In the beginning, there was the Covid-19 pandemic … and everything as we knew it changed. We could not travel without restriction. In some countries, we could not go to work in our offices. Some people had to have permits just to leave their homes to buy groceries. And nothing was as before.

Hang on; the beginning starts before that. Hadn’t you noticed how everything seemed to be changing all the time anyway?

Our world is constantly changing and our business context with that too. As human beings, we seek security, safety, and assurance, and we have many mechanisms that help us deal with threats.

However, that is just part of the dynamic and as humans, we are also incredibly creative and have an innate desire to learn and improve. At any level, you can see this in what we do all the time. We are opportunists in the moment.

One organisation Co-Creation Group has been working with since 2020 is a company that connects businesses together, such as providers with suppliers, business leaders with thought leaders, and markets with consumers, through in-person events and exhibitions across the business globally, from Australia, Philippines, China, India, Middle-East, Europe, North and South America.

In 2020, as a team of 13 coaches, we embarked on coaching 90 leaders from across this organisation. Our objectives were to inspire their leaders to push new boundaries in their leadership skillset. As the pandemic hit hard, we were also asked to support them in whatever way they needed.

How did we support the leaders in this organisation not just to survive but thrive through the fast, large-scale changes resulting from the pandemic?

These leaders were in an environment completely new to them. They were handling the sudden closure of in-person events and exhibitions and the impact on business income as a result.

As a retrospective analysis of this project, we can use the Co-Creation Group FHOCAL™ model of change management to reflect on the changes they were experiencing and the conversations we were having as coaches to see how they adapted.

  • FOCUS ON PURPOSE: “Without doing any shows, we are not helping suppliers reach customers, so what CAN we do to help our customers carry on doing business in the pandemic?”

    Revisiting and reconnecting to their purpose as a leader and as an organisation helped people find new energy and realise they had to find a new way to provide services if they still cared about their customer. Helping leaders move beyond the financial challenge and go back to basics around the purpose of the organisation; that despite shut-downs, business was carrying on and people still needed services and products.

    When as coaches, we helped leaders take it back to “What are we here for?” and helped them find ways to get their teams to reconnect to that, which is a deeper emotive reason and driver than financial income; then they found a new lease of energy to innovate services. Of course, the primary innovation was the move to online and then hybrid events, finding ways to overcome the technological challenges as well as create interest and engagement in both suppliers and their customers to attend.
  • BE HUMAN-CENTRIC: “We can’t do events and exhibitions. My team have so many issues at home. Plus I’ve got to make redundancies, but these people are my friends; how do I do this?”
    One thing that became very obvious at this time was how workplaces and managers had to pay more attention to what was happening in people’s lives outside of work. There was no getting away from the home environment a lot of people were suddenly working from.

    Managers had to think about people’s physical and mental wellbeing as a greater priority. For some leaders, this was a real shift in mindset, and with their coach, they explored and sought to understand how they could help people in a way they may never have supported them before.
    In this organisation, leaders introduced regular wellbeing check-ins with their people and identified any personal need they could help them overcome

    e.g. Do they need to organise a laptop or ergonomic chair? Do they need to organise different working patterns to enable them to meet new demands at home e.g. around home schooling? And for some, do they need help accessing groceries or a food parcel?

    For those they had to make redundant, leaders approached this with compassion, helping them find roles in other industries, using their networks to connect them, and doing their best to take a compassionate approach while balancing this with the business’s financial needs. Taking an interest in, caring about and offering a personalised and caring approach to the human behind the job became an essential leadership quality.
  • MEASURE BY OUTCOMES: “How do I create a financial plan with this level of change and how do I even predict what we will make financially? How do I still achieve TARGETS?”

    These leaders were working with targets and financial forecasts that were almost immediately not relevant to the context. These had been agreed upon in an environment where in-person events and exhibitions were possible and people could travel globally to these.

    Leaders had to rethink and replan, using their coaching as a safe space to think about new approaches. For many, it was a case of looking quickly at where finances can be saved and be made more efficient. What is notable is how it became very important to the leaders to think about how they save the business relationships they have with the venues and also customers, who they want to keep for the future. Bearing in mind that many of their customers are businesses selling to other businesses, so not insignificant in terms of a profitable relationship. Plus, looking at online options, leaders started planning and piloting online events, thinking imaginatively about how they attract the audience (e.g. sending conference gifts in the post) and how they enable suppliers to connect to their consumer (e.g. using the data captured in a better way to help provide greater customer insights to businesses).

