The Wicked Podcast

Jon Key: Late Night Lessons from the COVID-19 Crisis

June 08, 2021 [email protected] Episode 49
The Wicked Podcast
Jon Key: Late Night Lessons from the COVID-19 Crisis
Show Notes Transcript

We talk to serial executive Jon Key about his raw and late night conversation he had with CEOs over the COVID crisis in 2020. He shares how personal and challenging it was for many and what lessons one can learn from an unprecedented year like that.

Author page: https://www.amazon.com/~/e/B08YX6XKYN
Get the book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Late-Night-Lessons-COVID-19-Crisis/dp/B08XKHRZLP/ 

The Wicked Podcast:
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Music:
'Inspired' by Kevin MacLeod
Song: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3918-inspired
License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Marcus Kirsch:

Welcome to the wicked podcast where we read business books you don't have time for. I'm Marcus Kirsch.

Troy Norcross:

And I'm Troy Norcross,

Marcus Kirsch:

and we are your co hosts for the wicked podcast.

Troy Norcross:

So I've known you for years mark, as I've known you for years and only two episodes go. Did you drop in the fact that you used to be a gymnast? Normally you skateboarder but you used to be a gymnast. How is it that I didn't know that?

Marcus Kirsch:

Well, I was also a ballroom dancer.

Troy Norcross:

Also a ballroom dancer,

Marcus Kirsch:

while I was skateboarding, which was weird walking with leather trousers in a skateboard animal arm into a ballroom dancing school. Right? Right. complicated.

Troy Norcross:

incredibly talented, incredibly talented. Speaking of incredibly talented people, do we have an incredibly talented guest on the show?

Marcus Kirsch:

Yes, we do. We have john key on our show, and his book, late night lessons from the COVID-19 crisis, which reads like letters from the front line during World War Two or something like that. It's it's pretty, it's it's, it's a little book, by it's an amazing insight into him talking to CEOs during the COVID crisis, being a fly on the wall, when things went bad, very, very bad. And he's got some amazing stories from us. For us, where are your insights on this one? So

Troy Norcross:

I did ask him the question about why about late nights. And so we're gonna let you talk about that in a minute. What was my big takeaway? My big takeaway was, are we going to go back to business as usual, when COVID has been, quote, unquote, resolved? And the way I wrapped? The question was around what it what happens when the risk of doing nothing goes away? Because with COVID, around, you had to do something, the risk of doing nothing was enormous. And it was so huge, that all of the other tiny little trivial risks got pushed out of the way and people suddenly moved forward, whether it was working from home or

Marcus Kirsch:

lazy. Absolutely, yeah, we've been working in this thing for 20 years, and we've been pushing people and asking and begging and ripping off left and right arms off. And no one moved. And suddenly a couple of 1000 100,000 people die, and suddenly everyone moves. That's

Troy Norcross:

really weird. But what's going to happen? We're going to go back to the same conservative tribes and state approach. I don't know. So we need to listen to that. To find out what what john has to say about that. But that was my big takeaway. What was your big takeaway?

Marcus Kirsch:

So I got two things. Or maybe I just got one thing, I don't know. But one of the things I found interesting, and it sounds a bit scary, but it's this late night meetings he had like past 9pm. And he said, there's always at least a beer involved or something. And people literally really spilled a beer, the beans because he needed to drink. It was at the end of days, at the end of the day. And people were really honest about things. And then you really got to the crux of what's actually going on, How bad is it? What can we possibly do? And I think people started to way beyond politics and anything else got like how we can correct How can we practice, we need to do this. And those are really great insights and really great stories about that happening. So so one side of me things like how can we recreate that these late night meetings where once who stops, but being bothered and distracted by those small things that normally come to pass where everyone talks about it for hours and hours, nothing actually gets discussed? Now, how can we recreate 9pm meetings and get that spirit? that same spirit in the in the room authentic open? Like what's actually what's going on here? Interesting enough, nearly towards the end of the interview, so I want to listen to all the way to the end of the interview. He's actually talking about that in terms of planning as well. He said, the kind of planning he saw, because I was saying there wasn't a lot of planning there. You couldn't plan you just had to act and react. Right? And he said, No, actually, there was much more planning. But it was more authentic planning. It was planning you can action straight away. It was not like, you know, Kumbaya something something next year maybe was like no next week tomorrow, we're gonna do this and this and that and that we planet in the next two hours, and we're going to execute it. I mean, and we know When we talk to organisations about be lean, be quick, whatever this is, the way you should be doing things. And a lot of organisations only just found out that they can do these things. And that, for me is a great insight meaning the meaning that every organisation actually can, they can. And I hope to remember that in the months to come. So that's my big insight.

