On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Atholl Duncan, author of Leaders in Lockdown: Inside Stories of COVID-19 and the New World of Business. We talk about his interviews with senior executives from around the world during the first 100 days of lockdown and what he learned about crisis management, leadership development, and what’s next in the post COVID hybrid world. Let’s get started.
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Interview Transcript with Atholl Duncan, Author of Leaders in Lockdown
Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Atholl Duncan. He is author of Leaders in Lockdown: Inside Stories of COVID-19 and the New World of Business. Welcome to the show.
Atholl Duncan: Thank you. It’s great to be here and great to be a guest of yours. I’m looking forward to chatting about innovation and how we lead out of lock down Brian. Cause that’s the question that everyone’s trying to get their heads around there.
Brian Ardinger: We have gone through disruption and I think people understand a little bit what that means. You have written this book. You spoke to 28 senior executives around the world in the United States, Europe, Asia, during the first hundred days of lockdown, to understand and get their feedback on what we were going through when it comes to disruption. So maybe we’ll start with the book, give us a little hint and insights into what it’s all about and what did you learn from it?
Atholl Duncan: The way the book came about was in March of 2020, I sit on the boards of various businesses. And all of these businesses were in some state of jeopardy and certainly in a state of crisis. And I was pretty stressed by the whole situation. I think as most people were. And I decided that there was what I thought was a crossroads and history. Certainly, a crossroads, probably the defining moments of this century.
And I wanted to capture them. So, I followed 28 business leaders, people who, whose businesses were spread from Asia to Europe, to UK, and many leaders in the US. And really to answer a couple of questions from them. How were they leading through the pandemic? And how did they think the world would change because of what we’ve all been through.
Brian Ardinger: When you reached out to these leaders, what was the initial kind of feedback that you got? Was it nervousness? Was it excitement? What kind of what were the emotions that people were going through and specifically, how did they adapt to that sudden disruption?
Atholl Duncan: I got remarkable access because these people were locked down in their kitchens. And it was like they’d witnessed some predictably dramatic accident because they just wanted to share with someone. They wanted to talk to someone about what was happening to their businesses, which were getting pretty smashed up at the time.
So, they opened their Zooms to me. And they talked to me. They talked from the heart and they talked about how they hoped the world would change. And that the remarkable thing was that many of these people whose businesses, which they had built themselves over many years, lying, smashed round about them.
They remained remarkably humble and remarkably steady in their thoughts. But yeah, they knew this was a major moment. So, you know, even a year ago we knew this was a pretty significant moment. And the general message was that even back then, was this is a time to reset. Is a time to reset how we run our businesses and is a time to reset how we run society.
Brian Ardinger: So, in the book and through the conversations you defined, I think seven core themes that came out through that. Can you walk the audience through a little bit about what are those core themes that you uncovered? And let’s talk a little bit about each one of them.
Atholl Duncan: Yeah. So, seven major themes. The first theme was the new age of purpose. And the feeling as one business leader said to me, that purpose was on steroids at the peak of the crisis. And that purpose now was no longer just words that you emblazoned on a website. It was now something that your employees, your customers and your investors would demand was delivered through action. And not just words.
The second theme was the new world of work. Because we saw this remarkable thing that, you know, most people talk about, regarding Covid, which was the move to homeworking. And you know, one of the business leaders that I’ve talked to is a very senior executive at Tata, which is based in India. They moved 600,000 people to homeworking. Even 6,000 is big Brian, but this is 600,000 people. And you know, many, many major corporations were doing the same thing all around the world.
As a crisis went on, people have realized that the new world of work was not just about home or remote or hybrid or flexible. We were really seeing defined probably a new, psychological relationship between the employer and the employee.
Third theme was widening inequality. Because the virus widened inequality in so many ways. Obviously, it raised the Black Lives Matter, raised diversity and inclusion in a way that we hadn’t seen before, but also homeschooling raised equality. The people who had access to digital.
Homeworking raised in equality in terms of it was very comfortable for some people to be working from their homes. But those who had dysfunctional homes are in multi person homes, difficult for them.
