Posted: 06 Apr. 2020 5 min. read

Collective Leadership Across the Social Sector in the Face of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The social sector, and every organisation within it, is operating with an unprecedented level of uncertainty due to COVID-19. This is accentuated by the lack of clarity regarding what the future holds in terms of commercial sustainability, customer service continuity, staff health and safety, and the increasing social and economic challenges facing communities.  

To provide some sense of certainty in the face of COVID-19, Australia’s federal, state and territory governments have worked to introduce strong measures, which will remain in place for at least six months. It is critical that social sector leaders also introduce strong measures in response to the government’s direction, providing as much certainty for their organisation, customers, workforce and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is no doubt that, now more than ever, we need strong, resilient and compassionate leadership across the social sector to instill a sense of hope and order amongst the chaos. Social sector leaders will need to engage both the ‘head and heart’ to build resilient organisations that can weather the storm ahead, whilst also laying the foundation for growth and greater impact into the future.

To survive and then thrive, social sector organisations will need united and collective leadership across the Chief Executive Officers (CEOs), executive leadership teams, and Boards of Directors. The sector as a whole will also need united and collective leadership if we are to give ourselves the best foundation to rebuild the lucky country in the aftermath of COVID-19. The question is, are we, as leaders, prepared to rise to this challenge?

In this article, we unpack insights from the Deloitte Global thought leadership piece, ‘The heart of resilient leadership: Responding to COVID-19’, and apply it to meet the immediate needs of the social sector during the COVID-19 pandemic. This piece focuses on three key areas:

1. Sustained Collective Leadership Through a Clear Leadership Strategy

It is critical that CEOs, executive leadership teams and boards work as a collective during this period of uncertainty - leveraging everyone’s accumulated knowledge and experiences to rapidly respond to and successfully face the challenges ahead, thereby providing a sense of stability for the organisation. Outlined below are some considerations for social sector leaders to reflect on as they define their leadership strategy in the face of COVID-19:

  • Leadership tone: Adopting a tone and mindset of ‘servant leadership’ will assist leaders to ensure their COVID-19 response effectively stewards their organisation for the long-term, whilst delivering customer service continuity and certainty for staff in an empathetic and sustainable manner in the short to medium-term.
  • Expectations of leadership: Customers and staff will have heightened expectations of leaders during COVID-19. Effective leaders will ‘own the narrative’ at the outset, being transparent about current realities whilst also painting a compelling picture of the future that inspires others to persevere. Leaders will need to provide clear, consistent communication and cascade key messages down to all staff to ensure effective messaging both internally and externally. It will also be critical for leaders to reinforce these key messages by relentless role modelling to give stakeholders a sense of confidence.
  • Playing to strengths as a team: Forming blended teams that draw on the experiences of the board, executive leadership and wider team to address specific issues and make recommendations will help share the load across the collective leadership team and can contribute to speedy, yet robust decision-making. Leaders may also need to engage external trusted advisors to supplement their teams with additional capabilities and capacity. These blended teams will give social sector organisations access to COVID-19 related insights from other organisations and industries, that will help to rapidly strengthen their own response. Furthermore, as executive leadership teams and boards step up to deal with these unprecedented challenges, it is critical that they delegate operational decision-making to team leaders and experienced front-line staff, who are deeply embedded in delivering services, empowering them to take the lead and generate efficient and innovative approaches to meeting changing needs as a result of COVID-19.

2. Designing and Leading with the ‘Head and Heart’

Social sector leaders already understand the challenge of being true to both head and heart, balancing mission-focussed delivery with commercial sustainability and operational excellence, however the impact of COVID-19 has made this challenge exponentially more difficult.

Leaders will need to continue to make robust, evidence-based decisions that are aligned to the organisation’s purpose, whilst meeting the short to medium-term needs of the organisation in the face of COVID-19. For example, it will be important to identify which combinations of customer segments, service offerings and workforce teams are the most critical to maximising customer service continuity and the commercial sustainability of your organisation during this period of uncertainty. It may seem like an impossible trade-off, however identifying the non-negotiables will help you make these challenging decisions, for example:

  • With your customer and services, it is important to recognise that in periods of crisis, customers revert to prioritising basic needs such as safety, security, and health. This should be the guiding principle when making trade-offs to ensure service continuity for the maximum number of customers in the short-term. For those customers where you are not able to provide services in the short-term, it is essential that you stay engaged and continue communications in order to be best positioned to re-establish services once your organisation transitions to ‘the new normal’.
  • With your workforce, ensuring their health and the health of customers is non-negotiable. The ‘heart’ might wish that the economic wellbeing of all staff is also a non-negotiable, but the reality is that you may not have the financial resources to retain all staff. Identifying the job roles, teams and individuals that are essential to your organisation’s survival is a critical priority for leaders. Depending on your organisation’s financial health, leaders may also decide to invest in retaining core staff that cannot be fully utilised in the short-term to support the organisation’s growth, resilience and capability in the medium to long-term.

