Coronavirus: How to become a digital leader overnight
23 Mar 2020by Former Member
Charity Digital Trustee Zoe Amar offers advice on how to become a digital leader overnight
Zoe Amar is widely regarded as one of the charity sector’s leading digital experts. She founded digital agency and social enterprise Zoe Amar Digital in 2013 and is Chair of The Charity Digital Code of Practice.
If we are living through history then it feels chaotic, messy and stressful. Coronavirus has upended everything. All of us are grappling with the impact of not only fears for our loved ones and an imminent, deep recession but new ways of working in isolation. It’s at times like this that we look to leaders to guide us.
The extraordinary events of the last few weeks have been a heavy burden for leaders. There are many difficult decisions ahead. And through it all, leaders must move rapidly to help their charities shapeshift to deliver what they need to do, often digitally. Some have been thrown into running virtual organisations overnight. Staff are working remotely, fundraising events must be moved online and digital service delivery will become a priority.
COVID-19 will change how charities use digital and where they need support to do it. We need to hear about your experience of this for The Charity Digital Skills Report so that we can make the case for where the sector needs help to operate digitally in these difficult times. We’ve added new questions to the end of the survey to do this.
Over the last few days, I’ve been speaking to leaders about how they’re taking on the crisis. Here’s what they advised other leaders to do:
- Bin ‘the big I am.’ None of us should feel that we must be invincible. What’s more, showing your emotional, human side could unite staff who are now scattered across different locations and adjusting to the new normal. Thomas Lawson, CEO of Turn2us told me, ‘There is power in vulnerability.’ He encourages leaders to open up as it will help them and their teams solve problems together. ‘I find that if I’m open about some of my challenges with my board and senior colleagues, they have license to do the same and in that mutual support we can focus on our purpose,’ Lawson says. ‘Knowing that I’m useful to colleagues and they’re useful to me makes me feel stronger than if I was just worried about coming across as a “confident leader for my team”.’
- Don’t worry about having all the answers. We are all on a rollercoaster and no-one knows where or when this is going to end. Leaders can inspire confidence by being visible and being willing to discuss staff’s concerns. Rachel Miller, internal comms expert and Director of All Things IC, points out that some leaders are running virtual Ask Me Anything sessions with staff. If you do this, be prepared for unusual questions. Miller advises, ‘Acknowledge their concerns and admit when you don’t know answers. Commit to finding out and coming back to them.’
Ask for help when you need it. Matt Haworth, co-founder of Reason Digital points out that staff and supporters will be using tech to solve problems, so leaders should draw on their expertise. Haworth says, ‘Send a tweet asking for help, or do a LinkedIn post requesting support if you get stuck in a tech-rut.’
- Learn alongside your staff. Adrienne Arthurs, CEO of The Living Room, a small addiction recovery charity in Hertfordshire, described to me how Coronavirus had forced her organisation to move their counselling services online quickly, meaning that she and her leadership team had to manage change and the anxieties of her staff. To succeed at this transition leaders have to learn together with their teams and show that they have faith in them to make the jump. Arthurs believes, ‘My feeling is that as it is all so new, staff will become more confident over time and clients will learn how to engage as it becomes more familiar. Feelings will be shared and mutual support in the peer network is the aim.’ Testing, learning and improving digital ways of working in partnership with your colleagues is key.
- Look for opportunities. Things are grim but there will still be ways to progress. Lara Burns, Chief Digital Officer at the Scouts is already planning how her charity can take advantage of the opportunity for staff to do more home learning. ‘I think that in terms of digital transformation, we will take a massive step forwards in the next few months,’ Burns told me. ‘We are going to speed up developing our “digital skills framework” for staff and volunteers so that as people learn/become confident with new skills we can measure the “before/after” state.’
- Consider your actions. In a crisis, leaders are under huge pressure to make decisions quickly. Take a moment to ask for advice and then decide what the right thing to do is. ‘Digital isn’t the magic bullet to replace income overnight and now isn’t the time for kneejerk reactions,’ warns Emily Casson, Digital Marketing Manager at Cats Protection. She recommends that leaders talk to experts for a steer on short, medium and long term priorities. Casson says, ‘in order to lead change it is important to still take a breath and think before introducing any new ways of working.’
To be effective during the Coronavirus crisis leaders need to look after their physical and mental health. The BBC has tips on self-care and avoiding burnout.
The next few months are going to be tough for us all. Yet this is the time when leaders can show what they are really made of and galvanise their charities around shared aims.
For some, the accelerated digital evolution of their charities may feel uncomfortable. We need to recognise this and press ahead. If we can weather the storm as a sector and embrace digital to get us through it we could emerge stronger, more relevant and in a better position to make a difference.
Share your views on the digital leadership issues affecting charities in The Charity Digital Skills Report with Skills Platform. All responses must be received by midnight 3 April.