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5 lessons I learned about leading after taking the helm as CEO during COVID-19

POSTED July 12, 2021

5 lessons I learned about leading after taking the helm as CEO during COVID-19

Our CEO, Fred, shares how he’s navigating change that will remain long after the pandemic ends

By Fred Witteveen, CEO,

Fred stands by fence outside

I joined Children Believe about a year ago, on June 15, two months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. While I previously worked globally in another development agency, connecting with teams in different time zones, stepping in to head Children Believe — especially at this time — took leadership to a new level. That started with the first of many virtual meetings with the executive team.

To this day, 95 percent of my interactions with the Children Believe team remain online. The only time I interacted with Board members face to face was during my job interview nine days before the pandemic was declared. My whole experience at Children Believe has been virtual, and I’ve grown through it.

Here are five lessons I’ve learned about leading virtually:

#1 – Build meaningful relationships based on openness, trust and transparency

Without the advantage of face-to-face interaction, you need to quickly convey genuine openness and interest in others, and transparency about where you stand, to earn people’s trust. To speed up the trust-building process, it’s important others recognize a healthy self-awareness in you — a readiness to admit when you make a mistake and an ability to learn from that experience.

#2 – Be courageous and take calculated risks to make lasting change

A crisis that has scope and scale of the COVID-19 pandemic requires courageously agile decision-making. At Children Believe, this has been exacerbated by the fact that we work in communities, which were already facing internal challenges before the pandemic made the situation even more difficult.

So, you can imagine, last spring, it was hard not to feel overwhelmed, as the “leadership textbook” I’d been following no longer seemed to apply. It was challenging to determine how best to deploy scarce resources, and in what sequence, for maximum impact.

It was hard not to wait for lots of data to give us more confidence in what to do next. So, while our initial reaction might have been to take small incremental steps to avoid perceived high risks, I realized the opposite mindset was required.

I was reminded, you have to make the best decision you can with the data you have. Being open to learning from partners provided the extra insight and confidence to move forward with courage. When mistakes happened — and they did — it was important people felt safe to talk about them. That sparked new learning, inspiring creativity in arriving at better solutions and a collective commitment to improve.

#3 – Authentic engagement is needed to show others what they do and feel matters

Now more than ever, it’s important people feel listened to and know those leading them care about their work and home lives. Everyone has a lot on their minds; we’re all worried about the impact of working from home, job security as well as the safety and well-being of family and friends, especially those most vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.

I’ve made it a priority to be highly responsive, an active listener, flexible, trusting and reliable so everyone feels they really matter to me and our leadership team — because they do.

People need and want to be kept informed, especially when a situation directly affects them. Regular, effective online communication and well-facilitated virtual town halls are giving our global team meaningful information and opportunities for authentic interaction. Staff want to see their leaders handle the tough questions with an open heart.

#4 – Listen to wisdom inside and outside the organization for perspective

During an emergency, no leader knows enough, regardless of their experience. I’ve consciously been tuning into voices — from different contexts — inside and outside Children Believe to understand what’s happening, read emerging trends and determine how best to respond and listen to what I’m hearing. That diversity of input needs to include the voices of those we serve, especially children, and those implementing our programs in the field who are often working in very complex operating environments.

To speed up necessary program adaption in alignment with rapidly changing stakeholder priorities, it’s been critical to engage frequently and actively with peers, local governments and donors.

I’ve also learned there’s great value in tapping into our Board’s insights and wisdom. Board members have one foot inside the organization and one foot outside it, which makes it easier for them to see what’s happening beyond the sight of senior management. One aspect of my new role that I have most enjoyed has been learning to work with Board members as partners working together to navigate Children Believe through the pandemic.

#5 – Embrace challenges to push yourself forward to better ways of working

COVID-19 has been a crucible for leadership. I’ve experienced leadership tests before. Each test has been unique, but the common thread between these challenging experiences is that within every crisis I have found opportunities to shift mindsets and embrace new possibilities, resulting in better-than-expected outcomes. This pandemic is no different. While we’re still navigating our way through it, leaning in and embracing the challenge gives us opportunities to push ourselves forward to find better ways of achieving our mission of breaking barriers to education so children can live fearlessly.

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Children Believe works globally to empower children to dream fearlessly, stand up for what they believe in — and be heard. For 60+ years, we’ve brought together brave young dreamers, caring supporters and partners, and unabashed idealists. Together, we’re driven by a common belief: creating access to education — inside and outside of classrooms — is the most powerful tool children can use to change their world.

About ChildFund Alliance:

A member of ChildFund Alliance, Children Believe is part of a global network of child-focused development organizations working to create opportunities for children and youth, their families and communities. ChildFund helps nearly 23-million children and their families in 70 countries overcome poverty and underlying conditions that prevent children from achieving their full potential. We work to end violence against children; provide expertise in emergencies and disasters to ease the harmful impact on children and their communities; and engage children and youth to create lasting change and elevate their voices in decisions that affect their lives.

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