Empathy is key to leading a team through crisis – Jim Antonopoulos


BY Sam Davies


6 April 2020

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Following another week of rapidly changing news stories, government updates and more uncertainty, I reached out to Jim Antonopoulos, a fellow designer and friend who’s thoughts on leadership and teams I find extremely interesting and thought-provoking. Jim runs Tank, a strategic design & innovation consultancy. If you aren’t already subscribed to his weekly newsletter I’d definitely recommend signing up here.

We discussed the good and the bad, the evolving situation, adapting to change and leading in uncertain times. One point that came up multiple times was the importance of pausing and taking stock in a situation like this. With best intentions, its easy to get swept up, focusing on next steps and long term plans for your business before taking the time to acknowledge the trauma and anxiety that many people are feeling. This pandemic is going to change the world significantly and we need to take stock of that before rushing forward blindly.

Regardless of the daunting time in front of us, I firmly believe that times of challenge are when evolution happens, especially for small businesses. We discussed for leaders, this is a time to firstly look at yourself; acknowledge your own stress, anxiety and fears, and decide who you want to be in this crisis. This process will be essential to moving forward with resilience, whilst also being empathetic to your team and building a united group of people.

Taking the time to pause will also allow you the time to really think about the future of your business, where you’re going and why. This situation is placing huge challenges in front of people, but also providing us with the opportunity to recalibrate – who do we want to be when we come out the other side?

I hope you enjoy our conversation, I’d love to hear about initiatives that you’re putting in place for your team and how you’re working through this ever-evolving situation.

If you want to subscribe to Jim’s newsletters, find his podcast or one of his courses you can head to MarchFirst – The Learning Academy for Purpose-Driven Leaders and also checkout the great work Jim and his team do at Tank — Strategy & Innovation Consultancy.

Transcript of Sam Davies in conversation with Jim Antonopoulos

(00:07) Sam here again from Humans Aren’t Robots, the podcast that takes a deep dive into the humans behind the modern world of creative business. Jim runs Tank, which is a strategy and innovation consultancy based out of Melbourne. They do amazing work in the design space and around creative leadership and strategic thinking. Given the situation that’s happening with covid-19 and him being a small business owner, I wanted to get his lay of the land, how he’s thinking about this, especially given that he spends a lot of time thinking about how to be an authentic creative leader in the age that we’re living in.

(02:25) I think remote work is the least of our worries. In the long term we’re going to need to mingle.

(03:37)People have been forced into their inboxes and into their homes and are connecting and using tools that we have available to us to have more meaningful conversations and not just using them for passive entertainment.

(03:47) I completely agree.I’m sure there are thousands of people out there who videoconference for the very first time and are downloading applications they never considered downloading before. People will always find a way to interact and mingle and get together.

(04:53) I was jogging yesterday morning past a few people and everybody wants to stop and have a quick chat and just feel like we’re all in this together.

(05:15) Everyone’s checking in. I think that’s a new thing. I find that I’m checking in with a lot of people just reaching out. Hey, you OK? How’s it going? I think that’s really important. That’s social cohesion.

(05:36) One of my personal goals to come out of this is change for good. I see this as an opportunity for change. There’s a lot of trauma and a lot of anxiety and a lot of coming to grips with this change and needing the time to take not just rush forward into new ventures, but actually take time to properly stop and deal with what’s happening and how you feel about that.

(06:16) I think it’s smart to take a breath and take stock. I think it’s the smart strategic thing to do. That doesn’t mean we’re not embracing change. That doesn’t mean that we’re not willing to pivot our organizations. But taking stock, taking a moment to think alone or with a team, that’s really that’s critical. To not acknowledge the trauma whilst we’re taking a breath and thinking of the new economy in the new world we’re stepping into, I think it’s that’s a mistake. I think we need to be completely hyper aware of all ends of that spectrum to make smart strategic choices. Otherwise, you’re just making hopeful gambles.

(07:50) Have you felt that time has felt sort of compressed into the last couple of weeks?

(07:59) Yeah. I love structure and order. Time now has just sort of stretched and the cadence and pace of time has changed.

(08:19) Three weeks ago when the Grand Prix had been cancelled, I just felt the gravity of the situation that day. And since then, time has been very strange.