And then the vaccine. You know, we already see that there’s 130 countries around the world, which haven’t delivered one jab of the vaccine. 95% of the vaccines have been delivered in the richest countries in the world. So, there’s this really quite a defining moment. Roundabout, the widening inequality gap.
Fourth theme was about global cooperation, because at that moment when we hope that our politicians would be cooperating across global boundaries, they were doing, they were falling out. And I think generally, wherever you are in the world, we were pretty well let down by our politicians. Whether you were in Asia, Europe, or the U S it was a pretty, sorry ceiling.
You actually saw large corporations, doing far better at global cooperation. If you look at the pharmas that developed the vaccines. If you look at the big tech companies who came together to try and work out track and trace.
Next thing was resilience. Not just personal resilience, but you know, when the crisis comes, cash is king financial resilience is everything. And the resilience of the operations of these large corporations.
Sixth theme was all about resetting the supply chain. Particularly if we’re in manufacturing, we couldn’t get stuff anymore. Borders were closed and we still see, you know, big shortages and computer chips, big shortage use in raw materials, and the prices of raw materials going up.
So, this really brought the global supply chain to a shuttering halt. And I think a major cause to rethink 40 years of decisions that were made on productivity and costs and they all fly out the window, when our pandemic shuts the borders.
And then the last theme probably dearest to my own heart is maximizing potential. So, maximizing the potential of your employees. We saw physical welfare and mental welfare, really going up the agenda. And a big debate round about, what kind of leaders do we need now. What kind of leaders were successful in the pandemic? And what kind of leaders do we need to lead us out of lock down?
Brian Ardinger: So, what was some of the most surprising or unexpected findings after these conversations that you had?
Atholl Duncan: I think an unexpected finding was actually that there were no new trends. What you actually saw here was a massive acceleration of trends that were already out there. Right. Right. And, and I think you would particularly see that in the world of digital. People have talked about 10 years of digital disruption squeezed into 10 months.
I think that was a surprise, because I thought we would maybe see some new trends coming up. I think one of the anecdotes that kind of sums up for me is I spoke to Mark Thompson who was at the time Chief Executive of the New York Times. And he had to go into the Time’s offices to do his earnings call.
Mark Blake says Brompton fold-up bicycle. And when he got into the office, he’s I think that was probably about 5,000 people normally in these offices. And when he got in there, there were only about 20 people, security guards, you know, keeping the place safe. And he decided to go for a cycle, round the office on his Brompton bicycle.
And as he went around, and he saw the empty savannas of the New York Times offices. He thought it looked like an empty milking parlor. And he had this vision of all these people that went in there to the Times, and they hooked themselves up to their desks for the day. You know, milking out their ideas before removing their headphones and making the painful journey home.
And he thought at that moment, maybe I should sell my skyscraper. But he decided I’m not going to sell it, but we have to completely rethink what the relationship is between the worker and the office. You know, and I think that’s going to be huge. You know, we see that in cities, all around the world, what’s going to happen to the central business districts and, you know, a lot of huge change being seen in Manhattan at the moment.
Brian Ardinger: I’d love to get your insight into the emotional feedback that the leaders had. Did you sense a lot of fear or optimism or at that early stage? How did they react to the disruption?
Atholl Duncan: The true entrepreneurs, their attitude is utterly staggering. Because as they are a billion pounds and it’s mainly a billion pounds of their own money. As their billion pound plus businesses are lying in tatters, they are thinking about what the opportunity is and what the next thing is, and how they can build back out of the crisis. And they’re remarkably calm.
And a number of them who repeated to me that the most important thing was health safety of your employees. I worked with a chief executive of a large asset management company in Hong Kong who runs many of the shops and offices in Hong Kong and China. And his view was that things could be worse. You know, we had our health. And he stuck the way as mantra of the three Cs. And the three Cs for him were cooperation, communication, and care.
Now cooperation was about working together. Communicating we say was communicating more than you’d ever done before. Communicating what you didn’t know, as well as what you did know. And care, care for your people care for your customers and care for all your stakeholders. There was a remarkable humanity and almost the bigger the corporate crisis and the greater humanity that I saw from the leaders.
