Change in the Post COVID Business World with Atholl Duncan

Reading Time: 17 Minutes

In this interview, Atholl Duncan shares insights from his book, “Leaders in Lockdown: Inside Stories of COVID-19 and the New World of Business.”

After the Interview:

About Atholl Duncan

Atholl Duncan is the Chair of the leadership development company Black Isle Group. Previously he served as the Head of News and Current Affairs for the BBC, where he was responsible for leading BBC’s news operation in Scotland.

Drawing on examples from wide-ranging organizations including Unilever, Philip Morris International, Link Asset Management, The New York Times, and the British Royal Family, Atholl provides a unique window into crisis management, leadership development, as well as the new world of work and the new age of purpose.

Atholl describes himself as “an evangelist for change in the post-COVID world of business.” He says that applying the leadership learnings of the past 12 months will have an enduring and positive influence on business, society, and the planet.

Read the Transcript

This transcript was auto-generated from the original video recording using Otter Voice Meeting Notes. While the transcript has not been human edited, we hope it will still help you to quickly find or reference useful information from the interview


Deliberate Leaders I am your host Allison Dunn, Executive Coach and Founder of the Deliberate Leaders podcast dedicated to helping leaders build strong, thriving businesses. Each episode we feature inspiring interviews to help you on your leadership journey. It gives me great pleasure to introduce our guest. Today, we have with us Athol Duncan. He is chair of the Black Island Group, a leadership development company. He is a former journalist and television producer having worked for BBC News for more than 20 years. He is also the author of a new book called Leaders in Lockdown, it’s inside stories of COVID 19, and the new world of business.


Athol describes himself as an evangelist for change in the post COVID world of business. He firmly believes that applying the leadership learnings of this past I’d say 18 months will have an enduring an overwhelming positive influence on business society and the planet. l, Athol thank you so much for joining us today.


Thank you for having me on. I’m really looking forward to the conversation. Me too. I like to kick these off with a deliberate conversation. Would you be willing to share your #1 leadership tip with our Deliberate Leaders listeners? Oh, my number one leadership tip. Okay, so I think my number one leadership is all about self-awareness.


I think the key to good leadership is really being self-aware of what your impact is on other people. And a lot of the work that we do, I’m sure you probably do this in your coaching as well. And is to start kind of digging down into that subconscious bit. And trying to surface a lot of the subconscious stuff to make people more self-aware about how they come over. And what their impact is. Because so many people, and I include myself in this often don’t know what they’re doing their remains why they’re doing it.


Yeah. self-awareness, I think is one of the major keys to success in life. In every piece is all about the relationships, right? So having better relationships, because you’re aware of how you impact others in the room. So I love that good tip. Thank you, Athol.


So you wrote Leaders in Lockdown? Who did you write that for?


Wow, that’s a good question. And I tell you where the idea came from. So if you go back to Monday, the 23rd of March 2020.


On that the all the businesses that I’m involved in, were in some degree of extreme Jeopardy or crisis, and we had five emergency board meetings that day. So in the Black Island Group, leadership development business, just about all our clients that either postponed or cancelled. And I chair the Scottish salmon industry, and we export about a billion pounds worth of salmon to Asia, Europe, US on that day, not one fish, left the country. And I chair a cinema business and the curtain fail on the cinema business. We only had four people in the audience and they’re in our cinemas. And I thought, while there’s something absolutely extraordinary going on here, I need to dig back in my past my journalistic past, I need to capture this and try and make some sense of it.


And that’s why we’re why we got involved with these 20 leaders to follow them through the crisis, to see what we could learn from how they were doing and how they were behaving in the crisis. And really to try and get a handle on how the world is going to change because of what we’ve all been through.


And that’s, that’s incredible. I what a brilliant idea to kind of start to capture that journey that happens for people. I’m super interested to dive into some of the most memorable stories that you have shared in this book.


I’d say where I’m located, just to quickly share I at the time of March 23 20 2019 2020 years of blended together.