3. Planning for the Short to Medium-Term

Existing strategic and business continuity plans offer social sector leaders only limited guidance to respond effectively to COVID-19 and therefore, should not constrain planning and decision-making during these unprecedented times. The following principles may help guide leaders with being adaptable in planning for the short to medium-term:

  • Speed over elegance: COVID-19 is confronting social sector leaders with many ‘known and unknowns’. Leaders will therefore need to leverage all their knowledge resources and pragmatically act on imperfect information to make timely decisions that mobilises the organisation. It is likely that new strategic goals focusing on the next six months will be the basis for new plans as organisations define their ‘new normal’.
  • Scenario planning: Leaders will need to formulate multiple scenarios for how COVID-19 will impact commercial sustainability, customer service continuity, and staff over the next 6-12 months; reflecting significant disruptions to labour supply, service demand and financial stress. These scenarios need to include regularly monitored triggers that help leaders identify changes in circumstances that chart alternative courses of action.

Recovery rebound planning: Plans for post COVID-19 need to be embedded in the short to medium term, specifically to identify when and how to restart disrupted business operations and re-establish services to customers. Maintaining contingent capacity in the workforce provides flexibility and scalability, which not only ensures service continuity in the short-term but also provides the basis for growth in the medium to long-term.

The well-being of vulnerable people, families and communities, now and into the future, is dependent on sustained collective leadership, a clear strategy that engages both the ‘head and heart’, and robust short to medium-term planning to ensure social sector organisations not only survive but thrive, as we rebuild the lucky country post COVID-19.

In rising to the challenge of COVID-19, social sector leaders can find further insights in the Deloitte Global thought leadership piece, ‘The heart of resilient leadership: Responding to COVID-19’

Need help?

Deloitte Social Impact Consulting

Deloitte Australia’s Social Impact Consulting Practice supports social sector organisations, government agencies and businesses to deliver greater social impact aligned to their vision and mission. Our team is passionate about bringing the latest trends in strategy, technology and innovation from adjacent industries and global players to support social sector organisations to be ‘future fit’ in an increasingly complex, disrupted and competitive market.

Should you require any support during this period of uncertainty, please feel free to reach out to either Tharani Jegatheeswaran (Partner – Social Impact Consulting) or Les Hems (Director – Social Impact Consulting).

More about the authors

Tharani Jegatheeswaran

Tharani Jegatheeswaran

Partner, Social Impact Consulting

Tharani leads Deloitte Australia’s Social Impact Consulting Practice, a dedicated practice supporting social sector organisations, government agencies and businesses to deliver greater social impact aligned to their vision and mission. Drawing on over 15 years’ of consulting experience, combined with a deep passion for social change, Tharani has partnered with many organisations (including, disability, homelessness, and community services providers) on their transformation journeys. Her areas of experience include – strategy, growth, operating model design, operational excellence, and governance. She is passionate about bringing the latest trends in strategy, technology and innovation from adjacent industries and globally to support her clients to be ‘future fit’. Tharani is a Director of UNICEF Australia and the Deloitte Foundation, an Ambassador for Good Return, a judge for the Good Design Australia Awards and a passionate advocate for greater corporate and social sector collaboration.

Les Hems

Les Hems

Director, Social Impact Consulting

Les is a Director in Deloitte Australia’s Social Impact Consulting Practice, a dedicated practice supporting social sector organisations, government agencies and businesses to deliver greater social impact. Les has over 30 years’ experience advising NGOs, government and business. His specialties include strategy, organisational performance, social innovation, service design, social impact investing, public service reform and social impact measurement. Les supports organisations to jointly achieve social impact, operational excellence and commercial sustainability. He works across disability, ageing, family and children, homelessness, justice, regional/remote and Indigenous communities. Les has an MBA from Aston Business School and has held senior research positions at UNSW’s Centre for Social Impact, University College London and Johns Hopkins University. Les is a board member of the NSW Centre for Volunteering and a founding member of the Social Impact Measurement Network of Australia.

Amanda Navaratne

Amanda Navaratne

Consultant, Operations Transformation

Amanda is a Consultant in the Social Impact Consulting and Operations Transformation practice. She has experience in strategic project delivery, data driven consulting, process improvement, implementation planning and business case analysis and has worked with social sector, aged care, government and community-based organisations. She holds a Bachelor of Commerce in Economics and a Bachelor of Arts in Politics from the University of Otago.