A Special COVID-19 Message From Our CEO

Moving From Fragile to Agile

Over the past weeks I have had a great deal of interaction with leaders and teams in terms of how they are dealing with the impact of COVID 19. It has been a massive ask of leaders and teams, of families and communities.

There have been many challenges. How to get people home safely, how to ensure that they are cared for, how to ensure they are engaged, how the operations or businesses have been wrapped up, cared for/maintained, how they are being prepared for re-opening, how they are being prepared for extended phases of lockdown.

This has not been a gentle change for many people. It has been an enforced turning point. It has tested our ability to adapt, it has challenged us on multiple levels, and it has asked us whether we are agile or truly fragile.

I have interacted with leaders who have been out in the trenches, fighting the battle, getting food to people, dealing with the issues day and night (sometimes they have forgotten to get changed out of their pyjamas or wash. Others have not left their homes, have simply switched to a normal level of hibernation (if there is such a thing), some have been completely absorbed into Microsoft teams, Zoom, Skype, BlueJeans and the list goes on.

Fatigue has overwhelmed many. Sleep cycles have gone out. Diet has gone out. Exercise has gone out. Emotion and reaction have heightened. Cabin fever seems set to be the next pandemic.

Equally, people have also shared how they have come much closer to family. Where people have been stranded, humanity and the power of people has made things possible. Mothers and fathers have realized their roles again. Some parents have actually learned some new things in home schooling and have a greater level of empathy for teachers. Gardeners and helpers have been missed and essential workers have been recognized (way overdue).

Remotely, many nations have either grown closer or more distant in terms of their relationship with the presidents and prime ministers.

This is only the beginning. In the months ahead we will absorb and forget many of these moments. The change will continue. There will be further turning points which disrupt our lives. There will be further crises that present new ways for us to re-imagine ourselves and our survival. There will be many new opportunities.

At the heart of much of the advice I have given has the message of self-care. Rest, sleep, exercise, eat well, do nice things for others, be kind to yourself. Learn something new.

Each of us are leaders. We lead ourselves, our lives, and this concept ripples out to families, groups, communities. The point I have made to many is that you have to be sound and strong as the source of that leadership. The old example of a stone thrown into a pond. The ripples are directly proportional to the size of the stone and intensity of the impact. You can’t lead well if you are weak.

Then equally as important is having empathy for others. A leader I spoke with said something that resonated with me yesterday. He talked about helping people return to work with the most dignity and respect as possible. He shared the good work he and his leaders had done in planning how to bring people back in.

Many leaders by their very nature are control-freaks. They believe in the concept of internal locus of control. COVID 19 has tested our ability to confront and handle situations which we didn’t cause. Learning from this is going to be vital. If we made the mistake of not anticipating this fully or not being prepared enough this time, we need to know that a mistake made twice is a decision. That decision is something we will be judged on in the future.

We need to develop new formulas for winning. News ways of working and interacting going forward. We will need to develop new social norms and ways of treating each other. The future generations will lead us, as they will grow up in a society where social distancing is a good thing. Touch, proximity, closeness will have new definitions and sensations going forward. I fully expect to see a new trend in virtual reality as a result.

Your earning potential is directly proportional to your ability to take control of a situation. The way in which we think, the way in which we process information and the way in which we learn and apply knowledge will be the game changer for many.

Will we need offices in the future? Or will we need homes which are more like beehives? Will we live in safer, isolated, yet fully-connected silos and communities? Will we travel in the same way? Insular entertainment versus global travel…

Here are some important approaches going forward to help you move from fragile to agile.

Realize the need to stay interested (not anxious). Stay open to learning.

Recognise that you will go through a range of negative emotions and destabilizing thoughts and responses as you encounter new opportunities. You may not even be up to seeing them. They may be unreal or unknown. You may miss them.

Don’t freak out or get anxious or panic that you may have missed them or will miss them. Open yourself to learning, looking and listening.

Feel free and safe to share that you are uncomfortable, feel free to be completely honest and ask for help. Remember that a person rises to the point in life where they can ask for help. Trust others to help you.

Overcome the silly picture you might have had of being everyone’s hero and having to solve the problems of all around you. Use this as a time where they might come to the fore and offer solutions and take responsibility for the success or failure of those solutions they recommend.

Open the door to people contributing and gaining experience and leading with you.

Compromise, sacrifice, and trade-off’s will be vital in the next few years. Be prepared to lose, be prepared to let go of the past and adjust. You need to think bigger, longer term. The scoreboard is not about now, the performance of your team right now will be irrelevant in the future. The trend and recovery line is what will be admired.

