To Pivot, Persevere or Pirouette


Leanne Kemp, Queensland Chief Entrepreneur at QODE 2020

Can I begin by acknowledging our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, they were the first scientists – astronomers – geologists – ecologists – engineers building their deep knowledge about the nature of the world in which we live for thousands of generations. Here in Australia, scientists today continue to build on this tradition of enquiry, curiosity and custodianship, adding to the rich social and scientific knowledge of Country.

In keeping with Queensland’s commitment to reconciliation I respectfully acknowledge the Yuggara & Turrbal Peoples as the Traditional Owners & First Nations Peoples of the land where we gather today. I recognise that this land was taken. I pay my respect to Elders past and present and to emerging community leaders. I also extend respect to all First Nations peoples here today.

Hello, virtually of course, I’m coming to you today as the very best version of my digital twin from the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Wow, well, welcome to all. I’m here in Brisbane and I hope wherever you are, you’re safe, with strength of mind and deep conviction and that we will come through stronger as a community and nation. I’m in as good a frame of mind as any of us can be right now, and despite the circumstances, I face the day in true entrepreneurial spirit, with hope and heart.

QODE is a flagship event for innovation in Queensland. It’s great to be part of it and to share the stage with some truly incredible people from all corners of our fine state, as well as invited experts from all over the globe.

I’ve been looking forward to, and preparing for this event for some time now. I decided to take a pivot on what I’d speak about. In fact I probably did a full pirouette, but more on that later.

So, 2020 turned on a new year. I’ve been talking for some time now about this being the year for action and decade for change.

My experiences at World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year were around the change from shareholder to stakeholder value and the transformation from supply chains to value chains, and natural mining to urban mining.

We’ve all been affected by COVID-19. I remember being in the room with WHO and Chinese officials when the first of the whispers emerged, that was at Davos.

The current pandemic is testing all of us in different ways. For startups, it’s a scary time as I know many have limited cash runways, with 100 of my own staff, they are all looking to founders for answers, and many of our startups are still doing the doing, the daily grind.

In a few short weeks, we have entered a crisis unlike anything most of us have ever seen. A crisis where any pre-existing course of action has to be put on hold or reset. A crisis that can naturally lead anyone to feel frustrated, annoyed, overwhelmed, afraid, concerned about themselves and others, and unsure of what to do.

As Queensland Chief Entrepreneurs and CEO of my own scale-up business Everledger: I’ve had the opportunity to directly speak with a number of Founders, CEOs and senior team members navigating the uncertainty, and I’ve watched closely the actions and decisions of many companies in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

All of them are trying to deal with the crisis in which every day brings new challenges, new decisions to make: should you keep your stores, your manufacturing plants, your offices open? How long should you — or can you — continue to pay your employees and is that great innovation or startup idea really the right time to start now?

The key question brewing: how to lead in this environment.

While the situation is somewhat reminiscent of the challenges we all faced during the GFC — I lead a turnaround business that subsequently scaled up in 2007, just at the turn of the GFC. The company was supposed to go under — there is no obvious blueprint to follow.

But perhaps, the same principles of purposeful, human leadership — such as putting people and customers first, treating profit as an outcome rather than the goal — that we used back then, can be applied now.

I’ll give you my snippets of advice, parts of it from my own lived experience and others from leaders like a Roman Emperor and Army General, Shakespeare, and even a modern philosopher.

Marcus Aurelius was one of the Five Good Roman Emperors, he ruled at a time of relative peace and prosperity, and so I guess had time to take down his now famous collection of meditations.

He was a stoic philosopher.

People often confuse stoicism with a stiff upper lip, but I prefer to think of it as an ancient tool for finding the calm in a modern and chaotic world.

Many of you have heard me speak about being a multi-hyphenate.

I came across this after reading Ryan Holiday, a modern philosopher. The idea: that we all need to be good at more than one thing to be truly successful. Now more than ever is the time to work on those hyphens, so forget being caffeinated, get hyphenated!

From the stoics we can take these some key pieces of advice during a crisis, or indeed at anytime:

  • Control your perceptions
  • Direct your actions
  • Accept what’s outside your control
  • Be certain in uncertainly

Less than 3 months ago, in January 2020, many leaders at World Economic Forum, committed to Statement of Stakeholder Purpose. Clear leadership shown by the likes of AirBNB with its Manifesto of Stakeholder Capitalism: to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders — customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders. It was a response to what was happening to capitalism and its effects on society in the previous decade.

Today, that commitment is being put to the test. Right now, purpose matters most. Will the leaders take actions to show their words are real?

No single person or organisation can solve these complex challenges.

Instead, a diverse set of stakeholders must come together for a shared approach. It requires coordination as well as vision, trust building and innovation.

It requires systems leadership.

There are about 35,000 entrepreneurs in Queensland. As Queensland’s Chief Entrepreneur, I am fortunate to be close to the front seeing these innovators working to make the world a different, better, more connected, safer, more streamline, sustainable place.

Our Queensland entrepreneurs are leaders with incredible purpose-driven, with a clear human focus. Many see that this crisis is a key leadership moment for them to help others. They are all spending time with their teams and working together to do the right thing. They understand, to put it in Churchillian terms, that this has the potential to be their “finest hour,” and they want to rise to the occasion. In all cases, I have been struck by their humanity.

These are, of course, incredibly challenging times. Still, we have seen in the last few days, great examples of leaders working hard to try and take actions to do the right thing, illustrating the belief that business can be a force for good during this crisis.

Entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship, those innovators in government, in universities, in big corporations will be in high demand as we face down the unknown together and Queensland innovators are already renowned as being able to pivot, persevere and even pirouette their way to solutions, outcomes and brand new ways of thinking and doing.

