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  • Vic Langer

Challenges of starting a new role as Interim CEO in lockdown

It’s a sunny and warm late May Bank Holiday Monday and rather than spending the afternoon in a north London beer garden with my friends, I am instead sat alone, indoors, listening to the Prime Minister’s special adviser justify taking a 30-mile test drive to check whether he could still see. These are indeed extraordinary times.

It is in these strange times that I found myself starting as the Interim CEO at the University of Exeter Students’ Guild, a student led charity that exists to enhance the Exeter student experience.

It’s my second stint as an Interim CEO, but being at the helm of an organisation is still very new to me, and here I give some reflections on how I’ve found what is pretty challenging ordinarily, but is even more complicated when done remotely.

The familiar unfamiliar

As well as being challenging, I feel quite lucky that I’ve managed to bag this gig in the middle of lockdown. Taking the job at the Guild has in many ways been like popping home, not because I’ve worked there before, I haven’t, I once visited for a three-day conference about ten years ago, but because I spent the first 13 years of my career in the student movement. I’m stepping back into one of the most supportive professional networks that I am sure exists in the UK. I’ve spoken to colleagues in students’ unions across the UK who I haven’t spoken to in years, and there has been familiarity, and warmth, and delightful offers to help in any way they can. In a time when so much of our day to day life is unfamiliar and bizarre, the “it’s great you’re here” welcome I’ve had stepping back into the student movement has been wonderful.

Establishing your presence as a leader

That said, the day job is challenging me. Establishing myself as a credible organisational leader had been at the forefront of my mind in the weeks leading up to my first day. In preparation I spent a session with a fabulous coach I am working with thinking through how I would navigate this challenge, but what I wasn’t prepared for is just how disconnecting using Teams for all of my interactions would leave me feeling. I’ve experience in leading remote teams from my time at Save the Children, but I know from then that it’s the face to face meetings, where you can really get to know someone, that unlocks the real magic of teamwork.

I’ve been struggling to put names and faces together, despite names being on people’s screens, especially in big group meetings where people don’t turn their camera on. As an introvert, I want to turn my camera off too, but I know that my use of body language and facial expression is more important than ever as I try to convey who I am to a group of people who know each other but have never met me. It’s hard to read people’s responses, and it’s hard to know if people are tired and distant because we are all exhausted by this new way of life, or because the impact you’re having as the new boss is simply bombing.

I turn up to “work” every day dressed for the working day, but lots of other people seem to be dressed for a weekend on the couch. I don’t want to say anything because lockdown is difficult and people are trapped in their own homes, but it’s hard to know how you’re being judged by someone sat at home in their bedroom wearing their pyjama’s or sportswear.

Understanding the culture

As someone who is pretty empathetic, lots of my observations when I first join a group or organisation are based on feelings and instinct, and I usually feel rather than see culture by being situated in it, and so living online and doing business by email and teams is very different and I’m rapidly having to learn to read different social cues. I was an observer in a reflection meeting that I thought, whilst a bit clunky because of the tech, went fine, only to discover that at least three people had left meeting feeling upset and frustrated – things I would almost certainly picked up on if I was in the room but was completely oblivious too sitting looking at my laptop.

The other thing I’ve found a bit disconcerting is that I have little idea of the physical space that is in people’s heads when they imagine “the office”, and so much of how people navigate the organisation internally is understandably bound up in the physical space they usually occupy. I find these conversations alien, I don’t know what team sits on the first floor or the second floor, and so I have no physical map in the way that everyone else in the organisation does.

I’ve also been struck by the fact that Teams is a single space, which to the large part, to me at least, feels quite formal. In ordinary times I would be meeting people for a coffee to build rapport, and get to know more about the people and their work, not just their work. And so, I’ve been thinking more about how I can build formality and informality in the limited space I have – how can I use my living/dining room more effectively for work, and also keep some space sacred for down time?

Understanding the team

Picking up on the unsaid and judging interpersonal dynamics is one of my skills, and so right now in this online separated world where I can’t work out who works best with who, where there are complimentary working styles or where tension might exist without someone telling me, I feel quite hampered.

It’s also harder to spot talent, and who is up for the challenge of change that invariably comes with being an interim CEO and who is going to need a little bit more persuading and cajoling to come along on the journey with me.

I don’t yet have a whole host of tips to share about how to navigate an experience like this, when I do, I will be back with a second blog, but for now I am going to be:

  • More deliberate – clarity is important, and in this situation, I need to be even more clear and mean everything that I say.

  • Less assuming – I am going to check in even more with people than I would, I am not going to assume how anyone is responding to me.

  • Seeking more feedback – we all know getting regular feedback is important, but I am going to be doing regularly, and often, and responding quickly.

I'll also be very grateful, that I have a whole host of people in the student movement I can call on to help me get through. It's good to be among friends in times like these.

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