I have often said that the past is the past, that nothing ever stays the same. Grieve over it for a few days, celebrate its value, take the good memories with and tackle the future.

Don’t forget your friends, don’t abandon the ecosystem, take them with you, invite them along, look for ways to make collaboration a thing that gets as many of us to win together as possible.

Test where you invest, spend money prudently on a range of R&D activities, learn quickly what works and then get behind that. Make every action and every investment count.

Embrace agility. #1GOAL 

Have you heard of the big ears trust?

The Big Ears Trust, is a non-profit voluntary association formed by Stephen Blades, the CEO of Elephants in Main Street International.

The Big Ears Trust has been formed to improve the lives of people who suffer from some sort of hearing disability. It aims to equip children and adults with the technology, the skills and the support to be able to lead full lives where they can be productive, happy and contribute to the society they operate in. In 2020, our goal is to provide 20 hearing aid sets for 20 children in need. So in other words, change the lives of 20 children in South Africa who don’t have access to hearing aids.

At Elephants in Main Street International, we have been helping teams and leaders achieve their goals for over two decades around the world. We have partnered with the St Vincent School for the deaf and have been coaching and training their management team and staff. Our turning point interventions are designed to unlock passion, raise enthusiasm and increase levels of knowledge, understanding and ultimately the ability to apply and produce.

The second purpose of the Big Ears Trust, is a conservation objective and in fact it is also a human objective. And that is to help protect and support the continued existence and survival of elephants on this planet.

Stephen is well respected as a coach and change management consultant and has the ability to engage the hearts and minds of people from the shop floor right the way up to the board. His experience spans nearly three decades and is leveraged when orgnisations need to address unique, complex and sensitive political, social and cross cultural interfaces with care and respect, and unlock understanding and cooperation in teams. He raises the ability of people he works with to solve problems rather than dramatise them.

Stephen is hearing impaired himself, here is his story.

I haven’t always been hearing impaired. I used to have perfect hearing. I could hear a pin drop. Some people lose their hearing because of poor awareness on how to care for their ears in specific environments, others lose it as a result of an accident or disease. My story starts with Chicken pox.

The thing in life that I love most is to listen to others. To be able to share their world and experiences brings me great joy. I have actually learned to help people do better in life by listening to them.

What does it mean to not hear? Some of us are born without the ability to hear, others lose all or some it along the path of life. For me, loss of hearing has meant so many things. As an entrepreneur it posed a challenge for me being able to recognize opportunities and risks, as a coach it affected my ability to listen and help people and as father and husband it impacted heavily on my ability to interact with and care for my family.

When you can’t hear, people talk around you, you get excluded, people chose for you, you have to work constantly to be relevant and remind people of your disability and ask them to adjust their engagement with you. You don’t hear the birds, the breath of another, the sound of an alarm, a rattle in the car.

Sound and the ability to perceive and interpret it is an essential part of the survival of most living creatures. We learn through listening.

I am often amused by others who when I tell them that I am hearing impaired and observe that they respond by speaking even more softly as if their voices would hurt me.

Then there are people who raise their voices but change their tone and speak to you as if you are somehow inferior, incapable of performing, incompetent, incorrect or get annoyed when they are asked to repeat themselves. The list of experiences goes on to include watching others become self-conscious, embarrassed or uncomfortable. I have even been laughed at and criticized. Losing your hearing certainly develops empathy, builds character and bolsters the appreciation of how fortunate people are who have all the senses intact.

For many the stigma of wearing hearing aids is a problem. Many men have come over to me over the years and privately confessed that they can’t hear in one ear or are suffering from hearing loss but don’t want to be perceived as weak or unable to perform. Many say that wearing a hearing aid makes them feel like an old man. They have this idea that they have failed. And they suffer in their silence.

For the active individuals who swim, run or cycle or do some outdoor activity, there is a risk of losing your hearing aids. I have lost several pairs. They are expensive and the chances of owning a good pair of hearing aids is slim for most people. Medical aids don’t cover the full costs in many cases.

Going out into public can be hell at times. Noisy restaurants and places are either too loud or force you to remove your hearing aids or leave. Movies, TV, ordering something on the phone or dealing with a lot conference call all add aggravation.

Many people are overwhelmed. They simply can’t confront the loss and withdraw emotionally. Often people tell me about depression, anxiety and anger that sits within them as a result of their conduction.

I often rely on others for accurate interpretation. I listen incredibly well and observe that others miss things when they listen which makes it interesting when one asks for help.

I take personal pride in getting things right. When you can’t hear you make mistakes with people’s names or miss something. This has all sorts of consequences that have to be handled.