I’m not a Roman General but I don’t mind some armchair philosophy and the other day I started talking about the 3Ps: pivot, persevere and pirouette.

To me, these are key strategies for crisis management right now.

The decision to pivot or persevere is a tough one. For a startup, if their idea is timely and likely to be accepted by users, then it should persevere. Tough to do in a crisis but there will be those that can weather this storm.

Others will decide they’ve reached the point where they cannot afford to lose their limited resources, or factors outside of their control propel them to pivot. The key here is how to keep confidence in their idea while knowing that the journey they started and the weather and flight conditions they took off in, have changed the autopilot can’t land the plan so two hands have to go back on the steering wheel.

If Hamlet were a founder, he may well have mused “to pivot or to persevere”.

The pandemic is terrible, but it is temporary by nature. I’ve spoken with leaders who recognise this and who are beginning to explore temporary pay cuts, reducing hours or furloughing their employees, rather than laying them off. I hope more leaders try to adopt this.

The pandemic will undeniably hurt the bottom line of most companies, so many are thinking about ways to begin conserving cash. The natural tendency may be to start laying off people.

I can’t stress enough that maybe with technology scale-ups, this is shortsighted.

I have been the CEO of a number of scale-ups and startups over the years, we have no idea how long it will take for the market to recover, but what I do know is keeping people should be a priority.

And when the markets do recover, we will be ready and not suffer a talent drain.

Companies also are showing leadership in trying to take care of their customers. Some retailers, including grocery stores and pharmacies, are continuing to operate in order to provide access to essential items.

Many have announced adjustments to their operations, such as ramping up cleaning services in their stores, reducing hours to facilitate store cleaning, introducing a special time slot for the most vulnerable customers to shop by themselves, and limiting the inflow of customers to ensure their safety.

Other retailers, such as Apple, Nike and Michael Hill, have decided to temporarily close their stores. Finding the right balance here is a particularly tough act, one that I am sure will be constantly reviewed as the situation evolves. Despite not being face-to-face these companies are finding new avenues to connect in the digital realm, which will continue well after they reopen shopfronts.

Sometimes the pivot is not just within the company but a change in consumer behaviour as well.

I’m encouraged by reports of companies looking out for suppliers. Some companies have begun to help their weakest vendors. For example, Everledger set up a fund to help small businesses near our operational centres as well as reviewing our list of key suppliers, closely monitoring their situation, with the view to potentially intervene to ensure their survival.

Big companies like BHP made immediate payments to small businesses reducing their payment cycle from 30 days to 7.

Other companies are mobilising to more broadly help the communities in which they operate. Right here in Queensland – a cluster of manufacturing companies is providing medical supplies, and protective equipment to various health providers dealing with the outbreak.

Video production company Clipchamp is offering free access to all premium services; for our young people, ParentTV, Future Anything, BOP, SheMaps, which are all Queensland startups, they are delivering online content and curriculum services to schools and parents across the state.

Brewing companies Bundaberg Rum and Beenleigh Rum are producing and donating ethanol in large quantities to speed up local manufacture of hand sanitisers.

And Sam, an Aussie Farmer from Victoria, posted a two minute video from the paddocks, giving us reassurances that Australia has its own food bowl – we can feed 75 million people, 3 times our population. His paddocks – barley, wheat and chickpeas - have got us covered. There’s enough wheat for 2.5 million loaves of bread, or 22million Vegemite sandwiches, enough barley for 23.5 million cans of beer. Not even I could get through that on a weekend!

These examples illustrate the validity of the Stakeholder Manifesto statement and the importance of taking care of all stakeholders. My experience of the last several decades, including my time leading the resurgence of businesses, has convinced me that business is about pursuing a noble purpose and putting employees and human relationships at the heart of how a business operates.

This belief is particularly relevant in times of crisis like the one we are going through now. This is a time when performance is not defined by a company’s share price or whether it will hit its profit performance. This is a time when performance will be judged by how a company and its leadership serve everyone and fulfil a higher purpose —and specifically how they have shown up and met the requirements and expectations of its multiple stakeholders.

This crisis gives business leaders the opportunity to lead from the front. From those I’ve talked to and what I’m seeing, I’m hopeful. As they’re confronting this crisis, leaders should be asking themselves: Are you spending enough time taking care of yourself, for example by meditating, so that you can be the best version of yourself leading others? What actions are you taking to help the people around you? How will you measure your own performance? How do you want your leadership from this time to be remembered?

For a leader to make the move at a time like now, is to neither pivot nor persevere but to pirouette. A pirouette is a French word for the Ballet reference, "to whirl about."

But I’m not suggesting you start whirling.

In dressage, a pirouette is a two-track lateral movement in which the horse makes a circle with its front end around a smaller circle made by the hind end. From the part of the rider it needs much practice in collecting and balancing the horse and in using the aids correctly.

The horse should remain relaxed, engaged, and responsive, with the poll as the highest point. Ideally, the pirouette will be almost in place. The canter pirouette is a very difficult exercise when performed correctly demonstrates the nexus of where disciplined athleticism meets the creative core.

Startups founders know that it’s not always about flattening the curve but bending it. Great entrepreneurs make the changes needed, is to simultaneously, rapidly and actively pull every lever we have in perfect form and timing. The rider and the horse must work in unison just like the founder and its stakeholders in its company.

It’s a bumpy ride ahead but we are in this together. Draw down on that stoic wisdom, saddle up, giddy up, think widely and create more hyphens for your portfolio and let me leave you with this:

We measure success by the way we touch the lives of people and planet.