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Turning points: Leadership in the time of COVID-19

By BENEDICT SISON, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 11, 2021 5:00 am

If, three years ago, when I took on the role of CEO and country head of Sun Life Philippines, somebody had told me that my leadership would be tested by a pandemic, I probably would’ve mulled it over but considered it a remote possibility. With all the advances in science and medicine, it didn’t seem likely.

And then, the COVID-19 pandemic happened.

This challenging time in our history has surely served as a turning point in every leader’s journey. Leading during normal times is challenging enough, but more so at a time like this. While most would have a business continuity process in place, there is no playbook for the kind of realities we are experiencing now.

There is no playbook for the realities we are experiencing now.

In this sense, perhaps my own performance will be defined by how fast our company responded to change, how we kept the human touch with our clients, and how we fulfilled our responsibilities with the communities we serve.

Getting a grip

As the urgency of the situation set in, I found myself looking back on lessons that molded me from my early years to the present.

I never had second thoughts about prioritizing people over profit and siding with safety instead of sales. In doing so, we ended up bringing more value to our advisers, employees, clients, and even the greater community.

Foremost of these was my parents’ constant reminder that, “No amount of difficulty can stop us as long as we believe that it can be done.” It felt cheesy when I was still a child but it was definitely empowering as I grew up. And in this pandemic, when the stakes are high and confidence is low, it was exactly what I needed to anchor myself on. My parents’ wisdom helped me get a grip on the situation so I could focus on what had to be done.

“I found myself looking back on lessons that molded me from my early years to the present.”

I identified three priorities. First, the safety and well-being of our people. We doubled down to ensure that our employees and advisers were protected. Second, our continued service to our clients. We went the extra mile to deliver on our commitment. And finally, ensuring that our stakeholders' interests were met. We sped up our utilization of digital technology in all areas of our business, so we could connect with our clients even while working from home.

Coming together

There is no question that every leader needs the support of the entire organization in order to succeed. This is where strong people skills come in handy, and fortunately, I was enlightened on this by my great mentor back in college: the former president of the University of the Philippines Emanuel V. Soriano. He taught me to go beyond books and instead sharpen my pulse in the real world by going out and talking to people.

It made me a better worker and a better person. For one, I understood the importance of working closely with my team.

I can still recall the urgent exchanges with my leadership team and our Crisis Management Committee on what steps to take next amid the abrupt changes in the beginning of the pandemic. Since I knew their individual strengths, I knew I could trust them to make important decisions while I focused on other matters that needed my attention.

Every leader needs the support of the entire organization in order to succeed.

My people skills also shaped my priorities. I never had second thoughts about prioritizing people over profit and siding with safety instead of sales. In doing so, we ended up bringing more value to our advisers, employees, clients, and even the greater community.

Moving forward

I am fortunate that the organization I lead was in a position of strength when the pandemic began. Admittedly, there was a point when the virulence of the virus dragged our momentum and brought us to one of the most challenging periods in our 126-year history. It led to some sleepless nights! Thankfully, we are back to our growth trajectory this year. 

I’ve realized that leadership truly is a privilege. It is about making a difference in people’s lives. It is about being a spark that brings out the best in them. It is about seeing them outgrow me and become the best versions of themselves.

I have been reporting to work every day since July 11 (the feast day of Saint Benedict, the great protector) except during strict lockdowns. Being in the office gives me a sense of normalcy, allows me to see closer what's happening in the business and, perhaps, sends a message to our people that the situation isn't that bad after all. We are ready to move forward with this pandemic.

In this turning point of my journey, I’ve realized that leadership truly is a privilege, but one that comes with a responsibility to create an environment where people are prioritized and successful. It is about making a difference in their lives. It is about being a spark that brings out the best in them. It is about seeing them outgrow me and become the best versions of themselves.

Perhaps, this will be part of my legacy, as they continue to develop and grow long after I am gone. In the process, I also became a better person because of them. I will persevere with them and for them, always and in all ways, until this pandemic subsides and even beyond.

It would be my privilege.