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LEADING THROUGH CRISIS AND THINKING PAST IT

For David Savoie, president and CEO of one of Canada’s best-managed companies, everything changed the day the state of emergency was declared. For a man that exudes a calm confidence in the face of chaos, it was that pivotal day in March when it became abundantly clear that COVID-19 would no longer be just a worry – it would be a full-scale disruptor.

He set up a “war room” with desks six feet apart and immediately began working with his management team on three scenarios for the firm, Acadian Construction: shutter for the duration, keep the lights on but not much more, or keep moving forward as best they could, with as many staff as possible.

The management team debated each of the scenarios and the anticipated consequences. As with so many organizational leaders around the globe, David and his management team were confronted with an endless string of unknowns. This was utterly unpredictable.

As he often does, David decided to take the options to all of the firm’s 70-plus employees. He wanted to hear from them.

The consensus was to carry on.

He committed to keeping everyone on the job, though he knew he wouldn’t have enough work for everyone. His wager: when this is over, the company would emerge even better.

Going on the offensive

“We think there’s only three or four days a week for any of you,” he recalls telling the employees. “So for the odd other day, we’re going to be working on continuous improvement – we’re going to invest and be ready to get out of this stronger than we came in.”

Similarly, while most people are focused on facing the challenges of the present crisis, certain members of his team are delegated to “go on the offensive” – pursue projects with an eye to brighter days ahead.

Acadian, first launched in 1958 by his grandfather Adélin near Moncton, New Brunswick, has been recognized for remarkable growth – over the last five years, has tripled its annual revenue and more than doubled the number of employees. The consultancy Deloitte has recognized its achievements this year with its Canada’s Best Managed Company designation.

David never imagined he’d be running the business. In his younger days, he studied arts in university and then went off to Los Angeles to work in the film industry. But then his father, who had taken over Acadian, died of cancer – prompting David to drop what he was doing and come home to Canada. Before long, he was enrolling in an MBA program and taking the reins.

It is his liberal arts background that has served him well through the crisis. A highly creative thinker with a zeal for solving problems, research and communication have been pillars of his crisis management strategy.

Can’t control uncertainty

In memos and in conversations with employees, he has borrowed from Frank Knight, the late American economist, father of the “Knightian concept of uncertainty” and author of the 1920 book Risk, Uncertainty and Profit.

For David, it highlights a key message: you can’t control uncertainty but you can manage risk.

As part of his routine to manage risk, he meticulously tracks the rise and fall of COVID-19 cases in his province, producing his own spreadsheets that track the journey of the virus. He and his team devise new strategies for worksites that are still operating to be sure that workers are within safety guidelines for COVID-19 and he researches and orders up protective equipment for his employees.

He leads twice-a-week video calls with all employees to be sure that they stay connected with him, with each other, and with the latest information, not only about the company but the virus too.

He deliberately chooses and shares good news about COVID-19, and seeks to shape the narrative of its impact for his firm and its people. This includes choosing a few employees each call to share with their colleagues what they are grateful for.

“We can’t control what Trump does or says – we can’t. We can’t control what Trudeau does or says. Or Europe, or China. We can only control… what’s in our own environment, what we do,” he told me and my Boiling Point podcast co-host Greg Hemmings in a recent episode.

By his own measure, he over communicates with his employees during this crisis. Better that they know all that it is going on, and that they understand the rationale behind decisions and strategies.

‘You’re diffusing challenges and bombs daily — it never stops’

He firmly believes communication is key to ensuring your employees are invested, trusting and standing behind you when you need them the most.

David also believes that leaders need people they, too, can confide in – to act as a sounding board when weighing decisions and courses of action. I am honoured that he has chosen me, as his leadership coach, to be a sounding board.

As he talks, I am struck at how he is a measure of calm at a time of great upheaval. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel continually tested.

“You’re diffusing challenges and bombs daily,” he says. “It never stops.”

As a successful leader, though, he is walking through this minefield with the confidence his employees are right there behind him.

For the full conversation with David, check out The Boiling Point episode in full audio and video here.

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