Troy Norcross:

And you're you're absolutely right, and what you're talking about teams, and the insights you had over the years, and that I've had over the years, and how teams can operate. I wonder if there's an idea for a workshop in there in the future. But enough of my candy kind of dropping hints. What should we do now, Marcus?

Marcus Kirsch:

Well, I'll not use the word yet. But we're gonna have our 50th episode coming up, and then we'll gotta have a bit bit of reveal, I think, anyway, so for now, we just kind of go to the interview. Hello, everyone. Today, we're here with john key. Hello, john. Thank you for being with us. Hey, guys. Hello. Thanks for having me on. So as usual, we start at the top. So please, john, tell our listeners who you are and why you wrote.

Jon Key:

I'm Joanna. I've worked in, in business, I guess, all my life, I started my career in consulting. And then I've had a number of jobs in executive roles in various companies. And during the last 20 years or so I've worked on supporting companies in developing that strategy, improving their businesses, transforming companies done that across a very wide range of companies, but mainly focused on engineering, industrials, energy. And last year, I've worked with a number of clients across quite a few of those sectors, really, for the last 18 months, all the way through the COVID-19 crisis. And I guess I was quite lucky, or privileged to be a fly on the wall. In a number of different leadership teams, management teams, observing and watching and working with chief executives and their teams as they navigated through the COVID-19. process. I still am in fact, and I've always believed in learning lessons from your experiences and one's experiences, and also share sharing those lessons when other people can benefit from. And so at the end of the year, I decided I would try and document some of things that I'd seen through the years. And it was partly, I guess, cathartic experience for myself, wanting to almost take stock of what the hell just happened there, through 2020, and partly saying, try and draw some lessons from it. And so I kind of, I revisited actually a number of my blogs that I've written through the year, and use those as a starting point, never having written a book before, and pulled it all together. And I thought, well, you know, this is an opportunity to turn it into a bit of a record of what happens from my perspective. And something I can look back on in the future. When this crazy period becomes, you know, distant, distant memory.

Troy Norcross:

So one of the things that you referenced throughout the book that I found really interesting was late night video calls. So can you tell us a bit more about a video calls and B, why were so many of them late night?

Jon Key:

It's a great question. So it was a busy period last year, so they think back to between March and September, through 2020. There was a lot going on. We had at times, half a dozen clients. And we were working on pretty intense projects, or all remotely all with teams who are very stretched and had a number of cry He's to deal with many crises to deal with born out of COVID-19. And really the end of those lat long day, it was really the only time that we could all get together and take stock. So we are used to schedule these calls for nine o'clock on a Thursday night. That always be a bear. Because most people on the call really needed one at that point, after a long, long day is helping helping clients. And we had a number of people actually who were International, I not from the UK. So we have people joining from Australia, the US, a guy joining from Brazil at one point. And so it was a timeframe that sort of worked from a practical perspective. But it was also very conducive to the discussion. And generated, people weren't referred to the next meeting. They weren't, it wasn't sandwiched in between one management update, and another leadership call. There was a it was more relaxed, I guess, or as relaxed as we could be during 2020. And it also drove up attendance we add the number of people on people on the call varies from one call to the next thing we started them as, as weekly calls, actually. But a week was a very long time in COVID-19. Back in March, April, a lot happened during any given week, back then not I think was probably true of everyone, not just not just us. And not just on the work front either. We had personal challenges, work challenges. And certainly in the UK, we found that COVID policies policy, government policy, the the data was shifting and moving on a on a weekly basis on a daily basis. So from one week to the next, a lot changed. And it was a real for us. And I'm sure for you know, many, many people, a real a real roller coaster, emotional roller coaster. But particularly with the personal thing going on in the background. And everyone has a personal story of 2020 and COVID. An either new people or new of people as you know, either directly or indirectly affected by the crisis as well. So yeah, that late night piece was quite, quite important actually. Because people really opened up about not just the practicalities of the project that they were working on, or their observations on the business. But there was also very often a personal angle to some of the stories that people came up with as we went through through the year.

