Growing up, I knew way too much about my parents’ finances. While they had the best intentions, the way they communicated our struggles to me as a child is definitely the root of a lot of my anxieties as an adult. Maybe I’m particularly sensitive to the subject, but I think most of us get a little sweaty-palmed when we feel that the burden of money [or lack thereof] is being placed upon our shoulders.
The subject of our own wealth [or, again, lack thereof] makes us feel vulnerable, sure, but there’s something about hearing the money woes of others that causes a really specific kind of discomfort. We’ve all been that person who has deduced a little more than we should about a tight financial spot that our friend/parent/sibling has found themselves in, right? If we can help, we worry about embarrassing them, and if we can’t, we’re crippled by helplessness. Whatever our position, the burden is heavy. So what if it’s not a friend/parent/sibling, but an employer? That helplessness suddenly becomes linked with our own sense of financial security. It’s anxiety inducing, it’s not fair, and as a leader, placing your team in that position feels like the last thing you’ll ever do.
The last thing you’ll ever do… that is, until a once-in-a-generation, global health crisis propels your business into the most unchartered waters, and all of your rules about leadership are cast adrift, bobbing alongside you as you try to stay afloat. OK, tired ocean-related metaphors aside, the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened the economic stability of most businesses, and quickly, too. For many small to medium businesses, you were just hitting your stride – finally seeing the years of hard work pay off, and then seemingly overnight, that glimmer of profit is a distant memory. That’s certainly how it was for TDP. I can’t properly explain the heartbreak of watching our fearless founder, Cherie, realise that everything she’d built could be taken away, and by something so far out of our control.
In what will probably always be referred to as pre-covid times, the unwritten rules [and maybe the written rules too – I haven’t read A Dummies Guide to MD’ing lately] of professionalism and leadership were fairly universally understood: we at the helm are responsible for navigating the ship through the rough waters [I know, I know, I said enough with the ocean-metaphors, but here we are again. Just go with it], and it should only be long after we’re safe on land that anyone else aboard even knew there was a problem. Even for companies as transparent as TDP, there are things you just don’t burden your staff with, and near-financial collapse is certainly one of them. Or should I say, was one of them.
When Stage Three of lockdown hit and you couldn’t listen to the news without hearing about the impending global economic crisis, we called an emergency meeting with our finance guru, Fi, and it wasn’t good news. We had some really awful decisions to make, just to make it through the next month. And if we did make it? The hustle and sacrifices required would be huge: more work and less hours to do it in. We needed our team to trust us to do whatever we needed to do to make it out the other side, and when you’re asking for that kind of blind trust, you need to be prepared for it to go both ways. So we broke all the rules. We opened our books to the team, we told them how much we had, how much we’d lost, and how scared we were. It was an awful, sad, and terrifying meeting. But by the end? We felt relieved. We felt [and hoped that they felt] like we were all in it together, and that they really understood the reasoning behind all of our decisions. We have kept them looped in at every stage, in ways we never would have, pre-covid.
We needed to make ourselves vulnerable to our team, not just because we needed their help and trust, but because we were responsible for their vulnerability. We needed them to completely understand what we were all headed towards, and that realistically, we may not make it out the other side. If this metaphorical ship is going down, don’t our crew deserve to know? Thanks to our team’s innovation and hard work, some good old fashioned luck and some surprisingly robust government support, it looks like we will make it through relatively unscathed, but not unchanged.
How do you return to the ‘old ways’ when you’ve rewritten the rules? How do you return to the status quo, when we’ve all seen how different things can be. And should we even try? For us, it’s yes and no. We will be transformed by this crisis, and we’ll emerge as [an even more] transparent workplace, and stronger for it. But as for those books? We’ll be closing them to the team as soon as we can, because right up there with hugging my friends and going to cafes, I cannot wait to relieve our team from burdens that aren’t theirs to bear.