Melbourne Business School Events and Information Sessions Talking Business During Crisis: How organisations can survive now and thrive later- 'The leadership factor'

Talking Business During Crisis: How organisations can survive now and thrive later- 'The leadership factor'

Thursday, 18 June 2020
12.30 PM - 1.30 PM

COVID-19 has changed the global business landscape.

Great leaders are providing clear decision-making frameworks during this period. This involves simple messages that take everyone back to the reason for being of their organisation. In addition to providing clarity, this purpose can also engage people at a very human level. It can energize a workforce by reminding everyone the importance of their organisation to the lives of their customers, employees or communities. COVID has prompted a re-purposing across various organisations. Coles are providing the lifeblood of their communities which is clear to their staff given the experiences they are having helping the elderly and vulnerable. The banks have rediscovered their community purpose, which had been weakened over the last 30 years. Will this new purpose continue to guide and energise these workforces post COVID? The answer depends on the capabilities of their leadership. Australian organisations have been given a lifeline for a retro- fitting of a social purpose which could energise various stakeholders – it is there if they can hold on to it.


From this event

Watch the recording of the 60-minute webinar to hear how the panelists responded to the following themes:

•How do leaders provide clear decision-making frameworks, especially when people are not in one place?

•How do leaders create and convey a sense of purpose for the immediate team or work unit, within the larger purpose of the organisation?

•How do we ensure sustainability of our leadership through COVID and beyond?

We weren't able to respond to all of the audience questions during our time, however the panelists have shared their views on some of these below.

Your questions answered

In response to the challenges created by COVID, businesses are called to be more adaptable and innovative. Some leaders tend to wear different personas to address their audiences and situations (as a chameleon would!). How do we gauge the sweet spot or strike a good balance to be flexibly and sensibly savvy but not at the cost of losing sincerity and authenticity? 

“This is such a great question. Many people think of “authenticity” as sticking to one core self at all times, in all situations. But this is not really feasible as a blanket rule. Some people are authentically unpleasant people! And for their own good and others’, they should find a way to be in themselves without being all of themselves. Researchers call it “authenticity with boundaries.” Our personalities actually have a whole range of traits that are still “us”; I am generally quiet and introverted, for example, but at a party (or on a webinar!) I can be very animated and extraverted. These are both “me”; the key is to bring aspects forward or let them recede into the background as the situation calls for.

For leaders in particular, sometimes you need to act a role that is more dominant or less soft than you feel natural being. People around you may need you to play this role—they may need your strength—but you want to be careful not to buy into the role and confuse it with yourself so that you lose your compassionate core.”

Associate Professor Jen Overbeck

How can you create the space between the stimulus and the reaction, to be able to reflect on whether you will react based on your own ‘shoulds’ or the organisations ‘shoulds’? 

“This requires attention and awareness at both an organisational and a personal perspective. The organisational perspective requires that its purpose and values are embedded in systems, processes and culture to provide guidance on what employees throughout the organisation should and shouldn’t operate. At a personal level, leaders who value and practice the process of reflection and open dialogue, and who have invested time in clarifying their own purpose and values, are more likely to create space for thinking before acting.”

Cameron Brooks, Senior Learning Consultant


“Breathe before you react. That may sound flippant but taking the time to breathe in deeply and slowly gives you a moment to tune into yourself. The slow deep breath acts as a circuit breaker giving you space for suspension. Suspension is the ability to notice and temporarily suspend your reactions, feelings, opinions and assumptions without giving them up. It is about just observing, noticing and being curious, paying attention without drawing conclusions or without trying to fix issues at the time. Suspension allows you to notice the meaning in what is being said. Our assumptions are the beliefs and opinions we have about how the world works and what is true for us. We are often unaware of our deepest assumptions. The practice of suspension, while listening to yourself and others helps us to hear the assumptions underlying our values, or ‘shoulds’. With practice the process of suspension becomes habitual.”

Neil Middleton, Senior Learning Consultant


“Also, practice noticing your own ‘shoulds’. Maybe once a week, spend five minutes reflecting on things that bothered you during the week or that day, and then try to identify the “should” that underlies each one. “I was annoyed by Greta because she SHOULD treat me with respect, which means she SHOULD talk to me privately about issues in my presentation, not in front of everyone else.” As you get better at noticing these outside the moment, you might get better at noticing IN the moment, “hey, I feel bothered” and from there you can try to push further, to understanding why you’re bothered and responding in the moment, too. It just takes some practice, and Neil’s advice above is great for this.”

Associate Professor Jen Overbeck

How do you deal with a leader that is the antithesis of what you have just discussed? 

“This can be a challenging situation. It's important to reflect and identify, in your opinion, what might be the motivations and perspective of the leader - what do they care about and why might this be the case? I would discourage giving feedback in this situation but rather make specific requests based on what you need, including why you need things and the benefit to the organisation. Think about timing when to talk with them and practice what you intend to say. I would also encourage that you stay connected to a strong support network of people that you trust who you can trust, will provide encouragement and have your back.”

