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The pandemic has taught me how to share more – and I feel a better leader for it
Elaine Van Der Berg, CEO, Pufferfish/Supplied.
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The pandemic has taught me how to share more – and I feel a better leader for it 

As a young professional starting out in the tech sector 30 years ago, I thrived on the fast pace,
constant change and demanding workload. I lived in London, Singapore and Australia and operated across multiple time zones. With a focus on results and consistently delivering for my employers and customers, I earned my stripes to become a leader, taking charge of global projects and teams.

Numbers, results, investors, and customers were my ‘North Star’.

I valued my team members hugely, but all focus had to be on achieving our business goals. But life and world events in more recent years of my career have come to shape a different approach in my leadership style.

The results, stakeholders and customers are still vitally important, they always will be. But I’ve learned to bring more authenticity to the relationships I have with my teams and colleagues, recognising the impact this has on all our success.

My 12-year-old son is intellectually disabled. He is a constant challenge but being his mum has taught me so much about what’s most important in life and how to stop and be present. I’m a single parent, sharing care with his dad. During the weeks I’m on mum duty, I juggle the needs of my son with work, while the subsequent week, when he goes off to live with his dad, I am free to fully immerse myself in work.

This is my biggest challenge – balancing my son’s needs with my own need to have a fulfilling career. It’s a vulnerable position to be in as a leader, but successfully managing it makes me feel stronger and more capable.

When I started my current position as chief executive at Pufferfish, I was very open and honest
about this and fully described my personal life and home circumstances. I talked a lot about my son and how I fit work around his needs, I even brought him into the office to share pizza with the team.

As a result, several individuals in the team came to talk to me about their own personal circumstances, the things in their lives they juggle and the challenges they face.

It made me realise that, by being honest about my life, it encouraged others to open up to me.
It has generated a powerful sense of trust and shared experience that has strengthened our workplace relationships.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed workplace culture and created a more favourable environment for authentic and genuine leadership.

The mass switch to home working and virtual meetings from our kitchen tables provided a never-before-seen glimpse into the personal lives of our colleagues. People were forced to work while all sorts of family and home chaos was going on in the background. My son often appeared in Zoom meetings because he wants to hold mum’s hand or needs a cuddle. Collectively, we took it all in our stride and it’s now accepted; normal.

It’s further changed the way I view and deliver my role as a leader.

Over the years, I’ve worked in kick-ass cultures, where it was all about results and the bottom line. I’m older and a bit wiser now and I know that by focusing on people, you can still achieve results, but in a more productive and sustainable way. This kind of authentic leadership has true value in a business environment.

Recognising that people are a full package, with both professional and personal aspirations and challenges, creates mutual trust and respect, inspires loyalty, and encourages people to deliver to the best of their capabilities. Trusting that people will get the job done is often what gets the job done.

Striking the right balance between being there for the team and putting your people first, and
delivering for customers and investors, can be tricky though.

As the new person in the lead role at Pufferfish, I need to make changes to boost our growth and market reach. I must drive results and it may mean changing the way we do some things and making changes that people may not like but it unfortunately can’t be all about virtual cuddles in the corridor, or so to speak.

Business decisions can be hard, but they need to be made and change can be difficult for some people, even in the tech sector, which has to move at the same pace as the technology. However, being transparent with the team means I am, hopefully, taking them on the journey with me. People are more likely to respond positively to changes if they understand the reason why, and they know what’s expected of them. In addition, people have more confidence to question decisions and speak up if they are finding it difficult to perform.

Openness and authenticity lead to a more supportive, happy, and productive workplace, where
people can bring their full self to work and flourish professionally.

Even with three decades of business experience under my belt, I am still learning every day. An
important and valuable lesson is the realisation that sharing what my life is like, challenges and all, does have a place in business and it can lead to better outcomes for everyone.

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