I our firm was working with about 45 businesses and 100% of them stayed on board for the entire year. So not a single cancellation? And I think, and I’m not, I’m not sharing that to, you know, like, you know, suggest that I’m doing it, certainly. But I do think that it’s a it’s a perspective of how to handle something and really like embrace it. So I’m, what is your most memorable story that you have to share from your leaders in lockdown?


Well, the there’s so many really powerful anecdotes from it. My own favorite is we did a bit of work with Mark Thompson, who was during the pandemic, he was the chief executive of the New York Times. And I’d worked with Mark at the BBC A long time ago. So I know him quite well. And then he had to go into the New York team’s offices to do his earnings call from secure foreign and when they went there, there’s normally I think, 5000 people in the office and there were about a dozen security guards, and might like cycling around on one of these fold up Brompton bicycles. So when he got into the building, he thought, I’m going to cycle around and see what it’s like. So he cycled off across these vast savannas of empty offices. And he thought, What a crazy sight. All this was, and he compared it to an empty milking parlor. And he asked himself, what are we doing, bringing all these people in to sit in rows and plug themselves into their desks? And surely there’s a better way of doing it surely is a better way of engaging and being more creative, and achieving. And all these people, of course, were at home, and the business was still running. So he had this lightbulb moment of, do I sell my skyscraper and give everyone a stipend. So that was a pretty memorable story from it.


And I’m sure that thinking has crossed almost every single listener that we’ve have, like, do I do I need all of this? Right? Like, exactly. And, you know, Mark was a bit ahead of the game there, because that was pretty early on and lock them that he was having those thoughts.


And what did you do?


Well, you know, like many others, I think we’re still trying to work out. But the strong leaders are determined that they’re not going to go back to where they were before.


And, you know, a lot of the work that we’ve been doing at Black Isle group on this wheel, we look at work helping people look at three different things about the new world of work place. So you know, what is the environment going to be in the office? What does the environment need to be for people who are at home time, when you actually need to be doing things? And the really important one for me is culture? Or is the culture that needs to come out of this, that is more effective and takes us to a better place than we were before? The culture one that’s gonna make the real difference is not and this obsession at the moment about is it three days in two days or two days in three days? Is it 6040? No, this is not the issue. Honestly, the issue is how do we lead our people better? And I think predictably, I’m interested to know what you think about this. It’s our line managers now. How do we really upskill these line managers to be better leaders in our corporations? Because they’re the people who in the relationship is not the important relationship is not with the CEO or with the board. important relationship is with who is the person that I’m reporting into each day? And what does that look like? My empowered Am I listen to is my leader caring is my leader compassionate, is my leader authentic? This is where we’re going to take work to different place post COVID


I you asked what I thought and so I’m happy to share with you I’m great right with you because I think when we are this dispersed like we’re not inside of a building where you can gather everyone together that it really does rely on the relationship between myself and my manager or my supervisor or at least my immediate leadership and the lack of dynamics and self-awareness that so many managers have about you know, going beyond just the business but to how are you doing how’s home like you know, doing the check in on like the whole person because as we have been in at home and in lockdown, it’s been so dramatically impacted. So, self-awareness within our mid-level management I think is going to have a be a significant driver.


To the success of every business out there is huge, you know, and, you know, we are on the verge of what has been called the Great resignation, where so many people are thinking that want to go back and say what that was before. No, I want to change my job, I want to change my company, I want to change completely my career. And you know, some of the surveys that I’ve seen are suggesting that up to 40% of the workforce would like to do something different. So we’ve got to grab that in the next six months, we’ve got to reinvent the world of work, do it in an engaging way. And that’s the way that companies will win the talent, war, retain their people and attract different people. And it’s going to require a considerable amount of boldness and innovation and creativity. Don’t go back to where we were before you’ll lose the talent or for sure. I think in, in my experience over the last 18 months, one of the things that I’m most consistently hearing, and it’s from top leadership to frontline, folks, is the it’s hard, it has been hard and difficult for companies to find the win in things, even if it’s small wins. So all of our listeners today, like if you’re not sharing the wins and celebrating the small things in the milestones, you know, you will lose your people because people want to win every day. And if it’s not happening, I think it’s a you’re gonna find ways to win for short, and then it goes, Yeah, yeah.