Brian Ardinger: Did you see from a tactical perspective, the leaders that you interviewed, doing similar things, or were there some that stood out that approached the disruption differently and tactically did things. Or did they, you see kind of similarities between what the different leaders did?
Atholl Duncan: I think there were a number of similarities. I mean, I think agility was, you know, agility and speed of movement was probably top of their agenda. And if you weren’t reacting. Moving quickly then you were tossed. I think focus was very important and the number who repeated to me, but focusing on the right thing. Not falling into the trap of making yourself busy, you know, making yourself busy, I think in that situation as a way of dealing with your anxiety.
So, it wasn’t about making yourself busy. It was about focusing on the small number of items. That would make the difference between life and death for your business. I think empathy and compassion and leadership was very strong as well. And I think seeing the opportunity, seeing the opportunity again, what was a big thing.
And I think these themes will continue as we come out of the crisis. I don’t think there will no longer be steady as she goes in many if any businesses. We are into this kind of supersonic age of change. If you’re not fast, Brian, you’re going to be last.
Brian Ardinger: Absolutely. And it’s interesting that the themes that you identified and and wrote about, obviously came out of the pandemic itself, but there’s similar to what we’re hearing today. Like they’re not changing much. You know, the idea that you have to have purpose. The world of work is changing. Inequality and resilience, all these things that you’ve mentioned as the core themes as being identified early on in that we are still wrestling with that and they are evolving.
So that leads us to the next, I guess, set of questions around, we are coming out of this “coming out of this pandemic,” but what does that mean? And how do you see leaders and companies approaching this reverse culture shock, so to speak, coming out of lockdown?
Atholl Duncan: Well, I think one of the things that unlocked then and the pandemic has proven, is that the command and control type of leadership is dead. You know, I think you are going to see an era of more compassionate and more empathetic leadership. Cause I think that was the more successful leadership through the crisis.
I think you’re going to see people here who will want to hold on to the things that worked well at the peak of the crisis and try and recreate them. So, I mean, I’ve had a number of clients who said to me, how do we recreate the mindset that we had that did remarkable things at the peak here? And how do we recreate the pace of change?
The problem with that is it sustainable, the pace of change that we had at the peak of the crisis. You know, you’re going to kill or blow up your people. But definitely the mindset is fascinating. You know, how did we manage to do the vaccines in such a short space of time?
How did we manage to build the field hospitals in weeks rather than what it would have taken years? And how did we manage to make these huge pivots. So, I don’t like that word, but it was a word of the crisis. Yeah. How do we manage to make these huge pivots in so many businesses? And, you know, some people are going to want to get back. They don’t like it in this space.
You know, change is uncomfortable. And some people are going to want to get back the way we were. But I think that’s a false idea, because all your competitors are going to a different place. If you’re going back the way, then you’re heading back towards an inevitable decline. I would see.
Brian Ardinger: Did any of the leaders admit to any kind of failures or things they wish they would have done differently or, you know, things they stubbed their toes on?
Atholl Duncan: I think they were all pretty open about mistakes they’ve made. About not being prepared enough. About underestimating, I mean, we all are underestimated how long it was going to take, didn’t we? You know, when we started doing this, Brian, the biggest fear people told me was the book will be out of date by the time it comes out. You know, nobody will be interested in that.
How are you going to manage to get this current and keep it relevant? Well, you know, the book first published in the UK in the autumn of 2020. Published in the US now. One criticism of the book could be that the story is still unfolding. You know, are we in the middle of it? Are we in the last quarter? Where are we in this story?
And some of the clients I’m working with at the moment, and my executive coaching were saying, well, you know, maybe the difficult bit is still to come, because we’re going to get going a game, we’re going to get out there. What is hybrid working? What is the new world of work?
In many parts of the world, we’ve been in a steady state. We’ve got into a routine, sadly over the last weeks and months. Well, that routine is about to change as we try to get back to something resembling the corporate life that we had before.
Brian Ardinger: Well, and I think that hybrid environment is going to be even more difficult to manage. You know, it’s, it’s one thing when you have to move everybody to remote or, you know, everybody is going through the exact same thing and understands that disruption and, and will, has to take place because of it.