What delights me most is listening to my family. Then on a personal level I love music. I love the sound of nature. The sounds of being out in bush and hearing the streams or wind through the trees.

I have come to realize that millions of people around the world suffer, and will suffer similar experiences to what I have.

On my journey in life, I have learned many coping skills to overcome these challenges. My skills, my life, my family, my team and my personality have helped me confront and deal with the situation I face.

I am wired to turn crisis into opportunity. I make beating a disability, a game.

I realize however that others may not be as fortunate and it is for this reason that I formed the Big Ears Trust.

One of our first projects is to work with the St. Vincent School for the Deaf in Johannesburg. This project is the beginning of a story in which we raise awareness and access to opportunities for the students and staff.

Ingrid Parkin, the Principal, gives us an insight into the school – The St Vincent School has been educating deaf children for 83 years this year. More than 2000 deaf people have come through St Vincent School and many have gone on to become very successful adults. St Vincent School is the only school for the deaf in the greater Johannesburg area and accept children as young as 2 years old in order for them to begin their learning experience as young as possible.

Most deaf children are born to hearing parents who have never before met a deaf person. This means that there are huge communication barriers within the family that are often never overcome. Successful learning depends on early language acquisition and for most deaf children early language acquisition does not happen, therefore, when they arrive at school, they present with language delays which impacts negatively on schooling and learning in general.

It is important that we strive to achieve excellence in deaf education and always aim at providing everything possible in order for deaf children to reach their full potential and go on to become successful and productive members of society that is their human right.

All these services certainly do not come cheap. 80% of our parents are not able to afford school fees and live well below the poverty level.

One important aspect of Deaf children, teenagers and adults’ lives that the school has recently ventured into is the realm of mental health and deafness. Mental and emotional health, in general, and especially in education programmes, is a topic that is largely underestimated, ignored and seen as a privilege / luxury only for those who can afford it. Gaining access to mental and emotional health services is very expensive, especially given that successful outcomes depend on months and even years of ongoing treatment. Children in South Africa grow up experiencing different kinds of trauma to varying degrees: crime, violence, the effects of poverty and abuse are but a few examples. Access to services that allow young children to heal and process trauma is minimal and the subsequent emotional and mental effects remain untreated and cannot heal, thus resulting in, for example, depression, inability to focus and personality / behaviour disorders. The education system then has to deal with these results for which it is not equipped and the effects on children’s educational careers is very negative as these resultant conditions create barriers to learning. For the privileged few who have access to mental and emotional health services, the picture is less grim.

Now, considering the situation of deaf children of whom 90% are born to hearing parents who have never met a deaf person before, a picture emerges that looks even worse than the circumstances described above. Parents, finding out that their child is disabled, are also traumatized and do not know how to deal with this disabled child. The family bond and support is thus weakened from the moment the disability is diagnosed. Raising a deaf child with no guidance, counselling or role models has far-reaching negative impacts on the parents and the deaf child that remain for a lifetime. Deaf children grow up unable to communicate with their parents because most parents do not learn South African Sign Language. This alone has a devastating emotional and mental health impact that has far reaching consequences on a deaf child’s education and career. It could be argued that the emotional and mental health consequences for a deaf child, if left untreated, actually, in many cases, end up becoming the primary barrier to learning / disability and not the deafness itself.

Furthermore if a deaf child or teenager or adult wished to use mental health professionals, this would be virtually impossible anywhere in South Africa as there are only 3 qualified psychologists in the country that know South African Sign Language.

As an education institution whose core business is educating deaf children so that they leave with an education or skill that enables them to become productive members of society, we saw the desperate need to create accessible mental and emotional health services for our learners, the deaf community and deaf learners from other schools for the deaf in Gauteng. The model is based on the idea of having psycholgists, social workers, psychiatrists and counsellors who are proficient in South African Sign Language available under 1 roof to serve the mental health needs to deaf people free of charge.

We are very proud to have partnered with Elephants on Main Street. They have been focusing on building a strong management team and this came at the right time when the management team was looking for new ways in which to consolidate as a team and attain clear thinking on the way forward. Our interactions thus far have been highly successful and rewarding. There is great value in continued sessions that build upon each other as opposed to a once-off team-building session. We have also had a session that involved the entire school in a fun and interactive way but also in a way that was incredibly meaningful as staff got to get to know other staff from different departments – we are all equally important with different roles to fulfil. We hope that this continued partnership will grow from strength to strength as we strive to be the best role model for our kids.

Join us. Join the herd. Allow others to hear and be heard. Help us build a better, more inclusive and more productive society.