3 Countries, 1 Virus — Lessons in Remote Leadership
There is no shortage of stories on how Corona changed things for companies, leadership and everyday lives. This one might be a little different though — it’s about a German guy (me) who is living in Switzerland trying to lead a company in Tbilisi, Georgia, during a global pandemic. I learned a lot from this experience — and you might just as well.
A little more than twelve years ago, I left Germany to start living and working in Switzerland. But somehow that didn’t seem to be enough — for almost two years, I “commuted” to Istanbul, helping to rescue the local McCann office, came back and started my own company, moved from advertising to advisory, consulting companies in the creative industries when they started to run into difficulties.
That’s how I ended up in Georgia. I started consulting Leavingstone, a truly world class creative digital company that had some problems with its rapid growth. Having grown from less than 20 to more than 100 employees in just a few years had created quite a few challenges — a perfect case for me.
And when in late 2018 the owners asked if I was willing to step in as CEO, I was more than happy to do that.
Fast forward a little more than a year. March 2020 — a small virus causes a BIG problem. Corona. Suddenly I am stranded in Switzerland, separated from my colleagues by the lockdown. From one day to another, I was challenged to lead Leavingstone from my home office a few thousand miles away, amidst the uncertainties of a global pandemic.
More than six months into the crisis, I can safely say that I learned a lot about remote leadership, about dealing with cultural differences in a virtual workspace, and about what is possible under these circumstances — and what isn’t.
Chapter 1: The foreign home office
When the lockdown came, my first thought was: “Oh my, how am I going to do this from my desk in Switzerland?” My second thought was: “But wait, everyone is sitting at home. It totally doesn’t matter whether that desk is just a few blocks down the road or a few thousand miles away. Right?”
A few weeks later, my third thought, was: “Well… in cases like these it does matter.” People are challenged, they are afraid, and they are trying to cope. Everything is managed via video calls, one after the other, that is already a strain, and then it is an additional larger strain to keep that guy in Switzerland in the loop, because it means having double the conversations and email correspondence just to update him. It needs to be done in English, delivering the news from the Georgian team members. It’s not surprising that this becomes tiresome over time.
Before, I could just walk into the office and read the atmosphere and body language. And if I were a native Georgian, I would be better able understand the subtle signals being communicated verbally in video calls. Without those tools, it takes constant effort and persistence to stay informed, to stay connected, to not drop out of the conversation — and it doesn’t matter whether you are the CEO or not.
People will try to find reasons why stuff doesn’t need to be reported. First, it’s not important. Let’s not bother him. Then: it’s okay, we can take care of it ourselves, we will tell him later. Then it’s the client. They don’t speak English, he can’t help us. And if things go all the way, it would be — well, he’s a foreigner, he doesn’t really understand.
Would this be different if my home office had been in Tbilisi and not in Zurich? You bet. The proximity, even if it is mostly virtual, has an effect. And it’s not like people couldn’t meet at all during the pandemic.
Yes, of course — we tried to do happy hours at the end of the week, but even those were kind of difficult — having to have a virtual drink together when everyone needs to speak English because of that one guy over in Switz.
When people are stressed out, they look for quick and easy ways out. Try not to have yet another call. Try not to write yet another email. Try not to have yet another conversation in a foreign language. It’s understandable — but it’s also causing problems.
Now, eight months later, we are all a little more used to this way of working, and if that had been our only challenge, this could have been solved.
But, as you can imagine, home office wasn’t our only problem, and clearly not our biggest.
Chapter 2: Trying to stay afloat
Soon enough, an additional factor intensified the situation massively: the economic crisis that followed the outbreak of the virus. Within just a few weeks, sizable chunks of business were lost, putting additional strain on everyone, especially leadership. We were determined to make up for the losses, and to not lose a single employee.
To stay afloat, priorities had to change — immediately. For instance, where the leadership’s focus had been on international expansion and internal reorganization, it had to shift on project level tasks almost exclusively… like securing the remaining business, trying to get additional business in the local market, keeping the losses at a minimum.
Within no time, most of the things that a foreign CEO might be useful for were not so important anymore. And this is already a pretty serious issue. Because — let’s face it: you don’t bring in a German CEO because he’d be so much better at handling the local projects. That’s simply impossible. You do that because you want to transform your organization, to become a more international company, you want to listen, learn and apply.
Is there a possibility to do that while you are trying to keep the company running and while you are focusing on projects and profitability with everyone working from home? You know the answer.
It’s not like I was completely useless. I could help secure some sizable international business that kept the company in good shape — but of course you can’t switch from an organizational focus to sales and expect immediate results.
From one week to another, not being a local turned from an asset to (almost) a liability, and that’s a pretty tough thing to realize. Obviously, it was never the plan to gradually become a “Georgian CEO” — it was always supposed to be the other way ‘round, that the organization would gradually turn into a more European kind of company. But that seemed to be less and less an objective with every additional week of lockdown.
And after almost six months of lockdown, we had to take a good look at the fundamentals — which are:
Chapter 3: Risks, hopes and investments
When the company and I decided to give it a try and install me as CEO, we obviously connected this to some specific hopes and expectations, and it naturally came with a certain amount of risk on both sides, with all of us investing a lot into this project.
