Leadership Lessons in Lockdown

by Sarah O’Toole

here is no success without a valued and performing team. I believe strongly in nurturing talent and enabling personal development, and am no prouder than when I see this lead to bigger and brighter things for team members, even when outside the organization.

Back in 2020, if you had told me that my entire team would switch to working entirely remotely in a matter of days with minimal disruption to business or productivity, I would have never believed you. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting periods of lockdown I must admit I was not a believer in leading a team from afar. I felt we needed to be physically present to be most productive. And for myself I didn’t believe I could provide value to an organization working from my kitchen table. But in March 2020 we found ourselves having to switch overnight to remote working. I had real concerns about losing connections within an already high-performing, strong team.

At the time I was CEO for CBM Ireland, an international NGO working to improve the lives of people with disabilities in the poorest communities in the world. So I had many stakeholders to consider—my board of directors, the team, our beneficiaries and their representative organizations, our funders—both institutional and individual supporters.

We had real concerns about those we served and ensuring programs continued to be delivered in their communities. The pandemic exacerbated the marginalization of people with disabilities living in poverty. Luckily our community-based program model meant we were able to quickly respond and pivot our programs to deliver vital services via local community workers. As international travel was not possible, we again relied on the remote connections we could use to meet our commitments to beneficiaries. Institutional donors were very responsive to the need to adapt already agreed deliverables to meet the immediate needs of the communities we worked in. And our individual givers overwhelmed us with their generous support whilst navigating a difficult personal time for all.

My leadership style strives to be that of a servant leader, one who prioritizes the greater good, serving team and organization first. For employees working in such an environment, they should feel that their voices are heard.

Quick decisions had to be made and many sought answers when there was much uncertainty. I had to use what information I could access to make informed decisions. It was important to me as a leader to ensure those impacted by organization decisions were part of the process where at all possible, but at times I had to be the one to make the final decision and have confidence in doing that.

It became clear to me that my leadership role was not only to ensure our work continued, but to focus on supporting each and every member of the team.

Formal procedures and processes to ensure the health and safety of the team had to be put in place quickly, and again it was very important that the team were included wherever possible in developing these. Alongside concerns about COVID for themselves and their loved ones, they had real worries over the security of their jobs. I tried to quickly establish some certainty around that by scenario planning for the financial impact of the pandemic, closely monitoring our financial situation, and keeping them informed.

Thankfully, we had IT systems in place that helped us to quickly switch over to a remote landscape. We adapted to virtual meetings, online team-building activities, and regular check-ins with colleagues. We were able to switch our telephony system to a cloud-based system, meaning we didn’t lose connection with our supporters, nor them with us. And so we began what we thought at the time was a temporary change in the way we worked, and we’d soon be back in the office together again.

It quickly transpired that was not the case, and a long period of uncertainty loomed over us for the next couple of years.

The wellbeing of the team and their loved ones was a key priority, and thankfully I had a board supportive of this approach. The pandemic affected everyone, albeit in different ways. What stood out for me during those initial weeks was how organizations responded to their teams. There were some exceptions, but most approached it with a focus on team wellbeing as a priority.

It became clear to me that my leadership role was not only to ensure our work continued, but to focus on supporting each and every member of the team. I spent a lot of time on calls with staff, in groups and individually, simply listening to their concerns, not just about their work, and trying to provide support or offer solutions where I could. They really stepped up in making sure our supporters and beneficiaries were a priority, and my job was to support them to do that. Simple things like a virtual coffee morning or a quick check-in message had greater meaning while we were isolated from each other and, for many of us, separated from family members, friends, and our communities.

I wrongly assumed that levels of productivity would naturally fall and I’d have to adjust people’s personal objectives and hence overall strategic deliverables, which was the case for some elements of our work that were not possible due to restrictions outside of our control. However, I had to put real effort into getting the team to actually slow down. They were all pushing themselves further to make up for not being physically in the office. The key was leading by example and setting realistic expectations for them. Online meetings could not run for more than 50 minutes and if they did, a break had to be taken at that point. People couldn’t jump from one meeting into the next without taking a break. Regular virtual coffee mornings were put in everyone’s diary and work discussions were not allowed during that time.

Regardless of the economic or social environment, sometimes staff move on from their roles to different organizations or onto new chapters in their lives, and during the pandemic this was also the case. Over two years we recruited many new members of the team remotely and that too required an adjustment from the normal approach. We never got to meet in person, and for both candidates and ourselves it was important to talk more about the culture of the organization during the interview, as it wasn’t possible to get a sense of that by visiting the physical office and interacting with staff.

For two years I led the organization through the lockdown, and eventually we were able to reunite again in person. Through the efforts made while we were apart it was clear we were very much connected once we reunited in person. For those we recruited in lockdown, this was their first time meeting in person with colleagues. But the environment created during that time meant they had formed strong working relationships from day one, so it was now a bonus to come together and the team went from strength to strength.

On reflection, I’ve learned many leadership lessons from that time.

  1. Have faith in your team and the culture you’ve built. I believed in my team’s strengths and skills but didn’t necessarily have confidence in our ability to pivot so rapidly to a new way of working. The culture embedded in the organization enabled this adjustment.
  2. Be open to adjusting your focus to what’s needed from a leader. In the initial stages of lockdown, my team needed me to be a listening ear, providing guidance where I could. And I had to invest time in doing that.
  3. Less is actually more. It was a real challenge to get the team to slow down and regulate their pace of work during lockdown. They became more productive by taking a step back and being realistic about what remote working during lockdown actually meant.
  4. Leaders appear in crises. Many of the team who may not have come forward as leaders before emerged during this time. By taking an inclusive approach to finding new ways of working, staff participation was an integral part of adjusting our business and finding solutions to the new normal.

All those lessons learned have served me well as I’ve progressed recently in my career, and I was appointed executive director for Samaritans Ireland early this year. Samaritans’ vision is that fewer people die by suicide, and it is the only charity in Ireland offering emotional support to anyone who is in distress, lonely, struggling to cope, or feeling suicidal. The Samaritans’ helpline is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and is staffed by volunteers who provide a listening ear to people when they need it most.

In times of crisis and uncertainty, people just need someone to listen to them. When we face uncertainty it’s important to be able to voice our concerns and fears to someone we trust without fear of judgment. Leaders need to be able to recognize when this is needed, and to provide it. This approach served me well during the pandemic and is at the heart of the organization I lead today.

A headshot of Sarah O'Toole
Sarah O’Toole was appointed executive director of Samaritans Ireland in April 2023. Prior to joining Samaritans Ireland, she was Chief Executive Officer of CBM Ireland for nine years. O’Toole’s career began in the corporate world with organizations such as ACCA Ireland, Willis Towers Watson, and Colliers International. In 2009 she began working in the non-profit sector and has held roles with organizations such as Trócaire, Concern Worldwide and the Soul of Haiti Foundation. O’Toole spent two years working in Haiti following the devastating earthquake there in 2010.

She is a former board member of Dóchas (the Irish Association of Non-Governmental Development Organizations) and Boardmatch Ireland, and is a media volunteer with Special Olympics International. She holds a master’s in international strategic marketing (DCU Business School) and a Professional Diploma in Creativity, Innovation & Leadership (UCD Innovation Academy).