Ciara Eastell

Ciara Eastell is Professor of Practice in the Exeter Centre for Leadership at the University of Exeter’s Business School.

Leading in Lockdown: How Exeter’s leaders are responding to the challenge

How are Exeter’s civic leaders leading at this time of immense crisis?  What are they learning about their own leadership and how are they supporting those around them?

Ciara Eastell, Professor of Practice at the Exeter Centre for Leadership talked to five of Exeter’s civic leaders about their personal experience of leading their institutions through the initial response to the Covid-19 crisis.

In the second in our series of blogs featuring leaders working across our region, Ciara hears how our panel of leaders have been looking after themselves and those around them. Our panel includes:

Phil Norrey

Phil Norrey, CEO of Devon County Council

Martha Wilkinson

Martha Wilkinson, CEO of Devon Community Foundation

Rob Bosworth

Rob Bosworth, Deputy CEO at Exeter College

Karime Hassan

Karime Hassan, CEO of Exeter City Council

Moira Marder

Moira Marder, CEO of the Ted Wragg Multi-Academy Trust

Looking after yourself and others

Talking to these five leaders, it’s humbling to hear the huge efforts they and their teams have put into responding effectively over the past few weeks but it’s clear too that leaders must pace themselves.  Several of our leaders highlight the different phases of this crisis and that stamina is needed for the long and likely very difficult recovery phase that lies ahead. 

Phil Norrey, CEO of Devon County Council says that after several weeks of working 16-17 hour days, 7 days a week, he took the decision - over the Easter period – to begin to work in a more sustainable way.  “I dialled down the way I was working,” he says, “being clear with others that it’s not sustainable to carry on working in that way.”  Physical exercise has been important – Phil has been out on his bike almost every day, whilst Rob Bosworth, Deputy CEO at Exeter College has found daily walks with his family have helped him keep a balance in a time of stress and challenge. ‘”My family is the best balance.  Having lunch and a daily walk.  I’m feeling much more level and connected to my family and work colleagues.”

For Martha Wilkinson, using the Community Foundation’s Business Continuity Plan framework helped establish an immediate crisis response before moving to a more sustainable way of working.  “It wasn’t until recently,” says Martha, “that I could say Devon Community Foundation is now no longer in an emergency.  We’d completed our BCP – we can stand it down.  Everyone was running on adrenalin and cortisol,“ she says, “and we needed to lower the temperature in order to keep going.”  Part of Martha’s coping strategy has been to turn off all gadgets over the weekend.  “The intensity of video calls and constantly working across multiple platforms was draining,” she adds.

Karime Hassan, CEO of Exeter City Council openly admits that he’s a sociable leader, as those of us who know him can testify.  He’s someone who loves to be out and about, talking with passion and energy to staff and stakeholders.  “I like to gauge by being physically with people, picking up their vibe,” says Karime, “it’s a bit more difficult now, it’s not the same.”  But, on the plus side, there’s been much more time connecting with his family than his normal long days and busy weekends allow.  “I’ve slowed down,” says Karime, “it’s a profound moment for me, as I take stock,”

And these leaders have taken real care to look out for their teams too. “I’ve been surprised by the strength of my emotion,” says Martha. “I knew I cared about my team before but now I know I love them.” She acknowledges however it’s not always easy to support people when you’re meeting them over a video call.   “I’ve wanted to protect my team but I’ve felt helpless in some cases.  I’ve wanted to coach them through it.  I’d normally do it face to face over a coffee but that doesn’t work so well on Zoom.”  

Moira Marder, CEO of the Ted Wragg Multi-Academy Trust recognises that not everyone has coped well with the transition.  “Some of our teachers have really struggled with home working,” she says. “They love being in schools and with their students.  Less experienced teachers have needed more reassurance and for all teachers, there have been understandable concerns about safeguarding.  But being in a Multi-Academy Trust has proved invaluable providing support and sharing expertise across the trust’s network.”

All five leaders acknowledge that in their response to the crisis they’ve shifted the way they interact with their teams.  It’s been crucial to regularly check in on the emotional health and overall safety of the members of their teams and their wider families. “We’ve never been closer together and yet further apart,” says Rob.

At Exeter City Council, the Council had already been trialling T-Cup, a new online tool that enables employees to self-assess their health and wellbeing on a daily basis, providing managers with real-time and anonymised data on overall employee engagement. 

And at the County Council, Phil has been communicating with the staff team on a daily basis and making sure the formal, more ‘disciplined’ communication matrices needed in such a large organisation are backed up by more informal, organic approaches, such as a range of Whatsapp groups.

Key learning points from our leaders:

  • Pacing yourself during this crisis is essential for sustainable, resilient leadership
  • Finding coping strategies like regular exercise and time with your family is critical to sustaining effective, remote leadership
  • Checking in regularly with your team on their emotional wellbeing is a crucial role for all leaders at this time

In future blogs, we hear more from these and other leaders across the Business School’s wide network of Chief Executives working across the public, private and voluntary sectors.  We’ll hear how our CEOs’ understanding of their own leadership is changing when faced with a challenge as large and radical as Covid-19 and what we can all learn from their emerging experience of digital transformation and insight into how our future lives and our environment will be shaped by this moment.