ConnectAbility Australia provides services for senior Australians and people with disability. So how does an organisation that cares for the wellbeing and safety of the most vulnerable people in our communities approach a public health crisis? By ‘leaning in’ to some of the very same things that are at the core of their everyday operations. We connected with Adele Cashion, People and Culture Senior Leader at ConnectAbility, to reflect on 5 leadership lessons that organisations in all industries can learn from.

1. Be transparent – how vulnerability builds credibility

It’s natural for leaders faced with crisis to feel the need to protect their team from how they are feeling or to shield them from harsh realities by ‘sugarcoating’ communication. However, research suggests that the most effective leaders in crisis – those who quickly gain the trust of others – are those who are prepared to be transparent and confidently show their vulnerability. The simple act of acknowledging that times are tough, or noting that you don’t have all the answers right now, can go a long way to validating how your workforce is also feeling; particularly when paired with transparency about the process your leadership team is engaging in to respond to crisis. 

The senior leadership team at ConnectAbility knows more about the strengths to be found in vulnerability than most; their workforce provides services to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. So when COVID-19 set in, senior leaders quickly recognised that the key characteristics of their staff bring to vulnerable populations – calmness, consistency, care and resilience – would be the very things that would see them through a rapidly changing situation. But the team also recognised the need to be transparent in addressing the challenges ahead.“When COVID-19 appeared, it was challenging as all of a sudden everyone was vulnerable – our customers, their families, our staff, their families and the community we work alongside” shares Cashion. “To start with, it was scary – so we called it scary, and then we calmly provided staff with the deciphered information they needed to stay safe.”

Adele Cashion is genuine and calm in her approach to managing the COVID-19 response. “To start with, it was scary – so we called it scary, and then we calmly provided staff with the deciphered information they needed to stay safe,” she said.

2. Leading with purpose allows you to be adaptable to change

A key question organisations are dealing with right now is how to lead in a rapidly changing and uncertain environment. Evaluating your own leadership is all the more challenging if you are accustomed to measuring progress against a neatly defined business plan; right now if one thing is certain, it’s that change is inevitable! Rapidly changing public health information is a new challenge for many, so there’s plenty to learn from organisations like ConnectAbility, who have been navigating constant change in the aged care and disability sectors as part of their ‘business-as-usual’.

For ConnectAbility, continually returning to their focus on the wellbeing and safety of the most vulnerable people in our community has provided a strong framework for adapting to change. This connection between purpose and action is embedded in their leadership approach and has allowed them to rapidly adapt in the face of crisis. “Because everything we do comes back to that purpose, we found that we were equipped to assess the rapidly changing public health information, apply information and public health directives to our operations, develop robust response and action plans, communicate what was required to staff and monitor the effectiveness of our response,” says Cashion. 

Staff were empowered to manage challenging and unfamiliar situations by applying these clear action plans in the familiar context of wellbeing and safety – driven by purpose with calmness, consistency and care. “We’re really proud of how our staff faced some really challenging situations, such as responding to unwell staff, responding to staff returning from overseas, responding to staff in close contact with those unwell, keeping safe when accessing the community, keeping customers safe if accessing the community, and managing procedures for visitors to accommodation units and for non-frontline staff needing to work from home,” Cashion shares.

This purpose-led framework has helped ConnectAbility navigate more than just a pandemic in 2020. As timing would have it, the organisation doubled their workforce just a fortnight before the crisis, merging a supported independent living service into their operations. Cashion reflects on the resilience and adaptability that came to the fore at all levels of the organisation as they navigated a pandemic and a restructure – “…so many positives arose from innovations as we adapted to find new ways to continue service provision to customers, like Zoom art classes and a messenger group for staff to check in on each other.” Being driven by purpose allowed core services to adapt and continue while the organisation developed robust crisis response and action plans, and an effective safety response that included rapidly rolling out personal protective equipment (PPE) and infection control training. 

