One year on: What I’ve learnt leading a travel, meetings and events business during a pandemic

By James Parkhouse, CEO, Capita Travel and Events

It’s approaching a year since I stood on a train platform, heading to a meeting in London and looking around at how much quieter it was than a usual Monday morning. A couple of weeks later, we entered lockdown 1.0. So began the biggest professional challenge that I have faced - and doubtless many others feel the same.

Leading a business has its challenges at the best of times but operating in some of the most heavily impacted sectors of; business travel, meetings and event management over the last 12 months, has been something else.

So, as we start to look forward with measured yet simmering optimism, I wanted to take a moment to share what has really mattered in the last year. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list but there are 6 things that, for me, really mattered and helped me to navigate through such turbulent times. They are:

  1. The truth matters: Jack Nicholson famously said in the movie ‘A few Good Men’: ”the truth, you can’t handle the truth!”; well, he was wrong. No matter how difficult the message or how uncomfortable it is to deliver the unvarnished view, people deserve to hear the truth– and they can handle it. The honest approach to what is actually happening builds trust when it is needed most. Early on, I took the view that people needed to see how much our revenue had fallen, to understand the ‘why’ of the decisions we made. If the ‘why’ is understood, then the ‘how’ becomes much more palatable. A year into the pandemic and I’ve witnessed that people can handle the truth.

  2. Communication matters: In times like this, you can’t over communicate. The level of anxiety and uncertainty from acting without a sense of the familiar can lead people to spin in all directions. When it comes to communication, the model that I find works is based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Don’t talk to me about the stuff at the top of the pyramid – future plans, development, growth etc, until I am clear on the base; do I have a job, will my pay change, will I be furloughed etc. Until people are clear on those, they won’t want to hear the other stuff. It is also ok to say ”I don’t know”, provided it is followed by ”but when I do, so will you” – there have been many times during the last year when information has changed quickly, been incomplete or the implications of a change in policy unknown – it is understandable that people want to know what it means but far better to say we don’t know either, than to provide an answer when no real answer exists.

  3. Relationships matter: The relationships have built up with colleagues before the pandemic struck have been invaluable in navigating through it. I am lucky in that have been leading this business for many years and as such, know many people within it pretty well, having spent a lot of time together before we had to communicate solely through phones and screens. It makes you realise that this valuable time was being built up as a stock of capital in understanding how we work, think and act. Capital that was sorely needed when we were kept socially distanced. I think the challenge of leading during a pandemic would be made immeasurably harder for those unfamiliar with the teams they lead and I am grateful for the time we did spend together - and I recognise how important it will be to replenish that capital once this is over.

  4. Speed matters: With such a fluid situation, new and even partial information comes through all the time and decisions often need to be taken quickly with limited facts available. The critical point, though, is to separate out which decisions are reversible if the facts change and which would be much harder to change - and to therefore tread slowly. An example for us is that we entered a consultation process across the whole business last summer after recognising that whichever way we modelled it, the business would be smaller for some considerable time and therefore would need fewer people – regardless of whatever help and support was on offer. We made that decision quickly but crucially, the process itself of deciding the shape, roles and people within that business was much slower and done with great care. Knowing that decisive action needed to be taken was where we needed to be swift but that provided time where it was needed - to take a considered and consultative approach to the future shape of our business.

  5. Selflessness matters: There is no doubt that this pandemic has made us aware of some amazing attributes in people. The care people have shown in looking out for each other has been one of the lovely things to experience amid all the angst. What it has taught me is people who put the needs of others ahead of themselves are worth their weight in gold (or bitcoin if you prefer!) – both inside and outside of the business. It is amazing and humbling for friends and colleagues that you have known for many years to ask ‘what is the best thing I can do to help right now?’ and when the answer may involve either being furloughed either full or part-time, or taking a secondment to another team to help out when they have a real need for experience – it sends a very clear message that the backbone of your team is made up of people who put the needs of others first and ask what they can do to help.

  6. Empathy matters: Writer Damian Barr, summarised this beautifully: ‘we are not all in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm’. Knowing colleagues have their own challenges, personal or business. It has been important to recognise that not everyone’s needs were the same coming into this, or - equally as important - have stayed the same over time. Some people have very settled home situations, some do not and it is wrong to assume that because an idea works with one person or situation it will work across everyone. Take the time and trouble to listen and understand to what someone actually needs and then, based on the points above on truth, communication and the relationships built, you have a much better chance of being able to support them in the ways they need.

When this pandemic ends - and all pandemics do eventually end - the leaderships lessons from this past year will continue to form the basis of leading the business with all the changes and challenges that it brings. And while my time on a platform 12 months ago began an alien, temporary normality in my leadership, the lessons I have learnt will stay with me as we move forward.