What do you believe, is going to be some of the key things that are going to stick with us for ever going forward on the positive side?


Well, you know, we we’ve, so we’ve taken this piece of work, the leaders in lockdown, and we’ve created a workshop to try and help people reset, and lead out of lockdown, essentially. So reset, reflect and reimagine. And one of the things that we’ve been asking them in that is, what do you want to hold on to, from the pandemic? And what do you want to leave behind. And the first thing that people want to hold on to is that there was a piece, there was an agility that we hit at the peak of the crisis. And people want to hold on to that. But they want to do it in a way that doesn’t burn themselves. So because we were we were stressing and tiring, and we were putting people through some terrible stuff. But can we hold on to that agility, more sustainable pace. And I think the second thing is focus, there was a there was a great focus at the peak of the greatest and the most important things. And that led to a conversation now that people are realizing we didn’t do the unproductive work. We didn’t do the bureaucracy, the needless bureaucracy. So another theme there is, how can we give up more of this unproductive work, people thought that they work together much better the silos came down the peak of the crisis, and there was this compassion and care, and there was more trust. So how do we hold on to all that as we come out of the crisis? And how do we give up was the stuff that people want to give up? presenteeism? Too much command and control the commute, people want to hold on to more family time, they want to give up this relentless travel that made them strangers to their, to their family. So you know, the hope is that there’s a really positive reinvention. But running through it all, is a different mindset. You know, we had a different mindset that imagined I mean, if we’d said, If I’d said to you in February 2020, that we’re going to move everyone the world’s offices are going to close, the world stores are going to close, the airports are going to close the railway stations are going to close. And most of our businesses will actually do pretty well out of it. And when we get it’s going to last for 16 months, will be a lot then or homes were Stacy months. And when we get to the end of it, the stock markets are going to be well, you know, just a little bit better than they were at the start of it. You wouldn’t believe me. So what was the mindset that took us through that? What was the mindset that able was able enabled us to create a vaccine in months rather than years? What was the mindset that meant that we could find all these new revenue streams accelerate the digital transformations. And you know, the mindset that did that is this Wait, the mindset we had before, was about that wave. And the danger now, and I can see it happening in some places is the mindset is creeping back in again. And as we try and invent this new world of work, let’s just broaden that, broaden that mindset. But there’s so much learning around how we could imagine the unimaginable at the peak of this. And, you know, let’s, let’s hold on to that.


And what, what are some of the characteristics that you’ve noticed in the leaders that you spoke with? And you shared the stories of Is there any consistency of what they brought to the table to be successful through it? Yeah. There are a number of things. Let me tell you a few. A few tales, I think. I think one of the impressive things was, there were there was a Zen like calmness to these people. And some of them had perilously built million dollar businesses, and those businesses were lying in tatters.


But they were thinking about the opportunity. How could they rebuild?


You know, the, the founder of bigger tail group in Asia called banyan tree resorts. He was a great example of this is a tails during the world were closed.


And he had to was facing rebuilding his business. And he, he just saw opportunity that he could create the world’s most sustainable, most environmentally friendly, hotel chain resort chain out of the back of us.


We did some work with a company in San Francisco called trade shift, which is digital procurement. And when the pandemic hit the thought that the phone would never ring again with a sale until it was over. But, you know, so many clients contacted them, because they realized that actually, they hadn’t digitized their businesses at all. They just automated some stuff.


And then the challenge of the chief exec there, an amazing Danish guy called Christian Lang, was that every single long term belief in business should be thrown out the window. No, he said, and he challenged actually, what have we achieved with digital? In the last 20 years? Yeah. Great, shiny buttons on our iPhone. But we solve the world’s problems with digital. No.


