Writing a new playbook: Xero boss Trent Innes shares his lessons on leadership during a pandemic

- November 30, 2020 3 MIN READ
Photo: AdobeStock
We tend to over-complicate leadership; just look at the number of books on the topic (I should know, I’ve read most of them). But when suddenly faced with the prospect of leading a business during a pandemic, I quickly discovered that there’s no playbook. 

Instead of over-thinking each step, I’ve focused my attention only on what’s most important.

Xero Australia Managing Director Trent Innes. Source: supplied

For me, as Managing Director of Xero in Australia and Asia, that’s our people. From communicating with staff regularly and clearly, and ensuring that everyone is supported and has purpose, to resisting the temptation to fixate on the things beyond my control – the processes implemented during this time will benefit the business long after the crisis has passed.

This period has been a huge adjustment for all of us, but the worst thing that can happen is that we don’t learn from it. While there might not be a guide at hand, there are three key components of good leadership I’ve found have been reiterated along the way. 


1. First, communicate, communicate, communicate 

When Xero’s Australian staff began making the transition to working from home in March, I lost a considerable amount of interaction with our people.

In pre-pandemic working life, I’d naturally connect with our team at countless points throughout the day – from hallway run-ins, to mid-morning coffee breaks. I’ve since discovered that in this new environment, you have to be far more deliberate in connecting with others.  

In the early stages of the pandemic, doubling down on our efforts to communicate was crucial. People were confused, unsettled and not sure of what was going to happen next.

For this reason, it was important to over-communicate in an effort to assure them that their jobs were safe and they were valued. We did this through everything from video and written messages shared via Slack, to moving our weekly all-Xero meetings, morning teas and Friday night drinks online.

I also decided to connect with my direct reports daily and began dropping into team meetings across the business just to touch base. This is something that I’ve continued doing as it allows me to gain an accurate pulse check of how everyone is faring.

Of course, none of this replaces real life interaction, but the ability to adapt is now our most important asset. For leaders, communicating with your people – regularly and clearly – should be prioritised above all else, whether you’re at home or in the office.


2. Next, empower your people and ensure they have a purpose

I was well aware of the importance of working towards a shared purpose before the pandemic, but this entire period has reiterated just how crucial it is.

During a crisis, it’s easy to get caught up in the unknown. Which is why, from the outset, we’ve rallied our people around Xero’s goal of making life easier for small businesses and their advisors. 

Given something to work towards amongst the chaos, our team was quick to pivot and come together to solve new issues.

In addition to making updates to the Xero platform to accommodate JobKeeper payments, we’ve found strength in coming together to help keep businesses across the country moving. As we move into eased restrictions, I’ve continued to reiterate how our people add value and are empowered to own their work. 

As a leader, I’ve been reminded that everyone is facing their own unique set of challenges right now. For this reason, our approach has been to encourage our people to simply do their best. Because, ultimately, that’s all we can ask for in this climate.

And as we inch towards what we hope is a ‘new normal’, I fundamentally believe that the vast majority of people will always want to do their best regardless.

Part of our role as leaders is to trust that.


3. Lastly, let go of what you can’t control 

The arrival of the pandemic has taught us to keep things simple and focus on what’s most important. For leaders in particular, this means resisting the temptation to give into the never-ending vortex of things outside of your control. 

In the early days of the pandemic, I set clear expectations of myself and my role. This meant supporting Xero’s people came first and foremost, as well as making sure the business was being run as efficiently as possible.

By making a concerted effort not to fixate on the uncertainty, I was able to pause and consider how we could continue to add value as a business. 

An example of this is the way that we’ve harnessed Xero Small Business Insights (XSBI) to measure the impact of COVID-19 on Australia’s small businesses.

By offering a snapshot of the sector’s health based on anonymised and aggregated customer data, we’ve been able to give everyone from policymakers to media and industry an accurate pulse check on small business – and drive informed decision making in their support.

Throughout this entire period, I’ve been amazed at how many of my team have reached out to check in on how I’ve been doing. All of which goes to prove that, out of everything I’ve learned of late, now is the time for leaders to be human. 

* Trent Innes is Managing Director, Xero Australia and Asia 

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