. “We know that people need leaders and people they can trust and they can talk to, but don’t brush aside your own personal challenges.
“Find the time to talk to other people about your own pressures because you need to be the best you can be in order to serve and support the people who look up to you.”