Six leadership lessons from the pandemic

When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, contributor Toby Fyfe had been president of the not-for-profit Institute on Governance for three years. He shares six lessons he took from the pandemic pivot.

When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, contributor Toby Fyfe had been president of the not-for-profit Institute on Governance for three years. He shares six lessons he took from the pandemic pivot.

Like many small businesses, not-for-profit organizations were hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic: while financial impacts varied, just about all of them were forced to make significant changes in the way they did business. Those that succeeded were able to pivot their services to an online environment and to reduce costs.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, I had been president for three years of the not-for-profit Institute on Governance (IOG), an advisory and training organization with about 20 staff and ongoing contractors. Overnight, our main revenue source, in-person training and leadership programs, dried up. The federal government, which is the IOG’s main client, announced that its employees would work from home and no longer attend in-person classes or events. The next hit occurred when the Ontario government announced that all offices were to be closed, which, of course, meant that all staff had to work from home and that all face-to-face interactions with clients stopped.

When I left the organization in January 2022, the IOG had reinvented itself, business was brisk, staff were productive, and we had put money into the organization’s reserve. Here are the six leadership lessons that I took from the transformation experience.

It’s about the organization

The goal was clear: the survival of the IOG as a high-performance social enterprise. To that end, the IOG learning team quickly and seamlessly moved all their existing learning and leadership programs online and adjusted them for the new environment. We adjusted our modest IT system so that our people could access documents from home (we were cheap and used Dropbox; no costly custom solutions, thank you), and Zoom quickly became the communications tool of choice, incidentally saving us a fortune in telephone conference calls with clients. Our advisory staff pivoted from in-person to online consultations. We cut our costs by 25%, in part thanks to a helpful landlord, and reduced our financial targets by half. I instituted a brief “stand-up” Zoom management team meeting every weekday morning where we collectively reviewed the financials, discussed how the changes were going, and assessed the impact on our people.

It’s about the people

People save organizations. It was amazing how seamlessly the IOG staff adjusted to the new virtual Zoom world (learning how to “produce” and teach courses online from their homes, for example). We developed work-at-home protocols that clarified or updated policies related to work, health and safety, and performance management. Once things eased up, we developed COVID-19 procedures for the office and an updated policy based on the principle that at-home work was as valued as at-office work.

It’s about leveraging expertise and seeking advice

No leader has all the answers. One of my first steps was to set up a working group that included the chief financial officer and two vice-presidents with specific institutional and financial expertise. This team developed a plan for cutting costs and was critical to our success in implementing it. I reached out to not-for-profit leaders who were in similar positions, seeking their guidance and advice. The management team gave critical feedback and guidance on a daily basis. The board of directors also provided advice.

It’s about communicating openly in a changing environment

My goal was to be transparent with the management team, the staff, and the board. When I had become president in March 2017, I had instituted a chatty and informative Friday email to all staff. As we reinvented ourselves during the pandemic, and with staff now at home, this email become an important tool to communicate what was happening. I tried to be open about what we knew, what we did not know, what was changing, how we were doing, and where we were going. I used it to give thanks and provide encouragement and support for what people were going through.

It’s about the team effort

The support and engagement of the staff and management team was critical to our success. I believe that the most significant indication of the staff’s commitment to the IOG was when we asked everyone (myself included) to accept a four-day work week. I am proud to say that there was no resistance. Not only that, their sacrifice along with our cost-cutting and revenue-generating strategies was so successful that we were able to pay them back at the end of the year.

It’s about owning the tough decisions

Even though the transformation was a team effort with management and staff, the fact is that Harry Truman’s maxim holds true: “The buck stops here.” The transition was not all smooth. There were difficult choices to be made and I know that some of the strategies we undertook to cut costs and maintain our revenue did not please everyone. Transformation is never easy. A reinvention that is forced upon an organization is even more difficult. Yet at the end of the day, the results speak for themselves. Thanks to the team effort, the organization is high-performing and well-positioned for a post-pandemic future.


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