Troy Norcross:

And that's, that's really great to get those level of insights that are, you know, it's a terrible word to use goods been so abused, but that are really authentic. You know, it's like all the businesses done, and now we're down to the authentic sort of answers. So it's really, really a privilege, you know, when I get those kind of accesses and for you to have, you know, six months, maybe a year of those kind of authentic calls with a wide range of executives, across a wide range of industries and jurisdictions and countries. Really, really great. You package the book, as you said, based on your blogs, you pulled together 12 maybe it's 15 I don't remember off the top of my head, individual kind of categories and sections. So we've got a few questions about, you know, individual pieces and kind of drilling into some of the insights that you had. And one of them was so much about teams wanting to work for companies who had values that aligned with their own and values have become very, very important to a lot of people. They've also become very polarising and how as a company, you kind of decide, do you pick a quote unquote, tribe and align with their values and try to hire people and find customers that align with them? Or do you try To find middle ground and try to do a broader and more diverse approach? And that's that's the question.

Jon Key:

Yeah, we, a lot of us have worked on on projects for companies looking at their values, different defining their values, framing their values, coming up with a set of values for CEOs and their leadership teams, either from food through discussions, and interactions with the front line with people across the organisation. In order to get to a set of values for the CEO for the business, we'd all worked on projects like that, like that one, through our careers. And I think what happened during last year, is a lot of those values really came to life. So we saw, I would say, all of our clients, really focusing through last year, for example, on on safety, but in a way in which they really haven't done before, and in a way that really transcended everyone in the organisation because the challenges of COVID and, and the threats of pandemics either from a direct perspective, or indirectly, through mental health challenges, through that kind of day to day challenge of keeping the workforce, the workforce safe, across companies from financial services, businesses, global mining companies, energy companies really came to life during the course of last year, and there are some other ones as well that that had been developed in pre COVID times. And most companies have got these values that, you know, on the wall or on the website, or wherever that really came to life. So collaboration with one's colleagues, and teammates, or collaboration across silos, across organisations, was another of those values that a lot of companies have. Before COVID-19, what we saw last last year, were around collaboration where businesses, really, really flattening their team structure and beginning to work cross functions, or geographies in a way that they had never done done before. So we have a couple of particular examples where in wanting fashion services, where we've been, we've been trying to push them actually will help them develop a collaborative culture. And to unify the team and work together around a number of initiatives in the lead up to COVID. What we saw in COVID, was suddenly you had a team of people who were really working together across it, finance, HR operations, like many companies, they had a weekly crisis team that met an executive level to negotiate and navigate their way through the way through COVID-19. And you had situations in that business and another's where where all of a sudden, you know, the the IT department went from being a frustration to being absolutely fundamental to helping the team navigate the crisis. And that was always the classic actually for some reason it came up a lot that you know, they were there. Everyone was a hero in some way at some point in the crisis. With the lighting guys it was you know, shit. help us find a way of working from

Marcus Kirsch:

Sorry, sorry to maybe interrupt you a little bit but that's that's I find so compelling and fascinating because this is the thing where, you know, Troy and me and maybe you have seen In businesses for long, long time, you know, I've been looking I look back at you know, post 2000, early 2000s dot com boom, digital What's happening? And everyone's like everything's changing now you know everyone's gonna be doing digital whatnot, whatnot. And before you know it, not much happens dot coms crashing. Hardly anyone even bothers afterwards to run a decent website, it is getting borderline shelved or it's sort of a thing, you know, it's just gets all messed up again. And people doubt the business value of going digital quite a bit, which then got got us into this pickle when COVID head and in between for good 1518 years, you know, at least you know, in my job, I've been trying to convince organisations to go No, it's easier. It's more flexible. Why don't you do that? People are going to be happier, small, you're going to be able to do amazing different things and be more flexible. So my question here is, if we say it took that kind of crisis for organisations ago, oh my god, we actually have to really forget all the usual petty politics and silos, and actually come together and Hello, it's actually doable. So what took you so long? Why did it not happen? You know, what, what makes the crisis What are in your observations, then sort of the characteristics where the dam broke, and people were like, you know, what? We have to, you know, what is doable? You know, what, yes, we just gonna sit down and talk and practice and make it happen? And what are some of the characteristics or moments where you saw things being different? And did you figure out why Suddenly, I mean, just as crises and as crises and organisations have been ineffective, inefficient, a lot of times and things went down, and millions invested not bring any benefit back. We've all been there over the last two decades. What was the difference? Now? What do you think is sort of made a difference? And how can you give us some, some examples there? Maybe?