And it’s easy to see what these risks, hopes and investments were: the company was able to benefit from the experience of the European CEO — who in turn had the great opportunity to lead an award-winning creative organization. For the company, it’s a sizable investment, in what way — you just need to compare the average incomes of Georgia and Switzerland. Which also tells you a little bit about the investment on the side of the CEO.
You can imagine what the economic consequences of the Corona crisis did to this element of risk, and to the investment for both parties. Unfortunately, the whole thing just wasn’t sustainable anymore. The risks no longer outweighed the benefits in the foreseeable future.
This is a crucial learning as it really tells us a lot about entrepreneurial risk in times like these. It’s easy to see how taking a relatively high risk in times of economic growth can seem like a worthwhile option — but when a major event changes the parameters, the risk can quickly prove to be too high.
Not necessarily a huge discovery in itself — entrepreneurial risk has always been destroyed by major events, only that they used to be wars, mostly. What we see now is that lots of entrepreneurial hopes are finished by Corona — and the biggest reason why we are so shocked is because we are not used to this. We haven’t had a crisis like this in a very, very long time — at least in Europe.
You will all by now know stories of failed startups, crumbling companies, closed shops and other entrepreneurial strategies. It hits everyone. There was a story in a Swiss newspaper of a surgeon that started his own business, leaving his safe post at a renowned hospital. He did this in early February — and had to close down again in April.
Restaurants, shops, concert halls, catering companies, transportation, travel, even large airlines — we all need to take a new look at what entrepreneurial risk is, how to assess it in this new reality. What seemed possible just a year ago is out of the question today. No one can tell us what the situation will be a year from now. Yes, maybe we have a vaccine, but maybe some other new reality arises until then.
And it’s not just the virus. We are in the middle of the aftermath of the US elections, and the future former President is causing new damage on a daily basis. We all know this freak-show will not end when Biden is inaugurated.
Chapter 4: You and I
But let’s not just look at companies, let’s take a small detour and look at what all of this is doing to us as professionals in the creative industries.
Two years ago, I held a speech at a festival in Lithuania, talking about how we all need to get used to the simple fact truth that job security is a thing of the past. We all know very well that we will probably work for more than one company during our professional life. Just two generations ago, people expected to start at one company and retire from the same company a few decades later.
And it has become normal for all of us that companies also don’t last as long as they used to. In other words — we don’t know whether the company we are working for will still exist in a decade or so. We are even understanding that the profession we have learned might cease to exist during the span of a single career. Lots of them have already become extinct.
Whole industries are disappearing, or transforming so radically that the people who are working in these industries are largely left behind.
And now the virus. It’s not the first one and it won’t be the last one. We are having difficulties adapting to this situation. We all want to go back to what we consider to be “normal” — when what we are facing today is just a different version of what had already become the new normal.
So — what is the smarter strategy? To plan for a situation that would resemble the old normal? Or to try and understand the new parameters as they are being set by this crisis? To try and learn from it. We have been massively disrupted and we are well advised to adapt and transform. For each and every one of us, it will be necessary to come up with a new kind of career planning — one that involves many more options. One that will not let us run into trouble as soon as the next crisis hits.
Think: how you could have prepared yourself for the situation that developed at the beginning of this year? It’s absolutely mandatory to have at least a plan B, always. And ideally a plan C and a plan D. Putting your career on a single path and thinking you can always continue on it as planned — it’s a strategy of the past. It will only lead to failure.
Broaden your view. Understand that you might be working in more than one profession. Accept the fact that there will be setbacks. Have an understanding that the career of the future is anything but straight. It will go up and down and left and right, and we all will probably need to reinvent our professional selves several times over the course of a career.
But back to my story — Leavingstone.
Chapter 5: It’s all about the company
The good news is, the company is still in good shape, hoping to get out of this year without making a loss, at least financially. Together, we did stay on top of the crisis so far.
The only thing is — I am not the CEO anymore. It just didn’t make sense for all the reasons I already mentioned. I cleared out my apartment in Tbilisi, said goodbye to my office and brought all my things back to Switzerland.
But still the story goes on — because we sure didn’t want to be go separate ways. It would have put an end to our project, turning Leavingstone into an international company — and even in this crisis, we did not want to let go of that vision.
Now I am busy setting up my office in Switzerland, being the first employee of what we now call Leavingstone International. Let’s see where that takes us. And going back to an entrepreneurial role is somehow making a lot of sense in 2020, the year of Corona.
It’s what we all need to do much more these days, and probably keep doing in the future. Think about what we really want to do with our life, professionally and as an individual. Navigate a world that provides less and less security, that forces you to reevaluate and question everything not just during a pandemic, but over and over again.
It gives us an opportunity as well. To be more conscious about our choices. To be more independent in our careers. To be more open-minded, flexible, curious and adventurous. To finally really master the art of learning from failure. To gradually understand that you will only lead a happy and successful life if you approach it with a good mix of pragmatism and optimism.
Learn from this. You heard it before — never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis. Act accordingly.