I've been with ANZ more than 16 years as part of our New Zealand business. I had really enjoyed being part of the region but I was keen to see what I could contribute from outside our home markets.
So when the opportunity came to run our US business I was thrilled. In Australia and New Zealand, ANZ is a household name but in the US market you have to explain who you are, what you do and what you stand for and I was excited by that challenge.
“People are still very anxious. The experience has been very personal particularly in New York where literally everybody was worried about exposure.”
I moved to the US to work in our New York office on 15 March – right as the COVID-19 pandemic began to take over the city. In our first week alone, the city recorded over 14,000 new cases (including my wife) and sadly 140 deaths – around 7 times the amount of cases our home country of New Zealand has recorded to-date. The case and death count increased exponentially from there.
Because of the strict lockdowns, the office closed the week I arrived and has remained closed. Like many of our staff who live in New York State, New Jersey and Connecticut (known as the tri-state area) and usually travel into Manhattan every day, I’ve been working from home.
I also haven't been able to meet any customers in person. Of course, I’ve had a number of phone calls but no face-to-face meetings yet. This has meant the challenges I was looking forward to are yet to eventuate – the challenges to date have been crisis management and business continuity.
Thankfully, even as other parts of the USA are recording record increases things slowly seem to be starting to calm down in NY. But the pandemic has had an enormous impact on the state with over 400,000 confirmed cases and close to 32,000 people losing their life. It is a catastrophe.
Close to home
I’ve only been in the US a short time but one of the challenges being faced right now as the country attempts to reverse the economic turmoil created by the virus, is a lack of political or community appetite across the country to go back into lockdown as the virus cases continue to increase.
Cases are significantly higher than they were just a few weeks ago – over 47,000 cases on July 6 (up 78 per cent over the last 2 weeks). Thankfully for us here in New York at least, the tri-state area - which was the epicentre in the US – cases are falling and the state is starting to reopen in phases. People are now able to get outside which is a huge relief because people were struggling socially with extended lockdown.
Understandably though many are still extremely anxious. The experience has been very personal particularly in New York where literally everybody was worried about exposure. We had a number of people in the office contract COVID-19 and sadly a number of our team have had close relatives die from COVID-related illnesses. When someone in the team loses a family member it is more than just “close to home”, it brings it right “into the home”.
I’ve heard the stories of people who have suffered personal experiences here and have had some myself. I know what COVID-19 can do and I want to reinforce how important it is to put others first and follow your local restrictions because it's such a horrible experience.
I’ve had to learn a lot about being an effective leader through this crisis – in particular as someone new to the region still building rapport with my team. Remotely.
As we try and navigate through the pandemic and work from home, the concept of creating shared clarity becomes even more important. How do you get everybody onto the same page if you’re having to do most of it by telephone or video conferencing?
First and foremost is focusing on communication - how well and how frequently we are communicating with the team and bringing people together so everybody is working together for the same end. Communication has to be regular, it has to be transparent, it has to be authentic.
The other thing I focused on was a more empathetic style of leadership. This isn’t a new concept. If you didn’t realise it before (and we probably all should have), everybody in your team will be going through some sort of stress right now that we probably are not aware of.
Having genuine empathy for people’s situation and taking the time to understand how it might be impacting them has been really important. We’re lucky we’re a small team here with only 120 staff and everybody has really reached out to each other.