Jon Key:

Yeah, I think it was the necessity, that management teams suddenly had to adapt or change or respond to the crisis. And it's, it's a cliche, but Necessity is the mother of invention. And I know, so many examples of businesses that before COVID would say, you know, it took two and a half years to launch a product, or it took 18 months to get a product or service on online. Or it took six months to migrate everyone to home working. Or it took 10 years to develop a vaccine. Or it took 18 months to design a ventilator, design and build a ventilator. And I think what we all saw during the crisis is all of those timeframes just went out of the window. And goodness knows what those marketing and product managers will be saying, now, because we all know that it takes a fraction of the time to get shit done. When there's a crisis like the one we've, we've just had. And I, for me, it's fascinating because Another example is we were pushing a number of clients to reduce their travel budget. And the numbers we were talking about before COVID, were 20 30% reduction in travel budget, you might want to consider video conferencing, this is a new thing called teams is zoom. And obviously we all know why travel budgets were slashed by 990 5% or higher. And actually, the business didn't businesses didn't fall over. So one business in particular, global shift management business. So these guys they're managing 700 ships across the world. And prior to COVID, that helpful industry was really one of face to face meetings and a culture of travelling around around the world. Some sometimes twice in a in a fortnight. And overnight, executives in those businesses were unable To travel, that the IT department again stepped up to the plate teams was available. I wonder what would have happened if COVID x 10 years ago or 15 years ago, before we had two teams and these alternative ways of communicating. But, you know, we've, we've, we've had them for at least five years. And none of us use them, obviously until until COVID. So I think I think one of the things COVID has, I guess, to all of us is that there are there are benefits that come out of the crisis benefits that come out of necessity. And so businesses will be thinking about how to create their own crises, they'll be thinking about how to motivate how to attain those levels of motivation, team working collaboration, innovation in in peacetime. And that's, I guess, one of the one of those lessons that I talked about before that I wanted to capture in the book. Because I think I think when people get when people return, maybe to a kind of way of operating where they're more, they go back to the old ways. Less agile, the move less quickly, I think it's important, it's important to remember, what can be achieved, when an organisation puts his mind to it, I think the benchmark will be will be COVID. You know, it's been a hugely challenging year for, for all businesses. But most of the businesses that we've worked with, have said, they've observed behaviours, and ways of working and efficiencies and an effective teams during the crisis that actually they hadn't, they hadn't thought what were possible. And so I think, many leaders will be looking at that, and trying, trying to trying to recreate it once this is over.

Troy Norcross:

So I'll go lots and lots of great thoughts that were coming up as you were talking, but I didn't want to kind of interrupt your flow. necessity is not just the mother of invention, it's also the mother of all screw ups. You know, it's another kind of saying that not all necessity responses are our good. Milton Friedman was the one that says only in a crisis, real or imagined, is when real change occurs. And it's the opportunities that are in a drawer or lying around, usually pulled out and put into force during that time. And I think there were indeed a number of plans and systems that were indeed ready that were indeed in place, that were waiting for somebody to give them a green light or waiting for somebody to say, yes, this is a long preamble to the fact that the majority of problems I see in business are risk aversion related. And when COVID happens, the risk of doing nothing, was substantially greater than the risk of trying something new. And my question to you is, do you think if you remove if you remove the risk of doing nothing? Will they still maintain their agile approach? Will they still move fast? Will they still suddenly realise the barriers that were there are not real?

Jon Key:

It's a great, it's a great question. I think there's a for me, there's a there's a broader question which is to what extent will behaviours go back to how they work before before the crisis? Or how the world To what extent will the world go back to how it was before crisis? The as an optimist, I would hope that as we remove the risk of doing nothing, or as we come back to normality those muscles that businesses used during the crisis, to respond to the crisis to, to be agile, to, to experiment, to innovate, to try things they've been tried before, perhaps those muscles that they've learned how to use during COVID they'll be able to use after the crisis and actually one one existential crisis, which dwarfs COVID Coronavirus is the environmental crisis that we will face. And it was really, really interesting comparison between COVID and the existential environmental crisis that we will face. My sense is that it's no coincidence that there's been this shift in the last year to 18 months towards the green agenda. It's become a lot more mainstream than it ever was momentum is building around mankind's needs to solve the problem of climate change. And I do I do think if there's a, if there's a silver lining, in the timing of terrible crisis, that's COVID-19. I actually think it's, it could be re channelling or repurposing of that, of that muscle, of those those abilities to do things quickly or to respond, to trial to test to innovate, for mankind to use that muscle to solve the other existential crisis. I hope I'm right. There's a there's a risk, obviously, that in six months time,