    Targets were revisited and oriented around measures such as audience engagement, the utility of audience data insights and the impact for sponsors and exhibitors. As the world moved online, these leaders learned to balance the challenge of providing a service in a way they had never done before to enable the organisation to survive.
  • WORK COLLECTIVELY: “My team are all working at home, we are isolated and all working from less-than-ideal home arrangements on laptops; what does WORKING TOGETHER look like now?”
    Pre-pandemic, unless you already had a global or nationally distributed team, you would base the collective working mainly on in-person meetings and office-based conversations. Home working, if it happened, was for work that needed concentration and quiet time.

    Suddenly not anymore, leaders had to work out ways to bring people together online. In the online environment, it was easy to treat this in a task-focussed way, and as coaches, we held a role in challenging behaviours and helping leaders understand the impact of these.

    What was notable was that leaders and teams who introduced a social dynamic (e.g. a well-bring check-in at the start of team meetings, an open conversation about how it’s going for them, informal online coffee chats or socials, online quizzes etc.) enabled leaders to find new ways to encourage people to collaborate and not feel isolated. Leaders who were more mindful and intentional in this and skilled at using the online meeting technology, had greater success sustaining team engagement and collaboration.
  • BUILD IN ADAPTABILITY: “How do we offer events when we go through a constant cycle of lockdowns and our normal decision processes and procedures are too slow or not relevant?”
    Another dynamic to the rapid changes in business environments was the significant unpredictability of financial income. Leaders responsible for financial forecasting where in-person events and exhibitions were being cancelled, postponed or suddenly possible again as lockdowns were lifted – were holding the very big responsibility of forecasting income when there was no certainty.

    This needed creative financial thinking. For example, through exploring the challenge with a coach, from the perspective of constant change, one leader developed a three-pronged approach to forecasting based on three scenarios: in-person events, online events or hybrid events. Within each of these forecasts, analysing the terms and conditions for venues and services to put in place decision milestones to ensure cancellation policies could be reduced or avoided.

    This leader built adaptability and decision points by creating a new process. They were able to introduce stronger predictability around income. A pilot they then rolled out wider. Having processes and decisions based more around principles than rules, which have an adaptive approach to risk, enabled these leaders to be more responsive to constant change and risks as they arose.
  • BUILD A LEARNING CULTURE: “I’ve only ever done in-person events but I have to deliver an online one now. I’m worried about making mistakes and looking a fool in front of peers.”

    Many people did not expect the pandemic restrictions to last as long as they did. Some leaders waited and said they would focus on the in-person events for 2021 and write off events in 2020.

    However, those leaders who recognised that the future was less clear, that hopefully in-person would be back soon but not to wait around for it, had better success through that time. It was not uncommon for leaders who had never taken notice of, or had any interest in, online events to fear what they did not know. They felt out of their depth around digital and worried about making mistakes, i.e. a fear of the unknown.

    What was noticeable was the leaders who succeeded were those who, with the support of their coach, reached out to their colleagues in IT who had insights they could learn from, who took themselves on online courses in digital marketing, who attended other companies online events, who worked closely with their teams and made it clear that mistakes were going to happen but it’s about learning how to deliver services to customers in different way. These leaders were proud of delivering their first online events. They were surprised by the interest and income they could generate. Moving forwards, these leaders have been better placed for the hybrid approach to events now occurring in 2023 as the business innovates. They were more likely to have been rewarded, some were promoted and they all gained new respect from their colleagues because of their positive attitude and mindset around learning about digital.

While this story uses the FHOCAL™ model as a retrospective, it is helpful to unpick the patterns of the past and start to see why changes leaders implemented during that first year of the pandemic enabled them to move beyond survival and into a place where they could thrive.

At Co-Creation, we have continued to work with this organisation supporting leaders in 2022 and into 2023. The last few years have been a true test of leadership development in a modern VUCA world.

If you would like to know more about FHOCAL™ and how it can help you build a change-positive mindset in your leaders and teams, then contact Co-Creation Group at