Okay, we’ll hammered of whoop. I don’t know if you’re familiar with football as a wearable fitness device. Yeah, so they so they, they’re out of Boston? And will,


you know, at stay in this office technology for sports, elite sports people, and he’s moving it into the executive space. And his thing is, we have to think completely differently about our health from now on. And should we not be preparing? If we have a big board meeting, an earnings call a town hall to do big decisions to make we really recovering properly? Are we sleeping properly? Are we aware of the strain on us which this the scores and all this kind of thing? And why should we not prepare like an Olympian for the big moments in our business lives, and it doesn’t mean lift weights and run up pills, but making sure that we turn up physically and mentally at our base.


And then the last one I would mention is a CEO called George Homejoy, who runs a company called link Asset Management out of Hong Kong. And they are one of the largest owners of shopping malls, and offices in Hong Kong and China. And he was not only dealing with the pandemic, but he was also dealing with the Hong Kong protests, and he definitely epitomize this Zen like calmness. And he, his repeated mantra was the three C’s collaboration, communication, and care, working together, and you know, collaborating, communicating, and then care for your colleagues care.


For your customers, and care for all your stakeholders. So they were they were really strong, powerful learnings I think these leaders, do believe that these then like ability to like, show up that way was something that they went into the pandemic with already. And then that basically gave them an upper edge on how to think, in pivot and create and change as needed, I think is probably a quality that was in them that, you know, was important, and then becoming the chief executives of these businesses, you know, and probably the most humbling leader that I worked with, was a gentleman called Sir David bn, and he is executive Chair of the UK, his largest care home company. And in the first 100 days of the pandemic, 1000 people died in his care homes, including a number of his colleagues. And he had two big points for me. One was that he saw leadership at every level, in his business, leadership was not something that was in the title, the most powerful pieces of leadership, were from the people on reception, or the people who were cooking the meals.


It wasn’t for the people in the executive team, and this epitomize leadership at every level for him. And the second point that he made to me was, the real mark of you, as a leader is what you do in the bad times, not what you do in the good times.


What a significant opportunity to build so much trust with your team and how you respond, responded to this or how you didn’t respond to this. So completely, completely agree. I think you also bring up a really good point that I don’t know that I’ve really discussed in any of our forums. But I do believe that with the cultures that we’ve run, it’s certainly in the United States like you know, you’re in the office, you plugin you call it the milking what would you call it? The milking parlor? milking parlor? Yeah, you have to have no milking cows? And I Oh, yes, we do. Lots of the running. Yeah.


That the opportunity for people to show their own self leadership in, you know, managing their time and their workload in their productivity from a space that didn’t require you to go in and plug in, right. So I feel like, I believe that that was the most significant shift that it proved out that people continue to be committed to the mission, as long as they are willing to follow the leader and stay in the business. And they can do it from anywhere, it does not require an office space to do that. It doesn’t require command and control and somebody looking over your shoulder.


And as well, as we’re going back, you know, this is going to be sub always seen as, as for leaders, it’s a line like this isn’t a command and controls at one end, and impairment as at the other end. And as a leader, we have to move up and down in this, this this line, and choose when we want to go up and down it.


And some leaders are very good at that. And some leaders just stick at that command and control level. But we know, it was proven that the best leadership in the crisis was the empowering leadership. So generally, we need to move more towards the impairment side.


We agree.


What do you think that the pandemic has done? For you know, the way people define success as a leader and success as a business? But your thoughts on that?


Well, let’s define success as a leader success as a business.


I think success as a leader.


You know, it’s more about multiple stakeholders now, isn’t it rather than just the bottom line, but where I get into a little bit of a discussion here with some people, is some for some people, there is an assumption that we will only drive the bottom lane harder. If we go back to command and control if we go back to the office full time if we go back to the old ways, and I entirely, dispute that and see, actually, the outcomes for your business will be better. If you create an effective new world of work. If you engage your colleagues in a different way. If you display this new Leadership if you start managing people on the outcomes, rather than on the inputs.


