trent bartlett

There will be a different appreciation of work once we come out of this. COVID-19 is helping us understand what work means to us; the importance we didn’t place on it before.

I chair three boards and sit on three others, including Australia’s third-largest private company, CBH Group, which is a cooperative of West Australian grain businesses that export almost $4b in grain each year.

In the early weeks of the crisis, the Margaret River Busselton Tourism Association, which I chair, asked the visitor centre teams and the cave and lighthouse guides to take leave — social distancing meant the attractions would have to close. Within a few days, the cave guides had self-organised and proposed they be allowed into the caves to sand and varnish the hundreds of metres of handrails in the cave networks. The clear message was that our employees were missing their “second homes” and that visiting regularly would help their mental health while they tended to maintenance projects they hadn’t previously had time to do.

The same thing happened at Beyond Bank (a customer-owned bank). After a virtual board meeting from the bank’s Perth office, I met with frontline staff still working in the office. One brave woman shared that she was grateful not to have been sent home because she lived alone, loved her job, and the thought of not seeing her workmates for weeks or months made her fearful for her mental health.

Those interactions with staff and their mental health concerns helped remind me of the flawed logic that an employee comes to work; when the reality is that it is the whole person who comes to work and that each is living with their own realities. Employee wellbeing has to be the foundation for everything. This crisis will change how we treat staff. After 25 years in retail, I’ve learned you have to meet your customers where they are. COVID-19 has taught us we also need to meet staff where they are in terms of being more flexible, including with working from home.

In a crisis, people depend on leaders to provide clarity and hope. Fear can be contagious, breeding irrational behaviour and anxiety, which can lead to lower productivity and employee engagement. Being calm and purposeful in dealing with the emerging issues, while providing support and guidance to the CEO and organisation, has been critical in each of my boards. In the boardroom, we have been stress testing governance frameworks and running scenarios to work out a way through this.

When it comes to the responsibilities of the board vs that of management, directors need to find a balance between NIFO (noses in, fingers out) and HOES (hands off, eyes shut).

Cooperation counts

I started work in retail as a teenager to save up to study veterinary science at Flinders University, but deferred a university offer to work at Target in Adelaide. I then worked for Coles Myer for 16 years. I loved customer service and took every gig they offered me. When Aherns, the WA department store chain, offered me a role, I moved to Perth and ended up running the buying team. After David Jones took over Aherns, I became CEO of the Capricorn Society. It’s one of Australia’s largest cooperatives and represents automobile repair businesses. In 2011, after 25 years in retail executive positions, I moved to a non-executive board career.

Five of the six commercial boards in three states that I serve on are cooperatives or mutuals. Each has purpose at its centre and they range from $10m to $4b in annual turnover — across agriculture, travel, tourism, banking and packaging. The impacts of COVID-19 aren’t uniform for co-ops, but the model means we’re adaptable, faster to move and able to cut operating costs more easily because we’re not having to answer to distant shareholders.

Cooperatives are people-centred enterprises, jointly owned and democratically controlled by and for their members to realise common socio-economic needs and aspirations. One in every six people on the planet is a member of one. My other board [Good Samaritan Enterprises] is an agency of the Uniting Church, which helps people with disabilities to find employment.

The lesson for me from COVID-19 has been that having a broader portfolio, with boards in different industries, gives me a really useful perspective. I had permission from different boards and organisations to share templates and frameworks from various industries about things they had already dealt with and things they were planning for. When the coronavirus threat recedes, what will be consistent across the boards that successfully navigate this crisis will be the planning they did in the early weeks.

You often hear about overboarding and how many boards you should be on. The value of a diversified portfolio and diversity of perspectives in the boardroom is important.

Rapid responder

The travel industry has been incredibly resilient and remarkably adaptive through SARS, swine flu, the global financial crisis, and pilot strikes. However, the Travellers Choice board [Bartlett is chair of the organisation, which has a network of 150 travel agents] realised very early in January that a once-in-a-century pandemic with potential border closures was next level. When Qantas CEO Alan Joyce called September 2020 as the light at the end of the tunnel, we hit hard with our modelling and subsequent decisions that affected our members and teams. We asked many staff to take annual leave and we stood down others. It has been tough. Our board modelled for maximum foreseeable losses, then we looked at how we would regroup and reviewed our borrowing ability. JobKeeper helped a lot.

There has been talk of international flights resuming from September, but by then the “r-word” [recession] will be in the vocabulary, so who knows? The travel industry won’t recover to be the same, but it will morph — as it has done in the past.

Australia has seen the closing of ranks between government, business groups and trade unions as they learn the value of being able to cooperate with one another to tackle the impact of COVID-19 shoulder to shoulder. Truly successful cooperation goes beyond public announcements and posturing. It is based on several factors, including the trust between parties to bring people together from the top to the bottom of their organisations. As former US president Harry Truman once said, it is amazing what can be achieved in this world if no-one cares who gets the credit.

Trent Bartlett FAICD facilitates the AICD Company Directors Course.