Cameron Brooks, Senior Learning Consultant

Has the current crisis given organisations and leaders a community purpose that perhaps was missing and, if so, has this led to improvement score for leaders and employee engagement?

“One benefit I see from COVID is that it prompted many of us to stop and assess: What’s important to us? How do we want to live our lives? If we had the chance, many of us took the extra commuting time that we got back and used it for hobbies and activities that made us feel grounded. People in the city realised how much they missed walking in nature, and I gather housing sales have increased in towns and regional areas as a result. Organisations are made up of people, and when everyone is thinking about how to make our fragile lives more meaningful, naturally that will be reflected in organisations too. So yes, I think we are seeing some of that reflected in the engagement (plus, work has often been a welcome distraction from the worries and fears that have been present!). The key is to hold on to it when we’re not forced to think about meaning anymore. And I want to recognise that not everyone has had the luxury of thinking about meaning, or making sourdough, or having work be a comfort, so some compassion is also in order for our colleagues and neighbours who are having a tougher time.”

Associate Professor Jen Overbeck


“Making the business values explicitly about serving community needs can be a good way to improve engagement and offer a stronger value proposition in the market for talent. Another way of thinking about this is a re-purposing – we go from putting shareholder as the number one stakeholder to acknowledging that there is a higher purpose behind everything that you do. But you need to then be credible in honouring your new values or purpose – a negative example is Westpac’s attempt at re-branding (“we are there for you”) which was soon followed by the AUSTRAC scandal. You need to make sure the whole leadership buys into the community focus and there are lots of great examples of this being brought to life.”

Professor Geoff Martin

I’m interested in the panellists’ thoughts on the employee engagement results of the poll.  Perhaps there is a strong correlation between the deteriorating (and unknown) economic conditions and "engagement".  With such uncertainty, employees are likely to want to be perceived as highly engaged.  This may not be the result of incredible leadership.... 

“I agree. Likewise, people may be in such a headlong rush to “act” during the crisis that it feels very purposeful but this action may not be sustainable.”

Associate Professor Jen Overbeck


“This gets to the heart of trust. People will pretend to be engaged when they perceive low psychological safety to openly share what they are thinking and feeling. Employee engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organisation and its goals. So, organisations that have employees who are pretending to be engaged just to keep their job, will likely not achieve the goals they set for themselves.”

Cameron Brooks, Senior Learning Consultant


“Recent data suggests that employees and customers have a heightened sensitivity to a firm’s commitment to their wellbeing and that of their communities. Hence, there is a stronger correlation than normal between CSR (toward employee wellbeing and community needs) and engagement scores. This presents an opportunity to use this crisis as an opportunity to build engagement with important stakeholders.”

Professor Geoff Martin 

Do you think that diversity and inclusion in the workplace will improve as a result of the crisis or will the crisis provide an opportunity for some organisations to step back from those commitments? 

“There are two crises right now. One is a health issue and the other is a social issue. I would hope that the BLM movement makes organisations more aware of the need to commit to addressing Indigenous social and cultural problems. This would mean credibly committing to statements about valuing diversity and a culture of inclusion. There will be heightened focus on this racial/cultural dimension of ‘social responsibility’ that will potentially influence purchase decisions and employee decisions about where they choose to work.”

Professor Geoff Martin

Maybe some of Ronald Heifetz’s work on adaptive leadership is valuable to discuss? 

“I agree and believe understanding the practice of adaptive leadership can make a valuable contribution. Heifetz and Linsky address two types of challenges; technical or adaptive.The technical being challenges where expertise and known solutions can be applied. The adaptive is when the actual problem may not be acknowledged or well understood. Solutions require changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, values and practices and implementing possible solutions requires working outside authoritative expertise, shedding entrenched ways, tolerating losses and generating new capacity. Sounds somewhat like the situation the world finds itself in now. In our leadership development with clients we frequently work with Heifetz’s leadership responses of:

  • Get on the balcony – get perspective and see patterns
  • Orchestrate the conflict and regulate the heat – keep the heat up so that change happens
  • Think politically – be mindful of what to give up and let go of and the impact it will have
  • Give the work back – be able to disappoint people at a rate they can tolerate
  • Hold steady – resist the pressure on you to manage rather than lead”

Neil Middleton, Senior Learning Consultant

About our speakers

Geoff Martin



Geoff Martin joined Melbourne Business School in 2012 and is now a Professor of Strategy. Geoff’s research explores short termism and risk taking by executives and has been published in the Harvard Business Review, Strategic Management Journal, Academy of Management Journal and more.

Jen Overbeck



Jen Overbeck literally wrote the book on power in organisations—in this case, the leadership book read by all student-officers at the US Military Academy. She researches and teaches negotiation and leading change, and she negotiated with her husband to uproot their lives 6 years ago and move to Australia for her job as professor at MBS. Read more



Neil Middleton is a senior consultant in the organisational learning team working with custom clients in Australia and Malaysia. Neil works with clients on issues of organisational culture, change and leadership. His clients include South East Water, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Defence and the Malaysian bank RHB