Walking and Talking: My Vision for Leadership in a Crisis

working father with baby daughter and laptop computer at home office

by Simon Tate

posted on 06-15-2020

What’s it like to start an executive role in the middle of a global pandemic? Let me illustrate with a quick story.

We recently had cause to celebrate a large contract: a successful campaign a year in the making. The challenge was how do you celebrate success when everyone’s working from home?

As the leader of Adobe Asia Pacific, all I could do was call the person who’d led this campaign at 6:30pm at night. Being polite, he took the call, but when I heard cutlery chinking in the background I paused, “Hey, I’d like to congratulate you on the deal and I’d also like to apologize for eating into your family time.”

“No problem at all,” he responded. “Let me get through dinner and I’ll call you back after I put the kids to bed.” It was a profound moment for me. We’ve previously been acutely aware of the line between work and family and we’re now negotiating this new way to work and live.

In previous APAC leadership roles I’ve begun the process of meeting people and leading the organization by hosting Town Hall meetings, all hands calls, standing up on stage, walking office floors and meeting people for coffee. I’d talk about our three year strategic plan and my vision for the company. I can’t do any of that – yet. My remit is completely different from when I signed up.

Despite our unprecedented circumstances, I’m optimistic and genuinely excited about our future. Adobe is the second most valuable enterprise software company on the planet. The APAC region has a rising middle class, the highest global penetration of smartphones and social media use per capita, and a highly productive workforce – even during COVID-19 times. It’s also home to two thirds of the world’s population and two thirds of the world’s businesses. From a global perspective at Adobe, APAC will play an important role in our growth strategy.

Having said that, the opportunity and numbers don’t come without the people. You can have the best products, the best company and the best brand, but if your people aren’t engaged and on the journey with you, it’s ultimately not good for customers.

We’ve intentionally over-indexed on our people, and I believe many others in our peer group have done the same, but it’s not just about the P&L.

We look after our people because they’re dealing with a kind of stress they’ve never experienced before. People are looking to their leaders for license to operate in the only way that they can, and for everyone to be okay with that. And certainly at Adobe, we are.

For so long, people have talked about authenticity in leadership. How much more authentic do you want it when your kids are sitting on your lap during a forecast call? Cats and dogs interrupting video calls are now providing much-needed comic relief and creating new connections.

I believe there’s some goodness to come from this time. Maybe not everyone can see it just yet, but I’m hopeful. Take the societal benefits of technology and the big-picture impact of our industry, for example.

The cloud really is the democratization of every piece of technology. It completely lowers and sometimes eliminates barriers to entry and creates this equalizer effect across small businesses all the way up to large corporates.

The result is an innovation generation I see coming through. University students who want to use cloud services, for example, but don’t have deep pockets to invest in a huge technology stack can get their careers and their businesses off to a start without a big investment.

Following swiftly is the new era we could think of as the post-Fourth Industrial Revolution – let’s take a punt and call it the Fifth. The impact of COVID-19 is shifting the emphasis towards work-from-home style technologies and industry-specific solutions like education and healthcare.

I’ve been in technology all of my career, and I’ve seen what technology does for kids, communities, and healthcare workers. There’s no downside. As new technologies are introduced, workers can focus on higher value skills. Money organizations saved on operational efficiencies goes back into staff training and enablement, helping future proof skills.

So, I really am an optimist.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t face challenges, or I won’t make tough decisions. In fact, I believe leaders must stay on the front foot. We’ve come from an environment ruled by consensus driven decision making and stakeholder management.

Today, there’s an emphasis on quick decision making by leaders.

Take Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern, someone I really admire for her ability to manage through crises. The decisions she took around the Christchurch massacre, and then again with COVID-19, the decision to put New Zealand into complete lockdown were hard, and they were fast. She didn’t focus on taking people on a journey. She made a call and asked people to follow.

In the corporate world we are now seeing more leaders get on the front foot like this and own the fact they were hired to make big calls.

Some of those big decisions can be around things like choosing not to fire anyone, immediately providing employees with the resources they need to set up home offices, or speaking out against social injustice and intolerance. That’s the case at Adobe.

Yes, it’s a difficult time, and it’s also a uniquely important time to focus on what’s possible. For now, as I settle into my new role, I’m literally taking it one step at a time. I’ve asked my assistant to put in calls that are a walk and talk – not every meeting has to be on video.

My idea is that whoever is on the other end of the phone is walking and talking, like me. They get some exercise and clear their head. They can take a dog with them, if they like. I think that’s a picture of the new normal, or the next normal, and it gives me a great sense of hope.

At Adobe, we believe that everyone deserves respect and equal treatment, and we also stand with the Black community against hate, intolerance and racism. We will continue to support, elevate, and amplify diverse voices through our community of employees, creatives, customers and partners. We believe Adobe has a responsibility to drive change and ensure that every individual feels a sense of belonging and inclusion. We must stand up and speak out against racial inequality and injustice. Read more about the actions we’re taking to make lasting change inside and outside of our company.

We also know many people are still impacted by the current COVID-19 crisis and our thoughts are with you. The entire Adobe team wants to thank you, our customers, and all creators around the world for the work you do to keep us inspired during this difficult time.

Topics: Career Advice

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