A matter of survival – IECL business pivot
The Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership (IECL) is a traditional, face-to-face, people-led business. We train coaches. We coach executives and teams. We work with clients to develop their leaders and help them to lead change. We are one of four Practices that make up GrowthOps – a firm of specialist businesses spanning the Creative, Digital, Technology and People industries.
At IECL everything we do is about human connection. Our business model is designed around human-to-human interaction. Our belief is that personal growth and impact is best achieved through experiential learning. Typically this is in the form of 1-1 executive coaching, small group engagements and courses held over a few days, face-to-face in a confined space. We are known for our learning expertise, the quality of the service we provide, the impact we have on people and organisations, and our unique experience-based approach. These are the pillars of our business built over 21 years.
So when COVID-19 reached pandemic status and the associated social distancing measures came into force, the hit on our business was hard and immediate. From mid-March, like many businesses, we had no choice but to shut down all face-to-face activities. We lost a full month of revenue overnight, with very little prospect of recovery in the near future.
The other Practices that make up GrowthOps were impacted in different ways. Creative experienced the reverse – a spike in demand as clients re-oriented their marketing and communication messages. Digital and Tech started picking up first mover businesses looking to upgrade their online presence and were able to largely hold steady.
But for IECL it was a matter of survival. In order to survive we had to pivot. Rapidly. We knew that if we did not move our business to digital delivery, we would not make it. Six key elements proved central to our shift and can be used as a blueprint for any rapid transformational change:
- Establish a survival mindset
- Unite through Purpose
- Focus on core value
- Set possible goals in impossible timeframes
- Tackle the challenge one day at a time
- Hold the team
Establish a Survival Mindset
As soon as COVID hit we gathered together as a leadership team to assess the impact. It was apparent to all of us going into that meeting that we were facing a serious risk to our ongoing viability as a business. COVID was relentless at attacking business models like ours that were reliant on physical proximity to deliver customer value.
Our first task was to establish the urgency of the situation with the wider team. We had a very limited period of time to change our fate. It meant all hands on deck.
Secondly we had to shift our operating model. Our existing structure was not right-fit for the pivot. We knew that to achieve what we needed to, we had to come together in different ways. This meant preparing people with the mindset to move out of the comfort of their formal roles; jumping in and plugging gaps; doing new things and remaining flexible.
As leaders we had to set the environment to allow this to occur safely, purposefully and in a way where people felt supported. Part of creating that environment was focusing our collective attention on great learning. Our overriding premise was that regardless of what happened, each of us would learn more about ourselves, each other, our business and what made us competitive, than from anything that we had gone through together before. We wouldn’t always get it right, but we knew we had enough strength in our relationships to support each other and to be able to course-correct quickly when needed.
As a consequence almost every member of the team tackled something new to them during the pivot – a new role, task and/or working relationship. None of this would have been possible had we not come together on the basis of trust. Our trust was earned. We had been through alot over the past few months as a group. We had always aimed to have open and transparent conversations and to provide a safe environment to share views and the impact of experiences. The members of this team each had a deep commitment to every other member of the team, and an equally deep trust in, and reliance on each other to get through. There was an unwritten code that we would not let any single member fail. We each had each others’ backs, across all areas and at every level.
Urgency, flexibility, learning, team, trust. These were the ingredients that made up our survival mindset.
Unite through Purpose
At a basic level our mission was clear. We needed to fill the void left by social distancing in as short a timeframe as possible. At minimum we needed to transition all our physical programs to virtual.
However, we knew that would only be enough to re-set our business at the point of re-emergence. It would not be enough to shore up our survival if the pandemic restrictions were to last any longer than a few weeks. Nor would it sufficiently respond to the needs of leaders – our customers – at this time of crisis and when our clients were at most need. We required a new go-to-market strategy and a completely re-imagined positioning of our brand and services to ensure that we were seen not simply as one of many providers of leadership support, but that we were seen as vital.
This was a big ask. It needed a big ambition. A team motivation beyond task that would carry people over the next few weeks. It wasn’t hard to find. To this team the challenge would always mean much more than that. Each had a deep sense of obligation to IECL and all who had built this Institution over 21 years. It was this team – our team – that had the specific task of taking IECL from its traditional roots to its new opportunity for growth as part of the bigger opportunity provided by GrowthOps. If we failed at this, we failed all who had gone before us and we fundamentally failed in our role. This was something worth fighting for. This was our Purpose.
Set Possible Goals in Impossible Timeframes
We established a virtual ‘War Room’ as our check-in point on progress throughout the pivot. It wasn’t the first time we had used it. But it was certainly the time with most at stake. We set simple project goals – limit course deferrals; re-book cancelled placements; replace lost revenue – and met every second day as a leadership team to keep progress on track. We established real-time reporting to maintain a line of sight on market movements, monitoring lead and lag indicators to stem as much of the fallout as possible while we transitioned. The War Room quickly became a mission-critical project monitoring exercise.
Our goals reinforced the importance of gathering a diverse team. In addition to the transition of all program IP, we also required the rapid development and deployment of new digital content and assets. The role of marketing was to become critical, with many moving parts. And we were reliant on exceptional skills in design technology to bring it all together in one seamless execution.