So I think I think success as a leader is changing, the one thing I would actually say is that the leaders and then fail felt very strongly that there were no new trains came out of this crisis. There were only trains that fastly accelerated. And we’ve been talking about purpose. We’ve been talking about the move from command and control, the impermanent, we’ve been talking about all these things for quite a while, but they’ve moved relatively slowly. across sectors, what we saw was 10 years of acceleration, I think, across 10 months.


And it’s interesting that you say that there’s been no new trends that have come from that, I find that I find that interesting, interesting, as an as a blank outcome that you’ve identified.


I wanted to go back and touch on something that we were talking about the impact of culture, and how do you how do you, I don’t mean return? Or, you know, go back, but what are some of the key creative and thoughtful strategies that you’re hearing leaders talk about as far as creating culture that looks different than culture prior to the pandemic?


Well, you know, so we ended up with seven themes that we thought came from, from the leaders, the first theme was the new age of purpose. And the second theme was all about maximizing potential. We also talked about global cooperation, we talked about the widening of inequality, we talked about resetting the, the supply chain, we talked about resilience, and we talked about the new world of work. So that that, for me, the big ones in there are probably purpose, and they’re probably maximizing potential. And that maximizing potential and a cut. I mean, the purpose is so linked to the culture, and then to the maximizing potential. But the big new themes that you saw coming through there, included this focus on the wellness, the welfare, the physical, and the connection between the physical and the mental welfare. And I think these are really strong and very important trends.


In terms of other things, on culture, you know, culture is simply I’m sure you work on culture quite a lot. I’ve always viewed culture quite simply as this is the way that we do things around here. And this is the way that we do things every day, not once, not once in a while.


And I can see that we can take many of these elements through the law, we need to be listening to people in the wake of this pandemic, because, you know, they have they have changed in their relationship with work. We need to work with them to create the new culture and the new ways of working. But it I’m hoping it’s going to be a different place. But I’m a little bit evangelist here, but it’s it. But the worry is that we try and go back to where we were before, right. And my challenge to leaders, every leader, every level, who listens to this and everything else that we’re doing is don’t go back. Don’t go back. Because, you know, we all I think there’s 4 million people dying from this pandemic now. And I think there’s 187 million people have been infected. So we owe it to them, and to our colleagues to create a better world out of the back end of this. And we did some work with Zurich Insurance Group with the European chief executive, Aston Martin. And she said, Why don’t we create a world that is fit for our children to live and work in, rather than the one that we were destroying? before we’d ever heard of COVID and that pretty well sums up for me.


A I do you believe that the generational input that we’re likely never to look like we did prior to the pandemic, I really do feel like there’s been at least a significant shift In the portion of the country I live in, that just things are just different. And it is now an acceptable level of difference versus, you know, something you’d like. Why aren’t they open? You know what I mean? That kind of thing and expecting to walk into a building and see 150 500,000 people on one floor, you just it’s not happening. People don’t want it.


Yeah, yeah. And the two crucial bits of it. Do you do your employees? Does the talent vote with his feet at your company? And do the customers vote with our wallets? Right? So we’re, we’re kind of I mean, I’m, I’m a capitalist at heart, but I believe in people pair as well. And I think right at this moment, the people, the employees, the customers, the clients, they have the power. Because if they don’t like what you’re doing in your corporation, you’re toast.


Very, very important perspective, not just what we’ve decided as leaders that we want to because other people are voting in for sure.


Apple, I want to make sure that our listeners know how to best connect with you outside of this podcast, when there is the best avenues.


Okay, well, you can get me on LinkedIn Athol Duncan. And the great thing about having a name like this is there’s only one Athol Duncan on LinkedIn, I have my webs website, awful And you can get the book on And also, if you want to catch up on the work that we’re doing at Black Isle group, that’s just simply at Black Isle, and particularly, these workshops that we’re doing, you know, we’re rolling them out. And we’re trying to help people to lead out of workday in and to do to move from talking about a lot of the things that we’ve been talking about tonight to actually embedding them in your business and in the daily behavior of your colleagues.


Fantastic. Thank you for the work that you do. Super, appreciate you joining us here today and deliberate leaders. I appreciate Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure. Thank you.

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I'm Allison Dunn,

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