(08:59) So true. Those key milestones, like the Grand Prix being cancelled and also the announcement of Qantas grounding its fleet and standing down that amazing huge number of people at a moment’s notice. Virgin Australia then followed shortly after, and then the ripple effect of retail straight after that. Those milestones for me were like this is snowballing fast and it’s getting really serious. The only thing I guess I could compare with was September 11. And probably the early nineties the Bosnian conflict in the Gulf War, when those things happened. I remember having a similar sense of what’s going on here. But this is at a different scale.

(12:14) I’m a firm believer that constraints and challenges are a time when evolution happens and when we know we have to overcome challenges that we have to adapt. That’s when you see sparks of brilliance and you can apply creativity in ways otherwise you hadn’t thought about. How are we going to go about balancing that sort of sense of optimism and keeping people on track, and especially with this distributed workforce, maintaining positivity and also, I suppose a sense of reality?

(12:58) There’s a lot of personal work we need to do just on our own, because we have to manage our own stress and our own anxieties and fears of the businesses we run and our families. A lot of the time you hear a lot about the hustle culture and you hear about the leaders sort of giving, giving, giving and doing, doing, doing but not really talking about the work they need to do for themselves. I think that’s really important. And that’s what I mean by taking a breath, like taking a moment for ourselves, just taking stock first and foremost, asking ourselves really important questions. Who am I in this process? This moment is really important and just really taking stock, because without that, I don’t think we’ll have the resilience and the resolve to really carry through.The risk of burning out or risk of monumental failure, personal failure as well. A lot of leaders today are going to start needing to learn a lot about empathy, what it means, how to define it, how to practice it every single day, not just once, but all the time, throughout the day, because we’re going to need enormous amounts of it. It’s going to be just a standard for leadership and to manage teams.

(15:35) I’m very thankful to be in a small team where I can practice empathy and have conversations. I imagine across the board how many people’s lives have been turned upside down in an instant without the ability to have conversations with people about what’s happening.

(15:58) Yeah, and having conversations about today, the trauma of today at the same time is mapping scenarios for the future. We need to talk to our teams and our people about the trauma of today and the cutbacks that are needed, the efficiencies that we have to put in place and those difficult conversations that I’m sure you’ve had them and I’ve had them, doing that whilst we are mapping out potential scenarios for our businesses and our clients and our products for the future. And the smart thing to do is to map out multiple scenarios because of the complete complexity and uncertainty that we’re stepping into day by day.

(16:51) One of the things that’s just become glaringly obvious to me is that even in times of prosperity, that’s probably something that should be happening anyway.
(17:10) I completely agree with that. Have empathy for human beings, map multiple scenarios for the future because anything could happen. As a leader take a breath, look after yourself first so you can look after others.

(17:58) I’ve never seen so many emails from our partners and clients with a real sense of hey, how are you? There’s actually quite a lot more to this human connection on a business level.

(18:45) It’s so important that we just reach out and check in because that personal work is really important. Part of it is actually having resilience and resolve. Part of that is having people around you that you can rely on and that creates safe spaces for us to lean on and listen and be listened to. That’s part of stepping forward into some unknown territory. We need that.

(19:45) This pause is a time where you can actually take some time from a business perspective and a personal perspective, take stock of where you’re going and why you’re going there.

(19:59) When the world slows down the pace changes and some people are few steps ahead in their thought processes while others are playing catch up. Over the last four or five years I’ve really pivoted and shifted my business around to be a lot more agile and nimble. And working remotely and agile and changing quickly.

(22:01) There’s so many opportunities out there to change everything about the way we structure our existence. I see some exciting outcomes potentially on that level of how can we reimagine the world?

(22:19) I changed myself first. Before changing the business, I asked myself big questions like what kind of lifestyle I want and what kind of business do I need to facilitate that life? What time do I want to wake up? What time do I want to turn up to work? What kind of work do I want to do? A lot of people will be reassessing what type of work they want to be doing when they step into new roles or whether they pivot their businesses. Do we want to be doing the same thing we did before this, or should we actually readjust and recalibrate? And I hope many businesses recalibrate for good.

(23:14) Transparency is really important during a crisis and around cashflow. In one of your weekly emails, you talked about having transparency around sales targets within a business,making sales targets visible so the team can understand the cash flow position, or financial position of a business more. Can you explain your thoughts around the benefit of that?

