I remember sitting on one of the beaches of Koh Samui over the Chinese New Year weekend when I received news about a novel coronavirus that made its way to Singapore. I knew that it was a matter of “when” and not “if” China would go into lockdown mode. But truth be told, I didn't really fully digest the gravity of what it would eventually entail.
Within a week of returning to Singapore, I learned my first real lesson in trust. Our local government anticipated the imminent community spread and raised the “Disease Outbreak Response System Condition” to “Orange”, which meant that the disease was severe and spread easily, but still contained.
We put together a business continuity plan over the weekend and immediately rolled out our work-from-home policy. It was the right thing to do - safety first. People commended us on the level of trust we had in our people.
We simply can’t risk our people’s health by being gun-shy about making these decisions. And I trusted that we would find a way to make it work.
At that point, I thought it would blow over in a couple of weeks. The only thing we needed to do was to run a tight ship of keeping things under control from home and making sure all technology issues were sorted. Throughout the day, we had meetings after meetings, calls after calls, reports after reports, to ensure that we could maintain control and business operations. In fact, we took it to the next level of detailed scrutiny to be sure that we were doing the right thing.
Just like any other person, I had my doubts of having everyone working from home.
Would it be effective if we are working in front of the telly or near our beds, all while living under the same roof with our family? We could even regress to our schooling days. We’d open the fridge door every other hour and be tempted to watch Netflix.
It wasn't just a matter of discipline either. I thought it was impossible to get the same energy and buzz, the friendly debates and banters with each other when we’re in the office - all the magic ingredients that help us perform better and push one another to achieve success.
I couldn't be more wrong. We were excellent. I trusted our people to work, and they did. Our productivity improved and we got more done. Teams were thriving and enjoying the flexibility of being at home and still getting work done. It was fresh and exciting, and it even begged the question, “Should we revisit our current flexible work policies?”.
Lesson # 1 - Trust is earned. You just gotta take the plunge
We rode the smug train in February. We were good, we were on top of it, we could control this. We own this! Little did I know that the roller coaster was about to go into the upside down position, and just leave us hanging.
The number of clusters grew and many of our clients had also started to work from home. COVID-19 was classified as a global pandemic. Being able to perform at optimum levels was now in question as clients became more risk averse to the hostile environment. Many local companies started to announce cost cutting measures and our clients were preoccupied with increasing demands of managing their own daily operations amidst the very unusual situation. Only a handful professed that they were in control.
We began to feel like victims. Why is this happening to us? When would this madness end? I started to feel very real emotions - fear, isolation, despondence, lethargy and even depression.
My role was no longer that of a manager who guides others. I had to be a leader who can allow people to express their emotions freely, without the fear of being judged, feeling weak or succumbing to human frailty. It required me to be vulnerable in front of them to start that conversation.
Being vulnerable in leadership means showing up as our most authentic and true self. Not the role, not the job description, but just as a person. Emotionally naked and exposed.
This isn’t my first experience feeling these emotions. When my mum passed away two years ago, I had to return to the office and continue playing the role of the boss. Those who knew me well, gave me a hug or said some kind words. For the rest, they passed me along the hallways not quite knowing what to say. I understand, it was hard to find the right words.
So I decided to do what I felt was the impossible. I talked about my mum’s death and how I was coping with it at a town hall, with more than 100 pairs of eyes looking at me. I felt like I had come unhinged on some levels for doing so. Maybe it was the grief acting up.
But the truth was I wanted to put them out of their misery so that they didn't need to tiptoe around me. Being back in the office working meant that I was okay, I just needed time to heal and know that I could ask if I needed anything from anyone. I could almost feel the weight of the room shift once I addressed the issue. I had learnt about a quiet power that day - vulnerability.
Fast forward to today, this situation called for a similar treatment. I thought it would be less nerve-wrecking because I was behind a screen this time. Not quite. I could hear my voice breaking as I shared my emotions and how I was coping. We talked about the need to deal with our emotions and all the ugly things that we were facing. It wasn't pretty, I took the window dressing off and talked about the good, the bad and the ugly.
In a deliberate effort, I left out the numbers, the dashboard reporting and all the brass tacks that we would usually share. Talking about emotions first thing before we even start the week was a risky move. These meetings were meant to be uplifting and motivating. But I did the opposite. I let my deep-seated emotions show, which wasn’t exactly hunky-dory.
This level of transparency isn’t normal, not at least to me. It's the sort of information I’d share on a night after a few drinks with only the people I trust. But that was exactly the point. To do so in a town hall was real, intentional and serious.
Not long after that, the emails and messages started pouring in, thanking me for doing so. It helped them know that they are not alone, and that it was okay to not be on top of things and feel the way they do. That even bosses are humans too. Once again, I was humbled by what vulnerability can achieve. I wanted to remind people that they can feel different kinds of emotions, and we didn't need to pretend to be positive all the time. We had to address the not-so-nice parts before we can learn to be optimistic.
Lesson #2 - Vulnerability makes you a more relatable leader
Once we allowed ourselves to cry, we were able to move on. We understood each other as we gathered to find normalcy in our lives.
We started to engage and entertain everyone as our journey continued. So I rallied the troops to come up with fun activities, competitions, themes and whatever we could do to give people a chance to laugh a little despite it all.
At some point, we have to let go and have fun even when the chips are down. It helps make things more bearable. I believe that positive energy helps strengthen people. As days go by, more and more people participate and we started to regain the competitive spirit we once had.
Lesson #3 - When people understand and appreciate you, the more they’ll step up to take the lead
As leaders, we only willingly let go when we trust the capability of our people.
From every angle, my leadership team began to step up. They came to me with solutions rather than issues. I started to see a greater solidarity that was developing across the organisation at every level. It's a wonderful thing to witness.
So, if vulnerability has its benefits, why was it so difficult to practice it in the first place? I began to realise something.
Illogical as it may seem, the more you know your team and the longer you have been with them, it actually becomes harder to be vulnerable. We all got into habits and patterns and we found ways to function on auto-pilot. In a weird way, we are separated because each of us were busy playing our own roles individually, even in a group setting.
However, it is impossible for everyone to continue working that way this year. We have to agree that vulnerability is a valid emotion. Learning to feel vulnerable in front of your teams requires emotional depth, raw honesty and a willingness to initiate such conversations despite the discomfort. It helps deepen relationships, because now we really know each other, warts and all.
Lesson #4 - Vulnerability can empower your team to show up together
As a female leader, I’m still treading the fine line between being an authoritative figure versus an empathetic one. It’s common for women in leadership positions to understand the logic of being an empathetic leader, but find it challenging to do it, because of this inexplicable need to maintain a tough exterior in a very traditional boy’s club setting.
At this moment, I am hopeful. China’s economy is an early indication of what we should expect in the coming weeks or months. One must remain hopeful and optimistic. Unprecedented times indeed. The team and I feel like we’re seated in a waiting room for what seems like an eternity. We hope that we get called next.
In my book, my team deserves to be named in the world record for patience and resilience. If anything, they are teaching me precious lessons in patience as we take things one day at a time. I am a proud mother hen of my ducklings.
To me, being number one this year is not just about numbers. It is about staying together despite adversity. #randstadproud. Though I am not religious on any level, I will leave with the final lesson that I’m trying to master.