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Reflections on leadership during times of crisis: Interview with boobook's CEO, Nicole Huyghe

min. read
nicole huyghe boobook

The famous saying "a smooth sea never made a skilful sailor" took on a whole new meaning for many businesses in 2020. Even though it was a volatile year, people are doing their best to adapt to a new reality and move forward with their lives. Businesses that are successfully navigating through the changes, they do so mainly because they are able to pivot at the right time and in the right direction.

Nicole Huyghe, founder and CEO at boobook, is no stranger to leading her company through the rough sea. With over twenty years of managing experience under her belt, Nicole knows that any crisis leads to inevitable changes.

Acting fast is imperative - even if it means bringing a wrong decision

On March 17th the pandemic became a harsh reality as the outbursts started to happen globally, together with lockdowns and restrictions. What was the first thing that came to your mind?

I remember thinking - we are in it for a long time. While many hastily predicted that things would get back to "normal" after summer, I never took this pandemic for granted. Pretty soon I realised that if the crisis persists for an extended period, I will have to make some difficult choices regarding my company and the team.

When there is a crisis, it is easier to sit and wait and hope for the best. However, that can't be a long-term strategy. Acting fast is essential, even though the decision might be the wrong one.

Nicole is a firm believer how "it is more important to make changes even if it's not all that perfect than not making any changes." That doesn't mean that making decisions comes easy to her. Since March, Nicole has had to make several tough decisions, especially in terms of letting people go - which is probably one of the hardest things for a manager to do.

Once COVID hit, how did you communicate with your clients and prospects? Did you notice a change in their attitude and willingness to start new projects?

Of course, many things came to a halt. Many of our clients were in the same situation as us. It wasn't like they didn't want to start new projects or that their attitude changed; they couldn't proceed anymore as most of the budgets were frozen. Still, many clients were very sympathetic, and I truly felt they tried everything they could to continue the collaboration.

I felt a lot of solidarity, not only among peers but also with our clients.

The importance of human connections and honest communication

How easy was a switch for the boobook team to work remotely? Did you find it more difficult or easier to collaborate online?

From an infrastructure point of view - no problem. Switching to online and remote work helped us to be more productive, but I can't say the same for creativity, personal communication and intense brainstorming sessions.

Though most of the team members like quiet moments, I feel we all miss the social connection and human interaction.

Was it challenging to keep the team members motivated even when maybe you didn't see things in a very positive light?

That was one of the most challenging things! It is not only about motivation but also about being able to give answers to the many questions they rightly had. I had many questions too. Providing the right answers in a very uncertain environment is almost impossible.

I'd tried to be as honest as possible - meaning I shared the good and the bad, the questions and struggles. It was important for me to stay positive without pretending. I wanted to reassure my team as much as possible by saying "things will get better and we will come out of fine, but it will take a bit of time".

Accept today, focus on tomorrow

Nicole acknowledges how challenging these past months were, but thanks to her problem-solving mindset and optimism, she was able to find another, more constructive perspective.

Every situation has its advantages. When a crisis like this happens, you are forced to think differently and change tactics.

"In terms of strategy, we took this opportunity to sharpen our positioning and clearly define who we want to be - which also resulted in a renewed website and messaging. It's all about excelling in what you are known for - as this will provide continuity during the crisis and provide sufficient base to grow beyond the core business later on," explains Nicole.

In many ways, many of us are responsible for the future we make. Sometimes the first step is accepting that the bright future of tomorrow will not be the same as the future we envisioned a year ago.

Embracing the change

Juggling between managing the business, getting new clients, keeping current clients happy, motivating the team, while facing an uncertain future puts a heavy burden on every CEO shoulder.

Nicole found her way to deal with the COVID-19 stress: "I try to remind myself to take mental breaks once in a while. At the start of the pandemic, many felt like we had to recover as quickly as possible. If not by winning new projects, then at least by looking for creative or other solutions or by talking to clients as much as possible, so we are ready for the future."

"Fairly quickly, I decided to give myself some headspace. Now and then, it's necessary to sit back and let things go for a bit. There was little we could do or control anyway. Trying all kinds of (often useless) strategies created a lot of stress without valuable return. It's much more beneficial to take a break and look at things from a fresh perspective."

What did you discover about your team during the crisis? What did you learn about yourself as a CEO and a leader?

Most people are more resilient and understanding than we think. I was positively surprised that many colleagues stayed calm, understanding and supported me through difficult decisions - even if they were directly impacted. And what did I learn about myself? I realised I don't panic easily!

nicole huyghe boobook

Connect with others and sharing the experience

People are social beings, and during the crisis, it's essential to find comfort, inspiration and reassurance in connecting with others. We talk to our friends and family about what we are going through to find consolation. In a professional world, talking with like-minded people and sharing experiences, thoughts and ideas bring us closer to each other and help us find solutions together.

Did you talk to other CEOs about their experience? What advice would you give to other business managers, founders and entrepreneurs?

Connecting with other CEOs, founders, and leaders is such an important factor! So, keep talking with peers. Share experiences. Complain and laugh together!

How did you cope with the pandemic and the lockdown in your personal life? What kept you sane? Do you see a difference in your mood now compared to the first lockdown?

My personal life shifted quite a bit because of the crisis. While I have been travelling a lot for business in the last 15 years (almost every two weeks I was in another country), suddenly I was at home all the time. My kids and husband loved it! And so did I.

At the beginning of the second lockdown, I felt more tired and in low spirits. However, after a few weeks, I've accepted the situation as it is. We have to make the best of it as life must go on. 

If you could turn back time back to March 2020, what would you do differently?

I'm not a person who dwells on the past too much. Once I make decisions, I focus on the next steps.

A crisis can be a perfect accelerator! The pandemic compelled boobook to return to our core business and eliminate the aspects that are not helping us move forward. In the last nine months, I made changes to the company in terms of structure, focus, and people, which probably would have taken us years otherwise. That doesn't mean that this hasn't been a painful process. It has! But we are in a much better shape to tackle the future and its challenges than we've ever been.

And finally, what are your goals and priorities for the next 2021?

We haven't set any firm targets for the upcoming year at boobook, which is quite different from previous years. Of course, we have ambitions, and we want to continue successful collaborations, but I find it too early to figure out our aspirations. It's hard to plan anything in uncertain times…

Our mission has always been to "enjoy our work, share our passion with clients, and offer high-quality advice" - and we realised how these objectives have become even more substantial for boobook in the last year.

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