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Lead through anxiety with peace, purpose, preparedness

The best leaders share information, impart purpose, and develop response capabilities.

PICTURE this: A director sits in his home office. Last night, he made the tough decision to lay off half his employees. He will have to relay this news to the rest of his team in a few moments. He is in low spirits, and, honestly, scared.

Versions of this narrative have played out globally since the start of 2020 - particularly in the tourism industry. Over the last six months, aviation giants and hotel chains have announced that they are downsizing their workforce.

Across the world, entrepreneurs, decision-makers and employees have witnessed how vulnerable their organisation has become. For leaders, the challenge lies in leading their team through troubled times - even when their minds and hearts are racing.

Across my 30 years of experience in hospitality, I have been through a fair share of crises - the Gulf War, 9/11 and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. In a way, I know how the story goes: the situation will get worse before it gets better. It is not going to end anytime soon, even when a vaccine is ready. It is critical we use this time to prepare for a new operating environment when we eventually emerge.

So what will happen between now and then? There will be many case studies and playbooks post-Covid-19. But for now, I hope my suggestions will help fellow leaders better minister to those under their care.

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Over-communicate for peace of mind

Uncertainty results in irrational behaviours. The panic buying of food supplies and toilet rolls early this year was a clear example. The sheer amount of conspiracy theories and fake news circulating is not helping either.

During these times, people look to leaders for reassurance. Citizens look to their government for direction. Likewise, employees look to their employers for confidence and courage. An e-mail memo with wishes for good health is a start, but much more is needed. Over-communication is thus imperative.

Information disseminated should encompass facts about the crisis, resources available and what the business is doing to navigate the situation. Repetition via multiple channels is also necessary. As a hospitality group, we engaged with our team members through written notes, e-mail, video calls, virtual town halls ... the list goes on.

Colleagues whose family members had expressed concerns at the time of the outbreak were able to quell their fears. Some team members also proactively came up with hygiene protocols, thanks to the resources provided. They were eventually appointed safe-management officers.

As hoteliers, we are people-oriented. Thus, we understand that social isolation can be frustrating and draining. This can lead to disengagement. Hence, our colleagues got creative and planned for moments of connection such as virtual get-togethers. Seniors in the company also volunteered to lend a listening ear to their juniors in support of their mental wellness.

In the short term, we need to assure our staff members that we are doing tangible things to keep them safe and we have their well-being at heart. In essence, over-communication is useful for dialling down fear and anxiety.

Purpose is key

In recent years, discussions on "employee engagement" often bring up a familiar topic - the importance of purpose.

A crisis provides the best opportunity to build this shared sense of purpose. Often, employees find purpose when they can connect what they spend time doing with the larger goal. In the healthcare sector, employees are aware of the role they play. Organisations in other sectors have also demonstrated this mindset. In the fashion industry, for example, key players are redirecting production lines to manufacture protective gear such as gowns and masks.

In the hospitality sector, many hotels have stepped up to serve as government facilities. But this was not an easy decision. Early on, we had customers to take care of. We were also worried that our involvement - for quarantine, swabs in isolation and stay-home-notices - would leave a stigma on our brands.

But the pivot in this crisis was: Where can we make the biggest social impact? And, how can we be of service to as many people as possible? As a team, we learnt an important lesson: Unless we look after others, we cannot get out of this crisis alone. This is not to say that leaders should ignore employees' fear and anxiety. Instead, it is about getting the team to understand that they are part of the solution.

Preparedness means being adaptive

When it comes to crisis management, organisations focus on preparedness. Many have created risk-management teams to develop contingency plans. This is mandatory, but not enough.

Amid uncertainty, the sturdiest organisations will not be those that possess detailed plans or a specialised risk-management team. Instead, those that prepare by developing response capabilities and a crisis network are the ones who will survive.

An example of how we do so at Far East Hospitality is through year-round cross-training, mentorship, and rotation programmes. These programmes develop team members into leaders, well-versed in their main job scope and other skill sets. And Covid-19 has not stopped us from keeping this initiatives going.

Most recently, some of our sales colleagues rolled up their sleeves and donned housekeeping uniforms to learn about the duties of room attendants. Others from housekeeping and engineering departments picked up new customer service skill sets from guest-service executives.

Looking ahead, the definition of good service will evolve from "compliance of expectations" to "experience creation". There will be greater emphasis on soft skills and performance to deliver unique and enjoyable guest experiences. A housekeeper's role is no longer just about keeping the rooms clean, but being able to communicate the craft and techniques of the job with finesse, and coherently. This is even more important in a post-Covid-19 world, where cleanliness needs to be practised and exhibited. Being prepared for this will help us prepare for the future.

Let us focus on peace, purpose and preparedness

Uncertainty in today's climate is not limited to how Covid-19 will impact our health and economy.

In times of crisis, fear runs high. And when fear runs high, the need for courage runs higher.

The worst of times often bring out the best in people - individually and collectively - pushing us to think more intuitively and advance more intelligently. While we cannot control what is happening in our industry, or in this case, the world, we leaders, can take positive steps towards our goals. Let us focus on doing just that.

  • The writer is chief executive of Far East Hospitality

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