As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued its inexorable spread across the world, business leaders everywhere have faced unprecedented challenges. Intense economic disruption and market volatility combined with uncertainty on a global scale has formed the backdrop against which businesses have had to adapt, act, and move forward quickly and effectively.

McKinsey tells us that positive and effective leadership helps businesses move forward in a crisis, brings communities together, and allows for teams to act with conviction in moments of ambiguity. But it also highlights how difficult this can be. With so many challenges colliding at once, many leaders may be struggling to find a clear path forward (McKinsey & Company: Positive leadership in uncertain times, April 23, 2020).

The good news is that it is possible to respond effectively, by acting on three imperatives:

  • clarifying the business purpose
  • supporting stakeholders, and
  • bolstering emotional and organisational resilience.

In part two of our focus on funds’ response to the pandemic, we look at the role of leadership and the executive teams of several Australian superannuation funds, and their focus and initiatives during the pandemic.

A clear and present purpose

“HESTA has always been a really purpose-led organisation, and that’s been helpful in allowing us to respond as one team – we’ve always been genuinely inspired by the work our members do, and during the pandemic it’s our members who are on the front line protecting all of us,” Lisa Samuels, Chief Experience Officer, HESTA.

Tim Elliott, Group Executive Finance, Strategy and Transformation at First State Super, said from the beginning the fund had a clear purpose: putting members and staff first, and using an innovation agenda to achieve that. Like other funds, First State Super was already in the process of rolling out collaboration technology across the company, but they found they had to throw massive resources at it on day one, to ensure that everyone had the technology to be able to work from home.

“Technology had to work first and foremost for the member-facing team, so in a period of two weeks we moved 100 members of our call centre home, at the same time as they were fielding an increase in call volumes from members worried about everything from investment performance, to early access to super and COVID-19 payments,” Tim Elliott, First State Super

Rest’s 1.7 million members (predominantly retail employees) were among the hardest hit by the pandemic. According to Jeremy Hubbard, Group Executive, Innovation & Transformation, the impact of the pandemic on members made the fund’s purpose clear. That is, supporting members first and foremost, and supporting employees by understanding their specific challenges around working at home, and their fears about the virus generally.

Call volumes increased by well over 100 per cent almost overnight. Even Roger (Rest’s virtual assistant) had to deal with an increase of 200 per cent in member requests and questions. Following the announcement of the early access scheme requests for early access to super also increased by a magnitude rarely seen in business

“Pre COVID-19, in a typical week we would receive around 100 applications for early release of super on compassionate grounds. In the first week of the early access applications we received over 65,000 applications. To date we’ve paid out over $1.5 billion, 97 per cent of which was paid within four days. It was a challenge but it reinforced what we already knew, that agility is key. It’s the fast that eat the slow now, not the big that eat the small anymore,” Jeremy Hubbard, Rest.

The pressure on call centres was intense. At BT, prior to the launch of the scheme, the process for financial hardship was mostly manual with the fund processing less than 200 applications per week.

“Initially, it was a huge change. Not only were all our people, at the time, adjusting to working from home, but we had a low volume process for around 40 applications a day. In the first day of early release, we got 15,000 applications. Since the scheme commenced we’ve had 180,000 which will go up. So we recruited over 100 people from affected industries, such as aviation, and we did a big automation around that process which makes it quite easy to make those payments. We also had 600 of our staff volunteer to make those payments, so it was wonderful to see that team spirit come through,” Melinda Howes, General Manager, Superannuation, BT

According to Cbus’ Rob Pickering, many members were understandably concerned about their superannuation performance with the volatility of investment markets due to COVID-19. Having the best possible experience for them to engage with during this time of uncertainty was key.

“Having platforms which your members find easy to engage with ensures they can get advice on the best course of action at all times, not just during times of uncertainty. Whether that’s changing investment options, topping up their super, or looking at insurance options having a portal and mobile app that is easy to engage with, in order to provide that relevant information to them, will deliver better retirement outcomes to a member – which is our focus,” said Pickering.

Alignment in what we do, and what we say

Strong leadership teams are aligned when all members of the team work together to achieve a common purpose. This doesn’t mean no disagreement, but it does mean constructive debate and proactive support. In a crisis alignment between members of the leadership is crucial, but so is alignment between leadership and teams at every level. The leaders who spoke with Superfunds were emphatic that without alignment there is no sense of purpose. They agreed that without a clear and shared purpose, an understanding of ‘what we do and why we do it’, a business will not navigate a crisis successfully.

One of the themes which emerged was achieving alignment through the creation of a crisis team. Many also stressed the importance of making the team cross-functional and the right size. Too big and decisions can’t be made quickly, too small and it could fail to consider the business as a whole.

As Teifi Whatley, Chief Strategy and Impact Officer at Sunsuper put it, “if we think about how we stood up as a team to work through early release payments, and how best to do that – it was a great demonstration of putting a multifunction team together. We had to operate at speed, make decisions quickly as a team, and make sure we had very clear accountabilities. COVID-19 showed us not only that we could do it, and the importance of a multi-function team, but also what we had to learn, how we could do things better, get faster.”

Communicate early and often

One of the golden rules of crisis management is to communicate more, rather than less –and the earlier the better. Allowing a vacuum to form, where members and staff are left unsure about what’s going on is a dangerous trap. People tend to fill the gap with misinformation which can leave teams scrambling to correct false information.

Therefore, there must be razor-sharp alignment in terms of the messages going out.

