This is a special third piece by Stuart Weir on Seb Coe and his concerns on the recovery from Covid 19.
Seb Coe on recovery from Covid 19
President of World Athletics, Seb Coe, was among the participants in the (virtual) Recovery Summit taking place this week (June 15th-19th 2020). The conference blurb describes is as at event at which: “more than 60 of the world’s leading authorities will share their latest thinking on the global economy, leadership, managing change, innovation, disruption and resilience”.
Coe was interviewed by British TV journalist, Juliette Foster, about his career as an athlete and a politician, his leadership of the bid and delivery of London 2012 Olympics as well as his current role. The main focus of the conference is lessons from the pandemic and how to apply them.
Asked if you have to be selfish to be a successful athlete, he admitted “looking back there were definitely times when family came second, relationships came second.”
Coe spoke frankly about his early days at IAAF: “The first few years that I was President of World Athletics were really tough years. We spent a lot of time looking at the governance structure. We rewrote the constitution. In a crisis you should not communicate less. If anything you should over-communicate and people want to hear from the person at the top – not the communications director. You are ultimately judged by what you’re prepared to commit to, when your organization is going through challenging times”.
He continuing outlining his strategy for dealing with problems: “Be open about the problems and as you try to solve them, take people with you. And the journey needs to be explained even though, sometimes that can be uncomfortable. Sometimes you have to concede [mistakes] and move on. But you need to show people that it is not just words and that you’re actually implementing something”.
Speaking about Covid 19, he described how he had had to change his ways of working: “I used to be a pen and paper person. But I’m learning that there are easier ways of doing things. I’m now using technology that I couldn’t pronounce 10 weeks ago!” Some of the changes would be temporary but in other ways, he was sure, that there would be permanent changes to the way organizations work in future.
While recognizing the challenges of virtual meetings where you lose the vital human contact and cannot judge body language when looking at 20 faces on a screen, he saw advantages: “I am more connected to the people I’m working alongside. Organizations have been meeting and making decisions more frequently because they have the technology to bring people together”.
He suggested that there would were “clues about how you want to be conducting a business in future, things that good organizations will want to take [from the lockdown period] into the new world such as working more collaboratively and using technology better. There’s an old saying ‘never let a crisis go to waste’ and I believe that organizations, who have taken a bit of time to study and learn from the present, can come out of this stronger, more flexible and more collaborative. Leaders need to understand that there are now things that technology can enable us to do to make us more connected and more responsible and more fleet of foot”.
He added that organizations (like World Athletics), which had a sustainability strategy would have to recognize that it no longer makes sense to fly people around the world for short meetings. He gave a specific example: “Last week I was able to communicate with 1500 women who are on a program to become technical officials. Normally I would have spent a couple of days flying there and back and spent two days at the event; but by using technology I was able to communicate with probably four times more people than we could have had in any one place”.
He recognized that one had to work hard on “keeping people together during the pandemic. It’s important that the key people in the organization are not left behind. You need to create a landscape so that when the pandemic begins to dissipate, lockdown eases and you’re scaling up again, that you have a motivated workforce, who want to carry on working.
One the benefits of the past few months was that “people will be more comfortable working at home; remote working will be less of a shock. Young people in particular will recognize that it has given them more flexibility in life. People will no longer want to spend a significant proportion of their disposable income on travel in order to enable them to work.”
Finally on his own style of leadership, he said: “I’m not a Harvard graduate or a management guru. I want to continue not being afraid to challenge the status quo and to be a little unpopular and perhaps people will appreciate having someone who is willing, at times, to put his head above the parapet. I hold strongly to the principle that you should not ask someone to do anything you’re not prepared to do yourself and good leaders have shown that during the recent period”.