A technology CEO on compulsory holidays, rallying cries and finding a better normal

02 Jun 2020

A technology CEO on compulsory holidays, rallying cries and finding a better normal

What Mike Ettling, Chief Executive of the global software firm Unit4, is learning and doing as a CEO leading a global tech company under the COVID-19 lockdown.

Mike Ettling

Mike Drew, Partner and Global Head of the Odgers Berndtson Executive Search’s Global Technology Practice asks the questions in the second of a series of interviews.

Mike: Before Unit4, your career included being President of SAP SuccessFactors, and the CEO of Northgate Arinso, we’re so happy to have you with us. A very warm welcome.

Thank you for having me. I hope you're doing well in lockdown.

Mike: In our discussions with CEOs like yourself on adapting to the disruption caused by COVID-19, we’re using our Leadership Confidence Index survey of over 2000 global executives as a reference point. That research was all about understanding the confidence in senior leaders to lead through disruption, and the importance of agile leadership. How have you been leading at Unit4 during this period of extreme disruption, and what successful behaviours have you seen from leaders around you?

Agility has been key. We were very fortunate that as we started the shift to home working, we already had the tools and technology we needed in place.

We were all rolled out on Microsoft Teams, everyone was using a laptop. For us, the change was more about hitting the video meeting button, as opposed to new technology.

So, then we got into a really important discussion that I remember at our leadership meeting quite vividly. My Asia Pacific leader talked about stopping the panic, and not getting bogged down in the crisis.

Find your new normal and find it quickly.

We did two or three really critical things and we did them quickly, so that, even working from home, the business could continue.

There will undoubtedly be a recession, so we are managing our business on that basis. The most important thing which followed from that decision was a commitment by everyone on my team, not only my direct reports but the next level as well.

We agreed to manage this situation on the basis that, in the first 90 days, we don't want any layoffs and to do that we need to build a very different defensive model. But we are also going to be very offensive at the same time.

Some short-term adjustments were made as my CFO and I looked at our debt covenants and shareholders, but for everyone else, the budget is the budget. Yes, there might be gaps, but we communicated to our people that we need to figure out how we get to the budget.

We’re going to do a number of offensive and defensive things, and we're not going to wait to see what happens in the numbers, we're going to do them immediately.

Watch a ten-minute video of this ‘CEO leading through the lockdown’ interview with Mike Ettling, Chief Executive of global software firm Unit4.

Mike: So, you acted really quickly, rather than waiting to see what happens, you made predictions on what might happen and made decisions on the back of those.

Exactly, we issued a rallying cry to everyone; How do we stop spending?

We implemented a freeze on salary reviews for 2020 and zero travel which naturally went down to zero in any case.

We are repurposing our recruiters and receptionists to do lead generation and demand generation.

I've created a very unifying sense of action, as opposed to an ‘us and them’ dynamic, and I think that's been critical to how we've been able to tackle this successfully.

Mike: An agile leader needs to pivot quickly while also remaining authentic. Where have you seen that manifest itself in Unit4?

I think transparency and empathy is the single most important behaviour a leader has to demonstrate through a crisis. I've upped my communications, to an email once a week and a call with my extended leadership team from once a month to weekly.

My leaders have been prioritising Zoom coffees, touching base with every single one of our people.

Empathy, transparency and communication have ratcheted up enormously.

Something interesting to note, through using our own product which measures engagement and pulses people in real-time, we've noticed that leaders are requesting more feedback from their peers.

Mike: Let’s turn to wellbeing. We’ve all heard about Zoom Gloom, and the feeling that being so easily accessible and online almost constantly via video is becoming a problem. How are you balancing this to ensure that the wellbeing of your employees is clearly set at the forefront?

This was part of the ‘find our new normal’ approach we had, where we said ‘okay, it is what it is, everyone's at home’. Now let's focus on the wellbeing of our people.

Within a week, we launched a programme, internally called ‘Fit4U’ and I kicked it off with my PT and I did a live Zoom fitness session.

Now, every day, there is someone internally, not external people, doing fitness things like yoga or meditation.

We gave everyone access to an app to track their steps and routines. We also did something else which has been so well received; about three weeks ago, we sent every person in the company a plant, with a message about resilience and growth.

We have focused very deliberately on the wellness of our people. We've been very focused on encouraging, and even mandating, that people put breaks in their diary.

We are now mandating that our people take vacation time and use a certain number of days in May.

Now, we can do that, because, last year, when I came on board, I abolished the concept of fixed vacation, so people can take as much as they need at Unit4, it’s fine to take as much time off as you want as long as you get the job done.

We're saying to our people, you must take three days in May, you must take five days in June, and the feedback we're getting has been super positive.

Mike: As we start to think about the next normal, what are the things from an operational perspective that you will take forward into the post-COVID era?

Well, about two weeks ago, we set up what we initially called our Return to Work Task Force. And then we decided to change the name because the conversation is much more about the ‘new normal’ not just returning to the office. The goal of the Task Force is now to embrace the opportunity to define a better normal.

We surveyed our people and heard some interesting perspectives on whether people want to return to a physical work environment or not. Some of our people are saying to us: ‘well, we've actually figured out some interesting ways of now balancing work with our family...we get up, we do some work then we spend time with family in the morning’.

We like this and we've seen productivity increases, in our engineering function, for example, productivity has gone up significantly.

We are going to have a different type of office footprint, where people go in to interact and to have meetings and engage with clients for briefings, but we will shift to a default being working from home in the future.

Part of that is also going to be reduced travel. Travel went down to zero during this period of course, and I don't see travel returning to even 50% of its previous levels.

Even our board has said this works well for board meetings, I’d imagine doing half in person and half virtually.

Other things will change too, for example, industry event conferences were a big source of leads. Maybe 40% of our leads came from attending industry events, but what we've learned in the last two months is how to do lead gen without industry events.

I think we're going to see some of our events come back, but large industry events I think are going to be very distressed and disrupted.

That really is a big change.

In the next part of this interview, I’d like to ask you about purpose in an organisation, and your thoughts on the key steps to building not just a new normal, but a better one.