A technology CEO on leadership in the age of Zoom, barking dogs and bedtime stories for 800

27 May 2020

A technology CEO on leadership in the age of Zoom, barking dogs and bedtime stories for 800

What Bob Bailkoski, Chief Executive of Logicalis Group, is learning as a CEO leading a global tech company under the COVID-19 lockdown.

Bob Bailkoski

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

Mike: Odgers Berndtson executive search’s recent global leadership research, in collaboration with Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, measured the amount of confidence there was in senior leaders to lead through disruption. Then, Corona happened, a very extreme disruption, and qualities like agility rocket to the top of the agenda. Is that a good place to start?

Yes, very much so. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that agile leadership is required right now from all organisations.

It’s a volatile world and you can't survive by sticking to dogma, or strict processes that might have worked in normal times. Every business really needs to reprioritize, and we've had to do that ourselves.

I became the chief executive of Logicalis Group, just over two months ago, in that short period of time I've had to massively reprioritize my To-Do list! 

We've learned our business planning process needs to shift to a more short-term basis, because even six months, right now is too long term.

Those original objectives aren’t completely invalid, it’s just that our focus needs to be on different things. Like the safety and welfare of our employees, for example, as we've had to switch from an office-based environment to remote working.

Watch a ten-minute video of this ‘CEO leading through the lockdown’ interview with Bob Bailkoski, Chief Executive of Logicalis Group.

What are the main questions arising from the switch to work from home? How do you manage to not overwhelm your leaders or people within your organisation? There is obviously an opportunity when you're constantly online to, you know, reach a point where people feel like they never have any downtime.

I found myself that I was getting what I've heard recently heard called ‘Zoom Gloom’.

One of the issues of constant contact with people, especially video contact, is it requires quite an intense focus. Generally speaking, it’s one-on-one, or maybe a couple of people on the call. It’s intense, you’re interacting directly, there are no other distractions around. You've got to really concentrate and listen very hard and that is quite an exhausting activity, especially if you've got these things back-to-back.

With seven or eight video calls throughout the day, it can be easy to become exhausted. So, we’ve come up with a number of tips to try to avoid this. For example, typically, the default setting in our calendars is for hour-long meetings and so you sort of go with that, we are encouraging people to shorten them to 45 or 30 minutes.

We also encourage people to use all the other tools that are still available to them, text messaging, telephone calls, all the sort of classic forms of communication that we always used to use. So mix it up, with as much variety when you communicate, it helps people manage their overall stress.

One surprising feature of this lockdown scenario is that we're a technology company, right, so working remotely wasn't so difficult for us. But focusing on the mental well-being of our workforce was something that we didn't really expect to have to do quite as much.

We've had to really focus to make sure that we've got the right tools and the right processes in place, to enable people to deal with all the different complications.

Working from home, you’re a professional, but you're also a teacher and a child-minder and a chef, and all those things on top of your day job.

One of the things we've said to our team is ‘don't worry about interruptions’. Your dog barks in the background, you don’t have to apologise. It's just one of those things that we deal with, accept and move on.

I think if anything, we've become more intimate with the people that we're dealing with and I think that's a good thing that we'll hopefully see going forward.

We've embraced that, so we've done a couple of team meetings where the theme of the meeting has been something like ‘introduce your pets’ or ‘introduce your family’ to everyone else on the call. A way of breaking down those barriers about working from home.

We shouldn’t expect it to be like working in the office when it's clearly not. A lot of people are doing their calls from rooms that aren't necessarily prepared as an office; working from bedrooms, lounges or from kitchens. You've got to accept that there are going to be some complications and embrace it.

What will you take forward into a post-COVID lockdown era, aspects of your leadership style, for example, that have recently come into focus?

There are elements of my leadership style that I've had to adapt.

The qualities that I would emphasise, that I will absolutely take forward, are empathy and adaptability, in particular. They've got to be a core component of anybody's leadership style, especially now, but they will be equally valuable in the next normal.

After 25 years in the corporate world, I think of leaders that I've worked with that tended to be one dimensional. There was the authoritarian leader who was a tyrant. There was the hugely democratic leader who shared every bit of information with the team and allowed decisions to come up organically. There was the micromanager, there was the aloof boss.

And, you know, today, you can't be one dimensional as a leader.

You've got to make sure that you open-up your management style and be adaptable. And that comes from having a more empathetic style.

So, from day-to-day, I've got to be a transformative leader. But I’ve also got to be a leader with a cost focus to get the organization through the crisis. And we've got to be innovative too.

Like the survey you mentioned about agile leadership, they're all components of that piece and I sincerely hope I can maintain the ability to switch my style to suit the future whatever that may be.

Hopefully, when people I'm mentoring look back on my leadership, they won't see me with one particular characteristic, but rather as a multifaceted leader that led them through good times and bad. A leader that offered them innovation opportunities and transformation opportunities, but was also ruthlessly focused on cost control when it mattered.

Perhaps we're seeing one-dimensional leaders fade into history. You've got to have a high degree of emotional intelligence. Empathy is absolutely critical, but so is being authentic.

Authenticity is really critical right now. I've seen that level of authentic leadership, being displayed by my senior leadership team as well, my executive team around me.

One thing that I've been particularly impressed about in this period itself is the quality of the communications, we’ve always aimed to be crystal clear. And I think that's a really critical component of leadership in times like these, making sure that clarity is coming through in any discussions that you have with your workforce.

It’s our HR leader communicating to the global workforce about wellbeing initiatives. It's my finance leader, communicating to me and other members of the executive about our trading performance, and about the levels of cash in the business.

It's one of my regional CEOs, communicating with our local team, using unusual and inventive ways to engage their teams.

My US CEO periodically has a storytelling session inviting all 800 members of his team plus their families to a giant video call, where he reads a story selected by one of the employees’ children.

That's quite a nice way of getting people together, and I've been really impressed by some of the different ways that we've been able to communicate with our people. Yes, to engage them, but also to guide them through this difficult time.

That really is a very graphic example of the power of good culture at work. Which segues nicely into the next part of this interview where we discuss the meaning of purpose in an organisation, especially in times of crisis like this.