Leading in lockdown with Ceinwen McNeil

How do you lead during a lockdown? How do you keep your staff engaged and still deliver to your client's expectations? It's tough, but there is a right way to do it. We spoke to BVT Chief Executive Ceinwen McNeil about her leadership before and during lockdown. 

Ceinwen explains there are some key things to keeping your business humming as well as possible during a worldwide pandemic lockdown: 

Be prepared. Learn from last time. Set expectations upfront. Amplify. Care and celebrate. Be open to client feedback. 

As a native Australian, Ceinwen wasn't like most Kiwis over the past year who lived a semi-normal life after the lockdowns of 2020. With most of her family based in Melbourne, she knew the catastrophic effects of COVID and that another lockdown in Aotearoa at some point was statistically likely to occur. And so, she was prepared with her executive team. They prepared the broader team by openly discussing and planning when (not if) we went into another lockdown.  

''I'm a big believer in planning for the crisis when you're not in the crisis,'' says Ceinwen.  

''When you're in a crisis, your decision-making ability is impaired, and you could find yourself getting paralysed by small things. Planning while out of crisis allows you to think straight and immediately move into execution mode.   

Ceinwen has amplified her communications to the team. She's present and available when they need her. It can mean her work suffers like her inbox, which looks like ''a dog's breakfast'', but people are paramount to the success of BVT.  

''We have daily standups with our team normally, which is geared around delivery.  A normal stand up lasts for fifteen minutes. Now we’ve shifted to half an hour every morning with the whole team, clients and delivery is still a focus but we allow time for a check-in and fun, including terrible jokes.”

What Ceinwen and her team learnt from the last lockdown was that sharing of information was essential and how you shared was also just as important.  

''Most of our team prefer online chat to email or SMS. So we moved to a team-based chat application where we share stories, client feedback and images (like someone's dog stealing the dinner), but I also update the team on official BVT news here. It's a more casual way of communicating, but it solidifies that connectivity, ensuring people don't feel isolated throughout the day.  

''Everything is geared to continue to lift our staff and I consciously dive in at points throughout the day, particularly when I might feel my own energy is dipping.''  

The staff at BVT are Ceinwen’s top priority. Just before the lockdown announcement, she sent staff home to 'get sorted'. She asked that people take a day to stock the pantry, get their head around homeschooling if need be, and get outside and exercise. Plus, she needed that time with her executive team to establish their ways of working.  

''We're very focused and open about people's mental health. We're all human at the end of the day - I still have to put on six loads of washing and get my kids sorted.''  

Lockdown can be very isolating, and it can feel like the week goes very slowly – a bit groundhog day, especially for those who are sleeping and working in the same room. Ceinwen and her executive team focus on 'chunking down the week' into tangible deliverables while being there for them every step of the way. 

''At the end of each week, we celebrate. Last week we sent the whole team doughnuts, which as you can imagine was well-received. These things aren't hard, but shows the team that the end is in sight, and we're all in this together.'' 

Ceinwen is interested in the psychology of people. Last week, she tasked her team with choosing a favourite song: a simple task but with a very important goal in mind.  

''I’m sure they all think I’m a little bit mad, but there is a method in my madness! It's proven that when you listen to music, it releases dopamine and gives you a feel-good hit.''  

After sharing their favourite tunes during an all-staff Zoom session, they created a BVT Lockdown Spotify playlist 

''I even found out one of the team members is into thrash metal which I wasn't expecting at all!'' 

When you're stuck in your house all day, you don't have much original content. For that reason, Ceinwen is arranging weekly guest speakers for her staff. Next week it's a mortgage broker to talk about how to get into your first home - a topic she knows most of her team are interested in given their ages and life stage. 

Another critical aspect of this lockdown was setting expectations from the start with staff and clients.  

''I spoke to the team about the hours they could work based on the things they had to juggle at home, like homeschooling. I also contacted our clients and managed their expectations upfront by front footing the conversations. 

''I explained that these weren’t BAU-type scenarios and we were all juggling things like they were.”   

In terms of delivering to clients, Ceinwen believes being upfront and open will bring a better result.  

As someone who walks the talk, Ceinwen takes micro-breaks, gets outside for exercise if she needs to “get out of the house'', and reads diligently about resilience - a topic close to her heart.  

''A third of our team are homeschooling and juggling a lot. The other two-thirds are living on their own or in a shared house dealing with slow wifi. For me, it’s teenagers conducting regular kitchen raids – like locusts!

''There's no perfect situation here. The best thing we can do is focus on how we can make this lockdown experience positive. Do things that you normally wouldn't do outside of lockdown, like go for a run, stretch, do yoga, learn to cook. All the things that you wished you'd make time for.  

''Without the resilience of our team, we'd be nowhere.'' 

Connect with Ceinwen on LinkedIn

Articles of interest