As Tim Elliott said, “we put a lot of effort into ensuring that our staff were giving the right messages about the impact of withdrawing super early, while understanding that we needed to move quickly to release super to people in need.”

From a leadership perspective, one of the challenges, according to Elliott, was the need to stay visible to staff, even when no one is working in the office. The everyday interaction with staff and the kind of ambient information flow which negates the need for more structured communication were no longer possible. Ramping up internal communication became key, including weekly leaders’ and staff meetings hosted by the executive team.

But even that wasn’t without challenges. “In some ways, it made us more efficient as it enabled us to communicate important messages and updates across the entire business in a live format, but in other instances it slowed everything down. Instead of just stopping someone in the corridor and asking a quick question or having that informal conversation in a physical environment, I have to book a Microsoft Teams meeting into the diary,” said Elliott.

In an environment where a crisis is unfolding in an uncontrolled way, communication must be clear and transparent, but it’s also a two-way street. Helping members during the crisis meant listening to their questions and concerns as much as telling them what their fund is doing about it.

And there’s a second good reason to listen; what members are saying gives real-time data for future communication in which to proactively provide answers to everyone’s questions.

Boosting member engagement

The pandemic was also a chance for funds to learn more about members. Teifi Whatley said Sunsuper was able to use the requests for early access to learn more about members’ demographic breakdown, and to better understand their preferences regarding how the fund contacts them.

Lisa Samuels from HESTA spoke about the importance of listening to members and assessing how they were communicating, and in this respect the higher call volumes were both a challenge and an opportunity.

“We listened to what our members were asking us, and used the most common enquiries and questions as a basis of webinars. We also took care to align our marketing initiatives with what was happening around us. When so many of our members are struggling, losing their jobs, or having their hours cut, we stopped talking to them about contributing more to super and ensured that we had every avenue of help available. So, we set up our Client Partnership teams so they could answer general advice calls from home and had a social team answering queries through click to chat. We also launched initiatives like the HESTA Excellence Awards so members in disability, allied health, community services and aged care could share their stories and we could help recognise the amazing work they do,” said Samuels.

At LGS, a multi-channel approach enabled the fund to communicate with members on the platform that best suited them: from CIO video and market updates, through the contact centre, and by mail for some members. CEO Phil Stockwell said that, as a medium sized fund, LGS was able to respond quickly and increase the frequency of communication, but there were certain capabilities that had to be boosted rapidly.

“We moved quickly to replace our face-to-face member information forums with webinars. We also realised the limitations of communicating via email to members that haven’t signed up to email, and so we’ve used mail as well to ensure we reached all our members,”  Stockwell said.

Melinda Howes said the fund was already highly digital, and had increased the volume of rich web content, while using new channels to keep in touch with members. “We’re upping the use of SMS to get important and timely information to members, and will continue to do this moving forward,” she said.

Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk

For Phil Stockwell one of the most important lessons was the need for the flexibility and agility – and this needed to come from the leadership group.

“We moved early to set up the crisis management team with the realisation that we needed people in the leadership team dedicated to our response. We accelerated our technology update so that everybody could use Microsoft Teams and Office365, and was on the latest hardware, because having inconsistent technology was creating problems. The big standout for me was the great teamwork that was on display, and the belief that we could make a large change happen so quickly. It was a very positive outcome,” said Stockwell.

Many spoke of the need to balance the need to move quickly and decisively with the need to not burn out. Melinda Howes said the pandemic made everyone at BT see the value of the human element of work. “As a leader, I’m focusing on being honest about how I’m feeling and the challenges I faced and making sure we have honest conversations as a team. It’s hugely challenging for some – people with small children at home, those in share houses without much space, and others who were home schooling or living with extended families. We really had to factor in the challenges and then up the communication – both formally and informally. We were applying techniques to make sure people weren’t just using the time saved on commuting to work longer hours, that they took breaks and holidays, especially after the lockdowns were eased. Mental wellbeing drives everything else and we had to make sure that people didn’t burn out.”

Training, upskilling, and staying the course

Lisa Samuels commented on her team’s steadiness, saying “I think our ability to adapt is higher than we think it is.”

Tim Elliott said “the trick is to plan for an ultra-marathon not a sprint. There’s no way everyone can sustain the level of adrenaline, high alert and instant response they had at the start of the crisis.”

The funds Superfunds spoke to all had technology in place, but most found themselves racing to upgrade and extend, and to provide training. Melinda Howes summed up what a lot of funds said about their experience of moving to online interaction when she said the fund had leaped ahead in productivity, efficiency, happiness, and balance. That’s not to say that there aren’t areas that could be improved – but in some ways COVID-19 has sparked efficiencies in business rhythms which weren’t necessarily so finely tuned before.

“During this period of massive disruption, I’m proud that we have been able to continue to deliver big strategic programs and have effectively shifted from physical to virtual. A big part of this is down to our people are going all out to make programs work, having our people feel connected to strategy through frequent communication, and having a great team of leaders to manage their teams through this time. It’s a period of enormous business change – but in this industry, we deal with challenges all the time, and we are resilient,” Howes said.

Featured in this article:

  • Melinda Howes, General Manager Superannuation, BT
  • Rob Pickering, Chief Technology and Digital Officer, Cbus
  • Tim Elliott, Group Executive Finance, Strategy and Transformation, First State Super
  • Lisa Samuels, Chief Experience Officer, HESTA
  • Phil Stockwell, CEO, Local Government Super
  • Jeremy Hubbard, Group Executive For Innovation And Transformation, Rest
  • Teifi Whatley, Chief Strategy and Impact Officer, Sunsuper