What leaders think
Stevie Spring CBE, Chairman, British Council (Chairman – Mind, NED, Chairman Remuneration Committee – The Co-operative Group, Past Chairman – Inspired Thinking Group, Chairman – HYPERVSN)
What challenge did you tackle and overcome in your business this week?
We (the British Council) pulled off the 18th global ‘Oscars of Teaching’ event -the Eltons – in a way that still felt celebratory and special despite the restrictions. And I managed to lead a couple of very emotional Global Town Halls and made several speeches on mental health at work as part of World Mental Health Day. On top of a relentless day job of crisis management!
Which ongoing business challenge is occupying your thoughts this week/month?
Capital raise and colleague safety in equal measure.
In retrospect what would you have done differently in lockdown and therefore, how may this shape your thinking for any future lockdown (local or national)?
I’d have acknowledged sooner that we may all be in this together, but we’re not all in this together equally. The very real impact on individuals varies hugely depending on additional anxiety levels; additional caring responsibilities; coping with excess bereavement; fear of unemployment post-furlough; financial stresses; working from home in a place which is not one of safety; whether we’re shielding; or working on the ‘ frontline’. We need to be managing all colleagues as individuals and taking time to learn about and be flexible to their different circumstances. We need to cascade communications so it’s one to one. We need to listen. To create kinder, safer, fairer workspaces. Or we’ll fail to give everyone the best chance of performing as we need them to get us through the crisis.
Given the reliance on technology during lockdown, do you now envisage an acceleration in digital/ workforce transformation in the short-medium term?
All our businesses have turbo charged digitally. We’ve probably seen 6 years of transition over the past 6 months as we deliver services online that were previously – and expensively – delivered face to face and with physical geographic restrictions. We can now deliver, for example, brilliant English language teaching into South America by teachers based in South East Asia. But we’ve also witnessed first-hand the very real digital divide writ large through this – both internationally, where over 40% of communities don’t have access to online connectivity; and domestically, driven largely by age and economic disadvantage. Digital exclusion will define the ‘left behinds’ for the next phase of the economic rebuild.
What are the new working norms starting to look like for your organisation?
Depends on the geography. We’re up to about 60% of teaching and exam centres open around the world. But at 50% capacity because of social distancing. In the UK, we’re back to UK virtual meetings and events, just as we were starting to get some flexibility back into our workplaces. But the learnings for covid-secure practices to protect and reassure colleagues at work will, I suspect, be put to use for a long time to come. While the situation is still moving so fast, at a board level we’re having weekly finance meetings and biweekly full board sessions. And I can’t see that changing anytime soon.
There was a dramatic reduction in our carbon footprint during lockdown, what is your business planning to do to help continue this going forward?
With operations in over 100 countries, like everyone else, our travel patterns have changed beyond recognition. But I’m still a big believer in personal relationships and the need for face to face . So, I suspect a return to flying as soon as practicable, but that ‘essential’ travel will be redefined going forward.
What changes personally will you keep from the lockdown period going forward?
I will definitely do more meetings on Teams and Zoom. Much more time efficient. And I can wear comfy slippers with my work clothes! And I’ll definitely expand my new love of walk ‘n’ talk meetings in the park – preferably with a dog in tow – for tricky conversations. It changes the whole conversation dynamics. For the better.
Who or what has inspired you this week? (They don’t need to be famous)
My friend of over 45 years, Sian Vasey, who died last week. She was a fearless disability rights campaigner who taught me about disability politics and pride. She believed fiercely in the role of art forms informed by the experience of being disabled as a way to celebrate our points in common, rather than emphasise differences that keep us separate and promote a charitable model of disability. Many of the projects I’m now championing through the British Council’s cultural relations programmes will be the better for Sian’s voice in my ear.
Did you manage a holiday this summer and if so where / how did you spend it?
Not a holiday as such. But I did relocate to a friend’s house on the beach at Thurlestone for an idyllic week working from Devon. Good Wi-Fi means I can work from anywhere. Starting each day with a run on the coastal path and ending with a beach BBQ really did prove that a change is as good as a rest.
Any words of wisdom?
We all have different levels of resilience – just as we all have different personalities. One woman’s breaking point is another’s adrenalin rush. So my top tip: when it all gets overwhelming, walk away. Breathe. Talk to one of your cheerleaders. And remember that you can’t cry and whistle at the same time. So whistle!