As leaders and CEOs how sustainable is the environment we create for our people? Do we know how they really are? Are they able to prioritise what is needed? How does our organisation support them?

An executive’s lesson in being more human

A few years before Covid struck we were all at an annual manager’s conference in a country that was not our own. It was the type of internal company conference some of you are probably familiar with – directors from all over the globe gathered for a four-day extravaganza – catching up with annual figures, budgets, new products, updated IT systems, emerging company structures. Presenter after presenter; over-stuffed power-point slides; too generous lunches and dinners before yet more presentations.

Walking to the hotel lobby for breakfast on day two I was joined by one of my team. He was a key member and looked as white as a sheet. “What’s up – are you feeling ok?” I asked. Pain had woken him during the small hours, and he’d spent some time in hospital before being discharged to get back for day’s schedule. He didn’t speak the local language: “Why didn’t you call me?” I asked. He didn’t want to bother anyone. He assured me he didn’t need to go home or rest. It was probably a result of the rich food at dinner the night before. “If you’re sure?” I replied, inwardly relieved at not losing one of my best people on a packed day of meetings ahead.

We continued with the punishing agenda, and after lunch as I was freshening up in my room, a call was put through. The wife of the team member in question. I was relieved I’d be able to deliver the good news that he was feeling ok and carrying on. I was surprised at the firmness in her voice, “I want him on the next plane home, and I want someone to accompany him.” I admit I slightly bristled, she was telling me what to do, when he’d already relayed his decision. I couldn’t order a grown man to go home. “You don’t know him. Unless you insist he comes home, he will stay, however he is feeling. He won’t want to let you down. But you’ll be letting him down. And another thing, don’t dare tell him I have called you.”

So, I addressed him before the next meeting. “I’ve been thinking- if the pain was serious enough for you to get yourself off to hospital, you must go home. And you can’t go alone so I’m sending “Bob” (Key team member no.2) to make sure you’re ok.” Then I experienced one of the biggest lessons of my professional career. There was no push-back, his face flooded with relief (while mine flushed with shame). His work ethic and professional pride had stopped him from taking the decision himself. I’d just lifted the burden of responsibility for taking the decision away from him.

Back home there was a diagnosis that kept him off work for some months, but he returned, fit and well and nothing lasting was lost because of his absence from the conference. And most importantly, the quick medical attention meant no compromise to his health. I was so grateful to his wife for helping me to help him, and I learnt the big lesson that my duty of care to my staff sometimes also meant protecting them from themselves and listening to another perspective I might not consider in my best interest, at least in the short term.

stress and burnout

Today post Covid, there is much more talk about the effects of stress and burnout. An analysis by McKinsey concludes a 50 percent increase in the prevalence of behavioural health conditions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.[1] As leaders and managers we need to be proactive in our care for our people. In the past where commuting was the norm we know of organisational climates where people had to pretend they didn’t need food or rest, or that they didn’t have families to go home to and of course, as superhumans they would never get ill.

A few months ago, a colleague was struggling to deliver work, while suffering with Covid. His whole family was down with it and whilst he felt he could struggle on, he was worried about being available for his family. I urged him not to think twice- his family and his health came first and again I saw the relief knowing he wasn’t letting us down; he was just prioritising what was needed.


two types of sustainability

In our book Leadership through COVID-19 and Beyond we talk about sustainability being a key concept for all conscious and responsible 21st century organisations.  We reference two types of sustainability:

  • The first is human sustainability – the inherent dignity and respect for every human being
  • The second is systemic sustainability – a culture of recognising and considering the welfare of all stakeholders affected by the business you are in.

Humans are made to sprint only over short distances. Being human[1] to human beings is the only way we thrive to create exceptional value for all our stakeholders without sacrificing someone on the way.

Few leaders today will deny the importance of engaging their people but in some organisations the prevailing thought is that people come to work to get a job done and how they are, what is important to them, is of little importance in the grand scheme of things.

[1] Interested in understanding more about what Being Human looks like, read chapter 8 in our book.

The point of a sustainable perspective is health now and in the long term – a positive legacy for those who come after us.

As leaders and CEOs how sustainable is the environment we create for our people? Do we know how they are? Are they able to prioritise what is needed? How does our organisation support them? Remember sustainability is about all stakeholders – the organisation as an entity also. Without a healthy population, everything is compromised.

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