Six months ago, we could not have predicted the immense impact the COVID-19 pandemic would have on our lives, businesses and economy.
CEO Violet Roumeliotis speeking at Metropolis 2019.
Now, as the curve appears to flatten, the impact of the virus is clear. Thousands of Australians have had to change the way we live. An estimated 3.4 million or us will lose our jobs, and our country’s business sector, once considered our economy’s powerhouse, is suffering.
From the beginning of the outbreak, the Australian government has stepped up to minimize the impact of the pandemic on individuals and their livelihoods by offering free childcare, subsidising wages and nationalising private hospitals.
Unfortunately, not all of corporate Australia has been so community minded, with companies including Virgin Australia, Star Entertainment Group and womenswear retailer Mosaic Brands now moving to lay off tens of thousands of staff to remain solvent.
Virgin Australia’s announcement to move into voluntary administration is particularly concerning as the company employs about 10,000 people and supports another 5,000 indirect jobs.
I’m a firm believer that when our external environment forces us to look for ways to reduce costs, cutting staff should not be a knee-jerk first response. Every employee is an individual with their own bills to pay. Many have families to support, and some, due to their age, will face serious challenges re-entering the workforce.
While it is clear job losses are unfortunately inevitable in some industries, the move of big companies to make swathes of staff redundant is a major disappointment. It highlights our need, as business leaders and a society, to prioritise people over profits and transition towards more values-driven leadership.
We need to think innovatively and explore alternate solutions, like reducing leadership salaries, moving staff to shorter weeks, or diversifying into new areas. Follow the example of Sydney licensee Alex Cameron, who has turned his popular restaurant into a takeaway joint.
As he said: “We just want to scrape by during this period with enough revenue to cover wages. We’ll worry about rent and bills down the track.”
Or Archie Rose Distillery, which normally makes gin, whiskies, vodkas and rums, is now producing sanitiser.
“Some of our staff have been with us from the start, and we were pretty distraught when it looked like we were going to have to stand them down. But now we’re in a position due to the popularity of the hand sanitiser where we can actually go out and hire people from the broader hospitality community as well,” said Master Distiller Dave Withers.
The pandemic marks one of the greatest health challenges the world has seen for over a century.
Now is the time for many of Australia’s corporates and businesses who advertise their values and commitment to social purpose, express the strength of their leadership and and commitment to employees, to put their words into action.
I believe as a leader, your values should provide a filter through which you make business decisions -- something you not only believe but actively demonstrate through your actions.
Values-driven leaders create values-driven companies, which generates benefits that extends beyond their customer or consumer base to the broader community.
This pandemic is an opportunity for organisations to demonstrate they can act on their values, and in turn educate Australians as to which companies can be trusted to put staff, and thus the community, before profit.
It is an opportunity for leaders to reflect on our own behaviors and reassess and respond to the values that remain true.
In order to lead in today’s complex environment, we should take heed from two great leadership academics, Lee G Bolman and Terrence E Deal in “Reframing Organisations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership.” The state that: “Crises are an acid test of leadership” – how we respond to environments characterised by complexity and ambiguity will either make us look weak and foolish, or set us apart, emerging from the chaos with credibility intact.
As we move out from beneath the shadows of the pandemic, and into economic uncertainty, it is abundantly clear that in order to find balance as a country, we need to find a compromise where the value of our society is not just measured by our economic output.
New Zealand’s ‘wellbeing budget’ or the UN’s sustainable development goals are judicious examples of initiatives that focus on an individual’s wellbeing as a measure of success equal to that of economic performance.
Although it will be a long, hard journey, I firmly believe that if we move towards more values-driven leadership, we can become a productive society with a strong economic output that still looks after its most vulnerable community members.
As I recently said in Beyond Covid-19 Welfare on The Project, COVID-19 has taught us the vital importance of robust invest in healthcare, education and welfare and highlights that a society is only as strong as its most vulnerable member.