All of this was possible. And we had it under the one roof. In GrowthOps, with the blend of specialist skills available through our sister companies, we had all the capabilities necessary to effect our transition. What wasn’t so assured was the timing. We had given ourselves 3-weeks. We had tasked ourselves with a feat which in ordinary circumstances would have taken us 4-6 months to achieve. Urgency and survival worked in our favour. It meant that we had a bias toward action, being flexible, experimental and fast. We didn’t have time to wait for a process, an approval, an evaluation…
We just had to GO.
Focus on Core Value
Running a successful project is one thing. Delivering a successful pivot is quite another. In order to achieve the standards of quality required for transformation we had to be very clear on our core value in every offering. With the guidance of the GO Digital and Tech teams, we quickly learned to be relentless in the pursuit of excellence in those areas, and to make do in those elements considered non-essential to true value creation. The simplest example of this for IECL was being clear about why customers buy from us. Where there was a choice between an exceptional learning experience or a new age technological feature, we learned to choose the learning outcome every time. True to our core value.
By extension, the entire design sprint was directed toward the customer experience. For us it was all about the practical sharing of experiential knowledge translated into a digital environment. We established our differentiation as the deep, knowledge exchange that marks all of IECL’s programs. It was this that we all wished to ensure was captured in this new medium.
Once core value was defined, the name of the game was speed. The Digital and Tech teams pride themselves on speed to market. And they are fast. Rapid adoption and deployment was a way of life for this team. For us it was an entirely new way of approaching design and development. And we learnt. We learnt a lot about how to define the problem, map out the quickest route to execution and how to wrap the technology around that. We also learnt how much relied on the quality and quantity of dialogue required up-front to get things right. The Tech team termed this process ‘extreme consultation’. And it was. And it worked.
Tackle the Challenge One Day at a Time
It is reasonable to highlight at this point that none of this was easy. We were a traditional, safe, high-quality service provider. By placing a primacy on the pivot there was no doubt that we were disrupting ourselves. It meant that business as usual was pushed aside. People were asked to abandon traditional roles for those that were most urgent. We lent on people’s core capabilities, and re-oriented them toward task requirements.
In pulling it all together we found we had a huge mountain to climb. The only way to conquer it was to tackle things one day at a time. It helped to appreciate that we had nothing to lose. We didn’t know if we would make it, but we were determined to give it a good crack. To really up the ante, we started advertising that our accredited programs would be running virtually from 21 April. Then we told the team to be aware of the deadline, but not to focus on it. Our energy was to be directed simply toward what we needed to do today …. and the next day … and the next … laddering up to the total achievement in the time required. At the beginning of every day, every team member knew what their winning day looked like. That’s what we aimed for. And by and large that’s what we achieved.
None of this could happen without the seamless blending of learning design and content with technology. And here is where GrowthOps truly comes into its own. Together with our sister companies we re-engineered our business model to a digitally-led coaching and leader development enterprise. Over the three weeks we
- converted 120 hours of ICF-accredited coach training to digital format
- designed a suite of new virtual programs specific to the needs of leaders through COVID
- transformed our brand and presence in the marketplace
- re-engineered our website
- adopted a transactional engine to sell our traditional B2B product direct to the consumer
- enabled a new learning management system
- secured Zoom as our primary learning interface
- and we developed a fully integrated go to market campaign
There is no doubt that had we not had the depth of capability in these key areas readily available to form the full team, we could not have accomplished what we did in the time required. The technical expertise and agility of these specialists to design, prototype, test, build and implement a solution bespoke to need was essential to our achievement.
Hold the Team
But perhaps the most important thing in all of it was our prioritised commitment to hold the wellbeing of every member of the team at the heart of everything we did. We knew that in high-pressure situations, people performed best when they felt supported and cared for. No matter how tempting to push otherwise, we knew that if people were feeling overwhelmed, performance would be compromised. And so for us, people always came first. We took time to check in. People were given the license to check out when needed. In those three weeks, we held our people at the centre of the pivot as we managed the team through salary reductions and stand-downs, the impact of social isolation and the inevitable toll that took on many throughout the period, while also demanding so much in terms of time, focus and energy. For us that was the highest priority.
Importantly as leaders we also held ourselves to account for the same duty of care. Our War Room was not just a place of tactical maneuvering, but also our emotional safehouse. A sanctuary for all of us to both lend and ask each other for support. Because of the situation we were in, and the pace that we were operating, it became a critical part of keeping consciously connected, maintaining balance and a sense of perspective.
Seven weeks on and we are now an entirely digital learning enterprise. We have introduced a range of new leadership programs and real-time coaching interventions to help leaders lead through COVID downturn and recovery. We have successfully delivered sell-out public courses and corporate programs to some of Australia’s largest institutions, with testimonials amongst the best received. At an average of 83.5 our NPS is tracking among the highest it has been. We are a boundaryless, scalable, best-of-breed, digital coaching and leadership business with the capacity to transform the way people lead across the globe.
These are the outputs. But it is not the story. The real story is about the collective team that made it happen. It is about entrepreneurialism. Creativity. Focus. Will. It demonstrates the power of having a diverse group of enterprises that can support our clients through the ebbs and flows of business conditions by bringing together our different capabilities as levers for the achievement of extraordinary things.
For our clients it is a demonstration of how we fuse our capabilities together … to reinvent how organisations grow.
By IECL Group Director – Gabrielle Schroder MBA FAICD