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The diary of a COVID-19 CEO – Part II

12 Jun 2020

Written by Simon Rogerson

As we move into month three of the lockdown, I want to share with you some thoughts about what’s been working, what hasn’t, and what I’ve been worrying about since my last update.

Stuff (I think) I’m getting right

Employees first

The best way to judge a business is on how it behaves when things get tough. Does it – like many companies – focus primarily on its bottom line and shareholder interests, or does it think longer term and put employees first?

We’re fortunate in that we’re majority-owned by Octopus employees so we can take a very long-term outlook. When we had to decide whether to furlough any staff, we chose not to – believing this was the right thing to do. Our people are our most important asset and we didn’t want anyone sitting on the side lines feeling excluded or worried about their future.

Once we’d made this decision, the immediate challenge was to ensure all our people were still busy. For some, we’ve been able to redeploy them elsewhere in the Group, and for others we’ve encouraged them to volunteer for our foundation, Octopus Giving.

Customers a close second

It might sound a little dramatic but it’s really only when you set up your own business that you realise just how important your customers are. Without them, there simply is no business. And as with employees, good communication is everything. Stay on the front foot, communicate in a straightforward manner and be there whenever they want to get in touch.

A textbook example of how not to do this is British Airways. They’re currently trying to give me a voucher rather than a refund for a flight they’ve cancelled. Their claims process is about as customer unfriendly as you can get – no email address, no information on how to claim your refund and a customer services number that is so busy you’re automatically disconnected when you call. Somewhat ironic for a business with the motto, “To fly. To serve.”

Wrong? Perhaps. Confused? Definitely not.

An entrepreneur once said to me: “I may well be wrong, but I’m definitely not confused.” This saying has stuck with me because it’s a great way to make decisions. A common problem with many leaders – particularly very clever ones – is that they see too many options. They end up in some kind of paralysis where they’re so focused on wanting to avoid making the wrong decision that they make no decision at all.

In times of crisis, you need to be more decisive than ever. You have to remove every aspect of uncertainty you can and recognise that the things you don’t do, or stop doing, may well be some of your best decisions.

Keep it fun

Very early on, we started thinking about the potential impact of lockdown on people’s wellbeing. Many of us have been using the Endomondo app to log our exercise, with any form of activity (walking, yoga and meditation) counting towards the daily total. We’ve also set it up so that certain activities – volunteering in your local community, for example – count as double time.

We have 500 people competing, divided into 50 teams. While it might be tempting fate, it’s good to see that the competitive spirit of the management team (coupled with just a hint of midlife crisis) means we’re currently in the lead. 

Stuff I’m learning 

Spare a thought for the extroverts

When I first set up Octopus 20 years ago, I was a mild introvert. The business and my role have since changed me into a mild extrovert, but some habits die hard. I still enjoy working on my own – both for the thinking time and efficiency I find it brings. And I still struggle with large meetings – they sap my energy and, in my experience, rarely result in better decisions.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the people who are struggling most in lockdown are the extroverts. They get their energy from others and this has been taken away from them. No amount of Zoom meetings or Teams calls can replicate the thrill of a big presentation, a client meeting or even just a friendly face-to-face chat. There’s no magic bullet solution but it’s good to be aware and sensitive to this when working alongside our extroverted colleagues.

Business development

I often think back to the days when we started Octopus and how spectacularly unproductive the first few months were. Personally I blame the UK education system. Like many others, I’d been conditioned by 20 years of education to see any sort of ambiguity, imperfection or mistake as bad. Everything had to be perfect. While this sets you up very well for exams, it’s a terrible approach in business.  

Thankfully, I learned relatively early on that none of the time spent on our initial business plan made the slightest difference to our ability to get the business off the ground. The reality is that you can’t build a business in PowerPoint, Word or Excel. You need to get out there and sell.

Today’s unwelcome reality creates a massive opportunity for those prepared to do this. In a corona world where everyone is working from home, it’s so much easier to get in touch with other business owners and decision makers. If you’re not emerging from this crisis with twice the number of contacts, you may be doing something wrong.

Stuff I’m worrying about

Social crisis

At times I wonder where the boundaries sit between business and politics. Until now, I’ve remained relatively silent on political or wider issues in society – not because I don’t have a view, but because I’m not sure whether I should use my position at Octopus to talk about it or make some kind of point.

In particular, I’ve struggled with quotas or some of the ways I see big companies addressing some aspects of diversity. Their approach has felt very corporate and more of a box tick than something they actually mean or care about. In hindsight, though, I’m not sure I’ve always got this right.

Brexit was probably the best example of this. Bluntly, I failed to fully appreciate the impact that Brexit had on some of our EU colleagues working at Octopus. It was only a few weeks later when I was chatting to someone that I understood how unwelcome Brexit had made them feel. They felt like an outsider and weren’t sure whether they wanted to stay in the UK. While there are all kinds of excuses I can make, I got this one wrong. In hindsight, I wish Octopus (and I) had done more to support these people when the news first broke.

I mention all of this now because of George Floyd’s death and the reaction around the world. As ever, when I’m not sure what to do, I talk to my kids. The strength of their reaction – at the injustice – made me proud. I didn’t know it, but my eldest daughter had spent most of Wednesday searching for similar instances and behaviour from other police officers in the US. She spent the next 20 minutes talking to us about some of the things she’d learned. One theme ran through all the stories – white people were treated differently. The most ridiculous example was the story of a black man who spent his evenings delivering food packages to those in need. Over the course of a few years, he’d been stopped (in the same car, with the same license plate) 31 separate times by the police (including twice in one evening), almost always on suspicion of dealing drugs.

Discrimination of any kind is indefensible. While I can’t pretend to have all the answers or understand exactly how black people across the world are feeling right now, I believe that staying silent can often be the worst response. We can and we should, as a company and as people, support one another when things like this happen. Talking about it and sharing personal experiences can be the first step to making that happen.

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