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Leadership lessons from an NFP CEO in a post-pandemic landscape

25 October 2021 at 5:43 pm
Sue Karzis
As we emerge from lockdown, it’s time to reflect on what we’ve learned as leaders and how we need to adapt moving forward, writes Sue Karzis, CEO of State Schools’ Relief. 

Sue Karzis | 25 October 2021 at 5:43 pm


Leadership lessons from an NFP CEO in a post-pandemic landscape
25 October 2021 at 5:43 pm

As we emerge from lockdown, it’s time to reflect on what we’ve learned as leaders and how we need to adapt moving forward, writes Sue Karzis, CEO of State Schools’ Relief. 

As a CEO, I believe that it’s key for leaders to now reflect on how their leadership style needs to adapt to a post-pandemic landscape and how we now need to consider new variables such as mandated vaccinations, empathy for heightened emotions, mental health challenges and re-socialising teams who have been working remotely.  

Pre-pandemic circa March 2020, as an organisation that had just emerged from the devastation of the bushfires and the subsequent additional support that we had been providing to rural communities, we certainly did not foresee the looming pandemic or truly grasp the repercussions for nearly every aspect of our lives, both professional and personal. It truly has facilitated a shift in humanity like no other event in my lifetime. 

From a professional point of view, as the CEO of State Schools’ Relief – an NFP that had to pivot overnight as our model rapidly shifted to the changing circumstances once schooling transitioned to remote learning – this period has not been without its challenges. However, I have learned much from the experience and my leadership style will reflect this moving forward.

Flexibility and agility

The need to be agile and flexible were key learnings. Events unfolded at lightning speed which meant that decisions had to be made and quickly. In addition, handling the pressures of an unprecedented pandemic in a productive way was one of the biggest challenges that I faced as a leader. We didn’t have the luxury of time or experience to guide us, so it felt as though decisions were made on the fly and at times it felt that we only had our instincts to rely on. 

It became a case of determining what mattered most at any given time and then putting that into action. For us at SSR, we learned that many families were struggling with remote learning and often did not have access to digital devices or the internet, so that determined how we needed to pivot as an organisation to deliver on our mission of removing barriers to education for those in need.

It meant trying to procure devices and data, both of which we had not facilitated previously, and we had to do it quickly to be able to distribute these to thousands of students who were struggling to engage with remote learning. The pandemic highlighted the digital divide and thankfully there were many organisations and individuals who were willing to assist us in achieving this positive outcome. 

The pandemic also highlighted the capacity of our staff to come together as a team, working in unison to continue to provide aid for vulnerable students. As a leader, I had to ensure that staff in turn, also felt supported through this process as they navigated their own personal and professional challenges. Remaining flexible with working hours and working arrangements and allowing staff to finish early every Friday helped to keep team spirits high and our employees became an even more close-knit team during this time.

Kindness and empathy

Seeing the difficulties faced by many reinforced the need for leadership which prioritises kindness and empathy. Whilst as leaders we often feel the need to be strong and purposeful during a crisis, many around us were struggling on a personal level. The need to be kind to each other was brought to the fore as it quickly became evident that many, both from within and external to the organisation, were struggling to cope with the “new normal”, which often felt anything but normal. 

As a leader, releasing everything that wasn’t vital was an effective approach to managing in a crisis as it meant that staff could focus on the immediate priorities. Giving people the time and space that they needed and understanding that staff may have felt overwhelmed, scared, or uncertain was important in devising a caring and compassionate culture.

Don’t sweat the small stuff  

All the trivial concerns that could cause stress pre-pandemic changed when a real crisis ensued. Having the context of the pandemic really clarified what was important and what wasn’t, and honed my focus as a leader on what needed to be done.

I have learned to focus on what is important and let go of the trivial concerns which often take up our time and headspace. As Churchill wisely noted, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” 

Whilst in crisis mode we had to think productively and focus on the big-ticket items. What did we need to do to get through the crisis? For many organisations, they used the situation as an opportunity to pivot, harness technology and develop new models for service delivery which ultimately benefited them in the long term. 

At SSR knowing that we were helping those from the most challenging backgrounds fostered an attitude of gratitude and the knowledge that small things can make a big difference.

Sue Karzis  |  @ProBonoNews

Sue Karzis is the first female chief executive officer of State Schools’ Relief.

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