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate!

If there’s one lesson to be learned across every industry and sector navigating crisis, it’s that clear, consistent and transparent communication is king. Providing information regularly and in a highly visible manner is critical to the wellbeing and performance of your workforce. Leaders who provide timely advice (rather than waiting until they know all of the answers), clear facts, and describe how and why decisions have been made are best placed to navigate even the toughest of challenges with strength. 

ConnectAbility took the view that communication would be a critical component of their COVID-19 response from the beginning. Cashion shares that “[e]arly on in the pandemic, the leadership team listened to feedback from staff about what they wanted, and developed and rolled out a communication action plan. Our Senior Leadership Team was on a rotating roster of responsibility for our ‘Daily Connect’ communications. Our communication template included daily statistics for our organisation, current information regarding government rules, information for teams regarding relevant safety topics such as infection control, submissions to the ‘ConnectAbility Kindness Challenge’ and finally a daily humorous meme to lighten the mood.”

Embracing kindness and fun – and capturing the intangible feelings that are well expressed through memes – was an unexpected hit with the workforce, opening new doors to light-hearted connection. “The ‘daily meme’ had the effect of helping our now almost 500 staff get to know their leadership team and that there is a sense of humour there! We have decided that this style of communication will continue into the future, including the meme! In our recent Staff Engagement Survey, 85% of staff agreed or strongly agreed that our COVID-19 communication was timely and effective – a great result”, shares Cashion.

Adele and the leadership team at ConnectAbility listened to feedback from staff about what they wanted, early on in the pandemic, and developed and rolled out a communication action plan.

4. Happy and engaged employees are your greatest asset

Employee trust is the greatest asset for any organisation, so how do you know if your workforce is happy and engaged? Ask them! The most effective leaders seek feedback from their workforce, even when times are hard. Cashion notes that ConnectAbility didn’t shy away from this challenge. “Seriously,” she says, “who decides to do a Staff Engagement Survey in the middle of a pandemic, when you have just doubled your workforce and not had a chance to welcome them properly to their new organisation?! ConnectAbility does!”. 

The organisation rolled out their ‘The Voice – COVID-19 Special Edition’ survey in May 2020. “Whilst the environment was frantic, we still believed that getting feedback from our people was critical to our future – post covid or not. Overall, ConnectAbility’s result was that 81% surveyed agree or strongly agree that they are committed to their work and have an intention to continue working with us. This is good to know! This tells us to do more of what’s working well so that our staff continue to be our greatest asset and identify areas to continuously improve. There is no doubt that in the field of community services, uncertain and disengaged employees create enormous risk to the safety and wellbeing of our customers – this will always be a primary motivation for us to value our staff who are engaged.”

5. Now is always the best time to invest in your people and culture

Pandemic or not, now is always the best time to invest your workforce. Many organisations, both in the non-profit sector and beyond, are facing funding constraints and tough decisions. For ConnectAbility, this comes back to aligning recruitment and retention strategies with value and purpose while finding new ways of doing ‘a lot with a little’. “Like many organisations in our sector, we attempt to live within overhead budgets far below that of the corporate sector,” says Cashion. “In saying that, it forces innovation and we are determined to achieve our goals by tapping into our staff’s sense of purpose and supporting them with good leadership and training.” 

ConnectAbility recently conducted external recruitment for Community Support Workers, attracting applications a level beyond anything they’ve seen in the last decade. Again, the organisation returns to purpose and values in decision-making – “…it’s just as critical to find people that are aligned to our values as it is to find the skills – the care and safety of our customers is at stake,” says Cashion. “We recruit carefully for the right people to join our team and then invest in their experience working for us, so that they stay.”

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Keep an eye on the GWG blog for more tips on navigating the new business world we live in. Our experienced and friendly consultants understand your industry and speak your language. If you need assistance with recruitment or outplacement, get in touch to find out how we can help.