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Leading through the eye of the storm: looking back on a challenging year for Anthony Nolan’s Operations

Leading in the eye of the storm

Anthony Nolan’s Chief Operating Officer, Nic Alderson, gives an insight into what it was like to lead her team, reacting to complex operational challenges, to ensure that our lifesaving work could continue in the midst of a global pandemic. 

The teams I lead at Anthony Nolan are used to dealing with challenges and last-minute changes – these are inevitable when supporting seriously ill patients, working with donors and cord blood banks around the world. Business continuity is something we take very seriously, as we know the stem cells we provide can be a patient’s only chance of survival. As a team, we often reflected on the difficulties we faced during the Iceland volcanic ash cloud in 2010 as a key example of how well we respond to human and logistical problems presented by events out of our control. However, even this couldn’t have prepared us for the global pandemic.

The early days of COVID-19

We first started to discuss the potential risks of COVID-19 in January 2020. The World Health Organisation had just declared a global emergency and we sent the first of what would become many COVID-19 updates to hospitals in the UK outlining our response. At this stage, only China had been listed on the Geographical Disease Risk Index (GDRI) for coronavirus, but in a matter of weeks, the list was growing. By late February, Italy was added to the Index. A clinician described the unfolding situation to us as ‘a slow-motion car crash’.

As we reached the end of February 2020, a COVID-19 taskforce was established within the charity, led by our Chief Executive, Henny Braund. This included key leaders and decision makers from across a range of functions, meeting twice weekly to discuss developments and our response. By 16th March 2020, all staff were working from home where possible, and we had established the ‘Heathrow Hub’ to act as an international center for the handover of stem cells coming into and leaving the UK. The UK went into the first lockdown one week later. Since then, we have all been on the rollercoaster of lockdowns, tiers, re-opening of parts of society and closing again. However now we have some hope that we can see a path out of this very unsettling and difficult time.

As an operations person, I thrive on challenges, problem solving and ‘enjoy’ managing a crisis. As I sit here in April 2021, there are some reflections I would like to share on how we responded, and what particularly worked well.

Anthony Nolan’s response

What brings my leadership team together is our ability to solve problems and our passion and commitment to do the best for patients. As such, during the first few weeks of the crisis, we were all highly motivated and energised. Plans were revisited, and we prioritised what we needed to do. We paused a number of improvement initiatives we had planned to undertake and focused on the immediate challenges presented. We met regularly to share knowledge and learnings, but more importantly, to support one another. We responded quickly to problems facing us, launching new services such as emergency grants for patients and cryopreservation services for adult stem cells. All the logistics around our work were reconfigured, and changes were made to staff and volunteer teams to ensure we could continue to work effectively. Regular and effective communication with all our stakeholders was essential – we had to get the balance right of being reassuring and informative during a time of immense uncertainty.

As leaders, both myself and my team were empowered to make decisions and take risks allowing us to respond in an agile and rapid way. We focused on the right people being involved in a decision rather than trying to ensure everyone felt included, this enabled us to move at pace which was essential during the early stages of the pandemic.

When the longevity of this crisis became clear, I knew we could not continue to work at the pace we adopted in the first few months. My priority became finding the right balance of empowering my team to respond to the situation but also ensuring that they were supported and not burning themselves out. As we prepared for the long-haul nature of the crisis, I wanted to ensure my team were able to perform to the best they could, whilst also looking after themselves, their colleagues and those around them.  Like many people we were all adapting to using new technology and the quirks of Zoom and Teams were beginning to exhaust everyone. We introduced much more flexible working, numerous ‘social’ channels and WhatsApp groups sprung up, and when allowed we met up face to face for walks and informal chats with colleagues. We did all we could to keep the spirit of Anthony Nolan going.

Leading by example

As the months went by, wellbeing became a central part of my mantra. I took the decision to regularly share what I was doing outside of work to keep myself sane and avoid burn out. I was open and honest about the struggles of having three children at home doing ‘remote learning’, about missing my family and friends, about the loss we were all experiencing. I had to work more flexibly to accommodate everything and the importance of drawing boundaries between work and home life was more important than ever.

We often hear that you need to lead by example, but I find these can be empty words if there is no action behind it. The one thing I hope I have achieved during this pandemic is showing my teams that I mean what I say, and that I do not expect anything of others that I am not prepared to do myself. It was so important to me to show the human side of leadership, especially in this time of immense challenge

We are still living in very uncertain times, however, one year on there is a light at the end of what has been a very long, and at times dark, tunnel. The passion and commitment of Anthony Nolan’s staff has been second to none. The relationships we have with our stakeholders have gone from strength to strength and our ability to listen and respond is stronger than it has ever been. These are things we will hold onto.

I have learnt never to take anything for granted and if there is something we can all take from this experience, it is the importance of understanding that when we work together and support one another as an organisation, as a community, as colleagues and as friends, we can achieve the remarkable.

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