Leading in a time of COVID

By Deborah Martin-Downs, Chief Administrative Officer

I am a CAO of an organization with approximately 215 staff – and other than Teams video chats I have not seen one of them in person for 35 workdays, or now in my eighth week.  I have worked for 40 years and never have I been through anything like this.

Deborah Martin-Downs

I don’t feel much like their leader right now, without the bricks and mortar attached to my job. Perhaps this is a new interpretation of ‘leading from behind’ – behind a screen or behind the safety of my home. There was no playbook for this, so we developed it along the way, rapidly adjusting to new directions which, at the beginning, were almost daily.

I lead from my home office, reached after my one-minute commute from the kitchen. We have completely changed our ways of interaction, our need for control and our work hours.

We have a young staff who are balancing demanding children, home schooling, spousal work schedules and limited broadband. Our conference calls are punctuated by barking dogs, cats on keyboards and visits from children trying to take over the mic. We catch a glimpse of our staff’s home life in the background of our video chats.

This has made us more vulnerable, appreciative of each other’s situation and maybe more together than we have ever been.  We are all working hard, and sometimes long days to execute our day jobs that are no longer separate from our home lives.

We share moments and breaks with virtual yoga, trivia contests that pit Team Skunks against Team Toads, virtual bakeoffs, wellness challenges, work from home tips and food (well – pictures of what others are making that will make your mouth water)!

For the past eight weeks we have kept the work of Credit Valley Conservation rolling – plan review, permitting, flood forecasting and warning, board meetings and projects. Even public engagement, training, environmental education and workshops haven’t missed a beat using new online methods. We held Earth Day online – not the same as getting our fingers in the soil or hands in the water, but we marked the occasion nonetheless.

We are fortunate that we’ve been able to keep working. There are some services we’ve had to limit – like outreach to landowners, field work and access to our parks and trails.  These activities will return as we develop new ways to keep partners, patrons and staff safe.  The new normal is still some weeks away, but it feels good to be preparing for it.  I know we are eager to be able to work again in the watershed with our partners.

Virtual Board of Directors meeting, May 8, 2020

The magic of this pandemic for a public sector organization – sometimes characterized as bureaucratic and slow moving –  is that it has united us around problem solving, innovation and execution. The shared purpose of keeping the work moving and keeping us united has meant many hands leading the way to different ways of doing business.

This is leading from behind – and I will encourage it more.

Our CVC community has embraced this COVID challenge, raising money for food banks and engulfing us in positivity, energy and creativity. While I long to join them back at our offices and properties, I hope the lessons we’ve learned from this lockdown stay with us.

We can work differently, and we can change rapidly. Never should we take for granted our greenspace, our health or our families – work and personal.

Our thanks go to all those who make it possible for us to work at home and keep us safe and healthy.

We're all in this together

Comments (5)

  1. Great work! I have been following posts by your staff, and impressed by your management approach through these challenging times. Kudos to you and your team!

  2. Thoughtful and inspiring, Deb. I love the reference to ‘leading from behind’. Also love the observation that connecting via social platforms provides a window through which we see others as colleagues, but also as friends. We become connected in real ways – to their children, the intricate details of their lives, and yes even their keyboard playing pets. We see differently, think differently and in some ways, we act differently. I think in many ways, this COVID-based distancing has created stronger connections. CVC has always been a leader on the conservation landscape. Great to see the ongoing commitment to build on the positives.
    Great article and great job, Deb.

  3. Fascinating and encouraging as we all find new ways to move forward and claim back our lives. Thanks Deb. Vision and leadership defined.

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