Nathan Breckell: What I learned about leadership during a crisis

December 3, 2020
Nathan Breckell Nexia

Nathan Breckell is Audit Director at Nexia New Zealand’s Christchurch office

p +64 3 379 0829

nbreckell@nexiachch.co.nz

 

My first year at Nexia had gone to plan. I’d settled into my role as Audit Director, we’d had some significant client wins and we’d doubled the size of the team. Then COVID struck.

All of the business continuity planning in the world doesn’t fully prepare you for a unique crisis like COVID-19. While it’s been tough at times, this experience has also brought invaluable lessons in leadership, and I thought it might be useful to share them.

What challenges did you face leading a team while working remotely?

The biggest challenge was onboarding new starters remotely – I even had a new joiner on the first day of lockdown! It’s not easy for new starters to build relationships with team members virtually and get a sense of the firm’s values and culture. This was compounded by many of the team being fairly new, as we’d recently grown our audit practice. At Nexia we pride ourselves on building great relationships with our team, so as a leader I had to work extra hard to create a comfortable virtual working culture.

I realised pretty quickly that leading staff remotely is an entirely different skillset to leading in person. While video calls are a great alternative to face-to-face meetings, they don’t generate the same engagement. To check in and encourage open communication, I made a point of regularly speaking to individual team members outside of group forums.

While in audit we are prepared for remote working, all of a sudden the whole team was working from home during lockdown. This created a variety of challenges including workflow delays, and we needed to spend time communicating our arrangements and response times to manage expectations from both external and internal stakeholders.

How did you support team members during the lockdown?

Managing team wellbeing was my top priority. We haven’t experienced a global health crisis like COVID before and many people were feeling anxious, fearful and unsure as we went into lockdown. Plus, it’s easy to be drawn into working longer hours when you work from home and it can be isolating.

Having a strong sense of empathy was essential. It was critical during this time to discuss and understand how individuals were feeling, rather than kicking off with the usual updates on their work. I encouraged the team to set barriers and enjoy some leisure time so that they remained energised. We also kept up our Friday drinks virtually so that we could interact socially – and it saved a taxi ride home!

Clear, transparent communication was another key priority. Together, we agreed processes and workload allocation, and we made sure we had the right communication checkpoints in place. This was new for us all, therefore being agile and responsive to feedback was important so that changes could be made when things weren’t working well. As a leader, I didn’t always have all the answers but I set out to be honest and authentic with my whole team.

What did you learn about managing your own wellbeing?

Lockdown was an incredibly stressful and uncertain time for many of us. Accepting uncertainty was probably the most key aspect of managing my own wellbeing. I learnt that it’s ok to be open about my own personal challenges – and doing this helped the team understand that we were all in this together. I found that taking frequent breaks throughout the day boosted my energy levels, and switching off work emails and social media in the evenings helped me relax – although this is easier said than done!

Having a supportive leadership group was also very important during lockdown. Frequent touchpoints and wider conversations with my fellow directors and partners helped me stay connected during this challenging time.

What ongoing impact has COVID-19 had on your working environment?

While we’re lucky that things are fairly much business as usual in Christchurch, this could quickly change if there’s a new COVID outbreak. There’s still plenty of uncertainty across the market. You only have to look at what’s going on overseas to see how unstable the global business environment is.

COVID has accelerated demand for cloud-based technologies and we’re seeing clients investing in this area. We’re also holding client meetings virtually and will continue to do so, especially for our multinational audit clients. Nexia supports flexible working and we’re all set up to work anywhere - whether that’s home, the office, or a client’s premises.

Generally, audits are taking longer across the board right now. This is partially being driven by more remote working and the fact that COVID has created a heightened need for professional scepticism. As businesses prepare for upcoming audits, they should start talking to their auditors sooner rather than later about the impact that the pandemic has had on their operations. 

Please get in touch if you would like to speak to our audit team, we would be happy to help. 

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