But now as we come out, the variables and opportunities that different companies are having and different communities are having, is going to make it that much harder to navigate the hybrid nature of it. That’s what I’m seeing and hearing.
Atholl Duncan: Yeah, definitely. Definitely.
Brian Ardinger: Are there any other great stories or interesting stories from the book that would shine some light on people now trying to adapt with this and how they can make this transition even better.
Atholl Duncan: If I was to give you two or three quotes from some of these business leaders, you know. One of them was a guy Christian Lang, who’s Chief Exec of a tech business, a digital procurement business in San Francisco, called Trade Shift.
It’s an interesting business because it was formed by three Danes, in a garage in Denmark. And then they moved across to San Francisco. And then he simply said with COVID 19, every single long held belief has been thrown out of the window. Every single long held belief has been thrown out the window.
I did a bit of interviews with Will Hammad, who has a business called Whoop up in Boston. And Whoop is a wearable tech. I’ve got my Whoop around my wrist. And his view was that he fundamentally believed that this moment in time will shift the way humanity thinks about health. And that’s another revolution in this.
If you look at the home health and the virtual health world, right. You know, that’s a shift that, you know, we’ve, wow, we’ve gone 10 years or 15 years and they are in, maybe the breakthroughs that we’ll see in this next digital revolution will be about of solving some of the big problems in health and our, and our healthcare systems.
I think diplomacy for the next generation. If not, several generations are going to be redrawn. There really is just so much change that’s coming about it. And we’ve not really talked much about the diversity and inclusion agenda, but my favorite quote is from a woman called Alison Martin, who’s the Chief Executive of Zurich Insurance Group, in Europe. And she said, why don’t we create a world that is fit for our children to live in rather than the one that we were destroying before COVID.
Brian Ardinger: You obviously interviewed a lot of business leaders and that. What can the average, middle management or person within a company take from the book to make themselves feel better or understand how to, again, navigate this new world.
Atholl Duncan: This is not a complex Harvard academic analysis. This is storytelling in this book. It is telling great stories of people who find themselves in remarkable positions during this crisis. It tries to give you a window seat in their boardroom. And I think there’s so much that everyone can take, about leadership. It is not the size of the business. It’s the behaviors. It’s the Innovation. It’s the agility. It’s that mindset of opportunity.
When the crisis hits, do you fear? Or do you look for opportunity? And while I think many of these people had a bit of fear, their instinctive reaction is to look for where is the opportunity in the crisis? And that sounds a bit like carpet bagging, but is there true entrepreneurial spirit coming through?
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Brian Ardinger: Everybody’s going to have to learn these skillsets. And the world is like you said, moving faster. And I think we saw that before COVID, but COVID just put a, a stake in the ground for everybody to rally around. So, I really do appreciate you coming on Inside Outside Innovation to share your thoughts and share what you learned through this particular process. If people want to find out more about yourself or more about the book, what’s the best way to do that?
Atholl Duncan: The book is on Amazon.com. One of the companies that clearly did very well, during the pandemic. And I’m doing a lot of executive coaching cause I’m in the U S and you can find me on Atholl Duncan.com. And that’s Atholl with two L’s, Atholl Duncan.com.
And really for me, now Brian, it’s not about selling a book. I’ve become an evangelist for change. And really what I want to do is to inspire as many leaders to not let us go back to where we were. Because people in some of the workshops that have been doing, are looking for, who’s going to reset the world. Who’s going to change business. Who’s going to change the style of leadership.
And I say, guys, it’s us. There is nobody else. We are the leaders. If we don’t do it, it isn’t going to happen. So come on. Come on the journey. And then let’s reset the world.
Brian Ardinger: Let’s reset the world. Indeed. Atholl, thank you very much for being on Inside Outside Innovation and looking forward to continuing the conversation like you said, this is an ongoing thing. So, we would love to have you back at some point to continue the conversation and see where the world takes us.
Atholl Duncan: It’s a pleasure. I’d love to come back at any time because I think the next bit is potentially from a leadership point of view, is as interesting as the last bit
Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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