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This legendary cricket umpire has advice for businesses fighting Covid-19

Simon Taufel, former international umpire turned leadership coach, on how business professionals should steer their companies through the Covid-19 crisis

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Aug 8, 2020 07:03:50 AM IST
Updated: Aug 8, 2020 12:40:40 PM IST

This legendary cricket umpire has advice for businesses fighting Covid-19Simon Taufel
Image: Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

In his heyday, Simon Taufel was one of the best umpires international cricket had seen. Between 2004 and 2008, he won the ICC (International Cricket Council) David Shepherd Umpire of the Year award five consecutive times. Following his retirement in 2012, the Australian served as ICC’s training and performance manager till 2016. In his book, Finding The Gaps: Transferable Skills To Be The Best That You Can Be, which he wrote last year, Taufel chronicles lessons he distilled from his 13-year career spanning 74 Tests, 174 one-day internationals and 34 T20Is. Many of these can transcend the cricket field and steer organisations on the path of growth and high performance. In a conversation with Forbes India, Taufel shares his insights on how leaderships need to stay focussed yet humane in order to survive the onslaught of Covid-19. Edited excerpts:

Q. No training or experience can prepare CEOs for a crisis like this. How does one steer an organisation in these extraordinary times?
What would help leaders through this crisis is a culture based on trust and team success. In this environment, it is crucial that leaders are inclusive. One person doesn’t know it all and we are experiencing events that we haven’t been through before. But the fundamentals of leadership are applicable even now and I would encourage every leader to look at the performance lessons from sport and apply them because now is the time to be resilient.

When we consider options, we should put our people first and make sure that we aren’t just driven by the bottom line. In Australia, about 200 jobs have been lost in various state and governing bodies of cricket, due to the pandemic. Only one state organisation, Cricket New South Wales, hasn’t laid off any staff. Its CEO, Lee Germon, a former New Zealand captain, has applied the leadership principle of putting people before programmes; he knows if he keeps his people, the programmes can come back, but if he lays off people and builds up a culture of distrust, it’s hard for those programmes to come back because the people won’t be there. Effective leadership is about building trust and supporting the staff through tough times. Anyone can sail a ship in calm waters.

Q. In such tough times, how should we redefine the benchmarks of performance and proficiency?
We are in uncharted territory. If you went back to the 2008 global financial crisis, its impact on the local and global economy was far less significant than what we are seeing now, and we are not through this yet. If 2008 was a one-dayer, we are playing a Test match now and probably only at Day 2. What’s more important for us at this moment is how do businesses live with the virus in the short term. From how do we save lives, we are getting into how do we save livelihoods. In the work that I do with corporates around challenging ourselves, this is the time where I ask ‘how do we get comfortable with the uncomfortable’.

Q. And how do you do that?
From a leadership perspective, this is what I touched upon before about trust. In a team environment, we need to understand we are all in this together and that there is no underlying agenda of one-upmanship. If you focus on team success, it gives you greater mindspace to assess the potential the pandemic has to offer. Yes we have to stop our businesses from bleeding, but also, where are the opportunities?

It is now important for every leader to be challenging their team about where can we start to grow, what can we open, do we need to diversify, and if so, where. Whenever you keep asking those challenging questions, you are getting your people used to being uncomfortable. This attitude of innovation and adaptability is a bit like a muscle—the more you continue to stretch it, the stronger it becomes. And it becomes part of your culture—you get used to your leaders asking those difficult questions. That builds an environment where you get to speak your mind, try new things and make a mistake or two maybe. But that’s alright, because mistake’s a part of progress. 

Q. In India, we tend to come down hard on mistakes…
Yes, in your culture, making mistakes is often frowned upon and considered somewhat shameful. I’ve noticed this, having worked with your umpires, referees, match officials and players over many years. We need to change the perception. While mistakes aren’t good, we need to understand they are a part of the learning curve. It’s okay to make mistakes, provided we learn something from them. And to make mistakes in a public or open environment, like a team, should be welcomed because it marks a shift towards a culture where we are open to ideas and suggestions. It is also being inclusive, letting everyone put their thoughts on the table, because leaders aren’t supposed to know everything.   
Q. That’s contrarian to the top-down approach of leadership in many Indian organisations.
It’s good for the leader to show vulnerability. Again, that might be a bit embarrassing in your society, but that’s just human. And it’s important for a leader to show that he doesn’t have the answers. For instance, look at political leaders now. They aren’t medical experts, so it’s important for them to admit they don’t know how to deal with a situation; instead they should be inclusive of people who know more than they do, collect all the information and take decisions based on those. I’ve grown up in a corporate environment where I’ve tried to employ people who are smarter than me and make myself redundant. I needed to grow leaders within the organisations who were capable of taking my job. A leader has to grow more leaders.

Q. In your book, you mention various styles of leadership, like leading by example, supporter, visionary style etc. What is the most effective style for this crisis?
The adaptive style. It’s about leading by serving others. There are times when leaders have to lead from the front, and accept responsibilities for criticism and tough decisions. The other aspect is to lead from behind—accepting ideas from others and letting them pursue out-of-the-box concepts. But above all, they will have to lead by serving. I see some companies retrenching people, but only from the bottom end. The management and the leaders need to think about what’s in the best interest of the company rather than what’s in the best interest of me.

Q. With many businesses being hit by Covid-19, the question of sustainability has come up. What are some of the principles on which a sustainable venture can be built?
Here we go to fundamentals like values and integrity, and the process by which you do business. For example, a lot of Indian companies have sound values based on honesty, trust and respect. When you make decisions that are inconsistent with those values, and you take shortcuts, you might get the sale, the monthly performance target, or even the annual one. However, there is a lot of damage to your relationships that will come back to hurt the business. Effective sustainable leadership is putting others first: Giving others credit when your company does well, and taking responsibility when it doesn’t. In my time, I have seen captains like Mark Taylor [of Australia] or Mahela Jayawardene [of Sri Lanka] being such leaders. They’ve always wanted a champion team rather than a team of champions. If you want people to go the extra mile for you, you must celebrate their successes.

Q. Along with the health and economic crisis, a mental health crisis is also ballooning. We’ve seen cricketers like Glenn Maxwell, Marcus Trescothick, Jonathan Trott succumb to it. Business professionals may also feel overwhelmed. How should they deal with it?
We all go through tough times when we question why are we doing this. My worst Test match was in 2004 [England playing New Zealand at Trent Bridge], where I questioned whether umpiring was for me. As an elite-level umpire, people expected me to be perfect when I started and then get better. But I am human and not a machine. Chief executives and business leaders are people too and have their bad days. That’s why in the book I talk about attitude, and it’s important to surround yourself with good supportive people. You should have a coach, many coaches in fact, mentors, good friends and family. You should be prepared to discuss your failures with others.

At this time, there is a lot of stress and anxiety caused by, say, money or the lack of it, or breakdown of relationships probably caused by isolation. There is a lot of worry about what the future will look like. That’s where you need to pick up the phone and talk to someone you trust. Don’t keep emotions bottled up. Sharing doesn’t fix the problem, but makes it more bearable. And more often than not, people are willing to help if you ask for it. What happens when you extend your hand for shaking? People will extend theirs too. This is called mirror behaviour. Ask for help and you are likely to get it.

Besides, focus on the upside: Jobs and money will come and go, the most important things we need to keep with us are our health and friends and family. Context is the key.

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