(24:16) I believe in helping people see the performance of an organization. It’s important to create universal labels on names for performance. People need to understand and be prepared for the best and the worst that could happen. It’s an act in preparing your team. And it creates strength and resolve. True adaptive leadership creates that sense of trust and safety in a team where people feel comfortable understanding the best and the worst possible situation. And you do that by being transparent. You do that by showing them constant performance. People are either on the bus or off the bus. I’ve seen people who cannot handle transparency. So I think that’s fine. And they just don’t actually belong on the bus.

(27:11) What kind of in terms of a post check around performance, would that stem down to a team level as well, or is that more around the business performance?

(27:23) I think it’s both. Yes, every team should have their own objectives and measurable results and see how they map up to the business objectives and results. Otherwise, what are they doing? They are sailing rudderless.

(28:40) The people that are on the bus will rise up to the occasion and work out that this is a time where maybe we need to double down and help whoever it might be in ways that maybe are outside of our roles.

(28:58) Yeah, absolutely. And some will just jump off the bus, and that’s perfectly fine as well. It’s a cleansing.

(29:38) It’s either going to strengthen the bond and have people along for the ride or it may create a barrier for some people, but they’re probably not the right people then.

(29:47) I completely agree. If we’re playing a sport as a team, that would be like not looking at the score, quarter to quarter, we wouldn’t be looking at the scoreboard. So we wouldn’t know how hard to try in the next quarter. And what’s the point of playing?

(30:03) The analogy is very pertinent. It’s interesting how many businesses don’t run like a sports team.

(30:15) I read somewhere that the New Zealand All Blacks count how many times they dropped the ball in training. And that’s a number that they measure, it’s an actual number that they look at week to week. Now to apply that to a digital agency, a digital firm or a creative firm, it’s game changing.

(30:44) And if you’re not bringing your A game during training, then why would you bring it on the field?

(30:49) Yeah, if you don’t want to train when you’re out in the field, then what are you doing? So if you’re not training for reality, then what are you doing?

(31:50) Your point about transparency, it’s key to high performance. I’d like to try and foster a team that’s focused on doing those extra little unknowns than just focusing on the clock.

(33:03) Yes, probably a balance of both would be good. Yes, absolutely.

(33:11) It’s difficult to set up systems and it takes some creativity to actually breed that into an organisation.

(33:29) That’s where it’s on the individual leaders to make that personal change in themselves, to really understand empathy and understand high performance in teams. At scale in corporates, the individual leaders within those organisations need to make that very personal change themselves to be able to lead such massive pivot’s and also such massive transformations that are going to play out in the coming months.

(34:06) So you’ve been busy working on MarchFirst, tell us a little bit about that.

(34:14) What we learnt over the last year was there’s a real appetite for online learning and digital learning. We brought the whole thing together into one entity that has a kind of membership in the background where we want to cultivate an online community around personal transformation, around creating better leaders. I think the world’s going to need people to step up and acknowledge their leadership potential. And we saw MarchFirst as an avenue that we could do that.

(36:05) A lot of the content that you’ve been putting out for for a long time now really mirrors the journey that a lot of people are going to need to take in the next few years.

(36:25) We’re running a series of monthly video webinars and we’re just going to experiment, just have really open conversations about this sort of stuff. It’s so healthy, very cathartic. And just to listen to someone else and try to understand the world from their perspective, it’s enlightening and it helps us all grow.

(38:15) We’re not really working from home, we’re managing the kids every single day. We’re looking after our home and the stress and anxiety that we’re feeling because of this crisis. And in between all of that, we’re trying to do a little bit of work. We’re not really at work, is the first thing, and I’m sure we all agree on this.

(30:01) It is difficult to try and manage all the other things that we just have to do to get by. Plus this added sense of anxiety and stress about our world being thrown upside down. So it’s definitely a time where we need to take the foot off the accelerator a bit and take stock.

(40:21) If you want to find out more about Jim, head to Marchfirst.com.au, you can find out about his academy, the weekly journal that I mentioned, and also his podcasts that we talked about, which is called Fearless, which you can find on everywhere you get good podcasts.

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Sam Davies

Sam has been running a Digital Agency in some form or another for almost a decade. He loves the internet and the positive changes it has brought to the world but still loves time away from the glowing cubes. Surf, Fish, Drink, Cook, Laugh….Drink! You can follow him on Instagram @samdaviesdn and on Snapchat @digitalnoir