Marcus Kirsch:

I really hope. Yeah, I hope you're right to john. As usual, we have more questions than time, it's always the case, we'd love to talk to you for hours. So here's sort of our last question then for the day, which is, so one of the things therefore, you know, when people have to rally up and just do things quickly, and be flexible, and likely, you can really plan things. So one of the things like plans are useless planning is indispensable at the same time, you know, how do you see is relating strategy and tactics of corporate goals? We've just been through a phase where properly, we couldn't plan a lot, we had to act. And actually, that probably saved a lot of organisations. So they're now some of them now have the experience of knowing that actually, all this planning all this stuff might be absolutely a waste of time? Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, what's your current angle on exactly that to say, look, we just went through a phase to show that we can be more flexible than ever, but not really planning, because every strategy tends to, you know, get eaten by reality. But at the same time, it's good to have a planning, long term goal, sustainability, and all these things, our long term goals, we have to play the long game, right, in order to do this to the real things of value for all of us. So what's your experience? What's your view on on that aspect? on that double sided coin?

Jon Key:

Yeah, so I think I think, planning, we've actually seen a lot more planning during COVID than we might, we might think, because even when you're you're acting very quickly or reacting very quickly. Some of the things that have been achieved by businesses are complex, and they require a degree of coordination and a degree of albeit short term planning, in order to enable the home office move to enable the the new products innovation to enable new processes and systems. I actually think there's probably more planning than we might think. But it's but the plat planning that's been done in the last year has been highly actionable. The plan has been used in order to drive change. The plans have been followed and shared in order to communicate across teams, maybe what we haven't seen in a long term strategic plans, because a lot of businesses have been in survival mode. But to achieve what most businesses have achieved, whether it's to move into locked out, you know, because to close a global chain of cinemas, for example, a huge amount of planning is required and coordination. To do that, even if it's a small business, to go into lockdown, or to come out of lockdown requires a level of coordination and planning that businesses don't jump haven't generally have to do in the past. I think there's a separate question about long term planning and longer term strategy. And thinking about where the business is going, not in the next week, or month, but in the next five years, 10 years, 20 years, I'm really thinking ahead to more strategic timeframe. And I think what we're seeing in the businesses that we're working with, is that now where leaders are turning their attention, and what they're finding is they can't use a traditional mechanical turn the handle annual strategy process. In order to think about that those time horizons, they actually need something quite different, which is much purer and creative strategy. And actually, what we're finding is those types of strategy projects don't happen, or haven't happened much in the lead up to COVID. But now, if every business needs to think about what the post COVID-19 world will look like, how their markets are going to change, how the competitive landscape is going to change, how they need to invest for the medium and long term. So I think what we were going to see is those short term plans that businesses had during COVID, and the level of coordination and the way in which they pulled together in order to survive, navigate the crisis, I think those same muscles, and the same attention to planning will now be turned to much longer term timeframes. And we're certainly seeing the kind of projects that we're working on now are really close to pure strategy. You know, what will those businesses need to look like, over the next over the next 10 years? I still think the statement that plans are

Marcus Kirsch:

really, really

Jon Key:

planning is is essential, but plans are useless is hold holds, because clearly, none of us can predict what the world will look like in 10 years time. But that doesn't mean it isn't important for businesses to think of that knock sanka.

Marcus Kirsch:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, I come from a design background. So as thinking about what could you do, what could be possible is always part of that. It's a natural part of it, what can you achieve is a different question and a different answer. But you know, it's always good to look at, well, what could we Well, let's see where we can go, you know, and see how far we could do it brilliant. So unfortunately, this time I saw, and this is a really great insight. And I think it's really interesting to look at this as a, you know, like the last answer in sort of a more authentic or more real kind of strategy or planning. That by itself is a really great, great idea, a great insight on that. So. So beyond that. JOHN, thank you so much for your time and your insights, and for being with us today. Thank you so much, you guys.

Troy Norcross:

You've been listening to the wicked podcast with CO hosts Marcus Kirsch and me, Troy Norcross,

Marcus Kirsch:

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Troy Norcross:

You can also get in touch with us directly on Twitter on at wicked and beyond or at Troy underscore Norcross, also learn more about the wicked company book and the wicked company project at wicked company.com