ConsumerCentriX, in partnership with Stanbic Bank Uganda Limited (or Stanbic Bank), kicked off the first webinar in its Compassionate Leadership for Entrepreneurs Series on November 4th, 2021, under the theme “Leading with Heart: Adapting to a New Normal in a Tough Business Environment.” The webinar explored how the bank and other key businesses in the market adapted to the current business climate given the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of using compassionate leadership as a business strategy.

The webinar was moderated by Maurice Mugisha, a Ugandan journalist and Managing Director of Uganda Broadcasting Corporation, and the panel included Emma Mugisha, Executive Director and Head of Business Banking at Stanbic Bank, Dr. Peter Kimbowa, Chairman of the Board of Directors at the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), Thadeus Musoke Nagenda, Ag. Chairman of Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA), and Isaac Nsereko, Managing Director of RI Distributors Ltd.

The COVID-19 pandemic in Uganda has led to waves of lockdowns and business closures, making it impossible for businesses to continue day-to-day operations as usual. The disruptions have heavily affected decision-making, employee management, and the bottom line for businesses. All of the panellists agreed that leading with compassion during these extraordinary times has been essential. For them, this has meant listening to their employees and the concerns of their customer base, challenging the assumptions behind their convictions, and being ready to adapt to a constantly changing environment.

A few key themes emerged from the discussion:

Work together. As business leaders, it’s important to share best practices and ask others to join in utilizing compassionate leadership. If more business leaders share their knowledge on how to listen to employees and customers, challenge assumptions, and adapt quickly in a changing environment then institutions will improve, and the economy will be strengthened. In the case of KACITA, the largest trader block in Kampala, Mr. Nagenda explained that most of the shopping malls its businesses operate out of were closed during the lockdowns. KACITA approached the government and advocated for the reopening of arcades so that its business owners could continue doing business and making a living. Due to the shutdowns, the company also asked for a moratorium on rent for the business owners. Mr. Nagenda that “most of the [arcade] landlords are also traders and part of KACITA” and they began working together to find solutions.

Adapting to change is imperative. Leaders should approach challenges as opportunities to shift their ways of working. The pandemic forced many sectors to embrace change through digitization, whether that included investing in ways for their staff to work from home or making loans available to more customers through mobile banking. In the case of Stanbic Bank, Mrs. Mugisha mentioned adjusting working hours to better fit customer and employee needs and implementing changes so staff could work from home comfortably. As the pandemic dragged on, more customers began to default on their loan payments and the bank “put in place repayment extensions to relieve the customers who were affected by the pandemic,” said Mrs. Mugisha. Focusing on the mission of the business instead of the structure allows businesses to adapt to a new normal. 

Trust is essential. The most valuable component of an institution is its people. A leader must build and maintain trust with employees in order to make compassionate leadership sustainable. When suppliers cut off credit lines, RI Distributors, one of the largest logistics trading companies in Uganda, focused on preserving the business through adapting their supply chain lines and establishing trust with their truck drivers by launching a number of key safety measures. First, they divested in long-term projects and focused on ramping up COVID-19 testing stations for their truck drivers. The business also hired more drivers so to ensure adherence to safer social distancing policies through a more flexible driver rotation schedule. Mr. Nsereko said; “I think it’s compassionate leadership that knows the business will [have the opportunity to focus on making] money in the future and chooses to look after their people now, in a sustainable way, in order to stay in business.”

Continue to Innovate. As institutions and leaders’ transition, make adjustments and recover from the shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to remain curious and willing to adapt. Continued disruption can make it really difficult to make a concrete plan for the future, but it can lead a company to develop better practices. NSSF, the largest social security fund in Uganda, launched a leadership ‘Think Box’ in order to continue to innovate and tackle the biggest challenges, particularly how to avoid layoffs and keep employees fulfilled while working from home. Dr. Kimbowa is proud of the results of these efforts – NSFF largely retained its staff, and reminds others that “firing people during hard times is in itself an admission of failed imagination [for leadership].” Continue to assess your beliefs and processes and make sure not to revert back to ineffective ways of working.

Compassionate leadership is essential in building resilient companies that survive in the face of adversity. The health and wellbeing of employees and clients should continue to be a priority for leaders in order to build a stronger and brighter future. Join us for the next instalment of the series that is planned for the first quarter of 2022.