Lockdown, a term unfamiliar to most of us just a few months ago, has just been voted word of the year, securing its status in the lexicon of our times ahead of a shortlist of nine other coronavirus-related words, including the name of the virus itself.
According to the judging panel at Collins Dictionary, coronavirus may have been the cause of everything that followed, but while it remains something that most of us have avoided, lockdown has touched us all.
From the humble office cleaner to the billionaire captains of industry lockdown has reduced each one of us to restricted movement, working from home, sacrificing many of the things we normally take for granted, from an annual holiday to a night in the pub.
So it was that journalist-turned-company director and executive coach Atholl Duncan decided to tap into the inner thoughts of international business leaders to find out how lockdown had impacted their working and personal lives, how they had managed the transition, in some cases, of thousands of staff to remote working, and how it had changed their thoughts on the world of work and the shape of society once the pandemic is gone.
He has drawn together 28 fascinating interviews for a book, Leaders In Lockdown, that gives us a unique snapshot of life at the top, or perhaps life at the laptop, given the one feature of their lives they share in common is that a life once spent hurtling around the world from meeting to meeting is now run increasingly online and from their own homes.
Aside from their thoughts on Covid and the recovery, each chapter represents a mini-interview exploring the careers and decision making processes of each individual and, more compelling, their hopes, fears, successes and failures and how they view life not only from a work point of view but also from a personal, family and community perspective.
Duncan has spoken by videoconferencing to leading executives in a broad range of industries around the globe, from Alison Martin, CEO EMEA, Zurich Insurance Group, to Sally Osman, former director of Royal Communications for the Royal Family, and Clement Kwok, CEO, the Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels.
The Scottish transport tycoon Sir Brian Souter openly admitted that the transport sector will be changed forever; that while there is a belief that the virus is still present people will be reluctant to use public transport. As a philanthropist whose sister Ann Gloag has helped the disadvantaged in Africa, he expresses his concerns for the world’s poor, particularly those in countries with no welfare system to fall back on.
Like Sir Brian, fund manager Martin Gilbert is full of foreboding, both forecasting a 1930s-style recession with zombie-companies owned by the state.
Because he was interviewed at the outset of the lockdown – and in light of the recent stock market bounce – Gilbert’s fears about a 1987 style crash may now look to have been misplaced. However, the point of the exercise was to assess how individuals felt at the time they were interviewed in what has been a constantly moving feast. Measuring their hopes and fears against what happened subsequently adds further insight into an unfolding story.
Gilbert’s comments on how Covid has exposed issues with the supply chain and how much of the manufacturing base has been lost, should be a wake-up call for policymakers. Whisky companies had to produce sanitiser, PPE came in from China and Turkey, he says. He believes the Covid experience will force countries to look inwardly at how they support themselves.
Duncan caught Mark Thompson, CEO and president of the New York Times, just after he had cycled through its vast Manhattan newsroom in a building normally buzzing with 3,000 staff. That day there were just 20 employees present.
Thompson admitted it made him think about how the office will need to be re-imagined. “We must get a new sensible settlement about how we all work together,” he says.
He talks through the decision to clear the office and the process of thinking how to produce a massive beast like the NYT daily from thousands of apartments across the city. He questions why the UK was so slow into lockdown when companies like his were taking decisions in February that the UK government left until the end of March.
He worries about the gulf between rich and poor, and while the poor need their next meal, the rich need their companies to survive, and concludes that those who are too slow to respond “are going to be toast” unless they are more agile and are willing to listen.
Duncan explains that he embarked on the project because he “sensed that something quite remarkable was unfolding across the world”.
He says: “I suppose my old storytelling instinct kicked in and I wanted to capture the moment. I decided that it might also be of value to gain an insight into how leaders were coping with the crisis and how the world may change because of what we’ve been through. My hope is that the book may help leaders and readers re-set their businesses and re-set society for a better future.”
He says he found it surprising how keen so many great leaders were to engage in the project. “If it was normal times, I can’t imagine that I would have got such access. But because people were locked down in their kitchens and dining rooms at homes around the world they were somehow more accessible and they wanted to talk. They wanted to share their amazement at what the world was going through as we all sought to rationalise the impact of the pandemic.”
His conclusion was that the “Leaders in Lockdown” were clear that we not only need to change the way we do business and confront some of the existential threats to society, we owe it to those who have died and those who have suffered to lead transformational change.
“Things are never going to go back to what they were. But it is the duty of leaders at all levels not to flunk the challenge but to deliver transformational change. The virus exposed how the way we were living and working in the past is not fit for purpose.”
Leaders In Lockdown, Inside Stories Of Covid-19 And The New World Of Business by Atholl Duncan is published by LID Publishing and is available on Amazon