Cometh the crisis, cometh the leader

7 August 2020

The pandemic has posed a number of current and future challenges to high-performing execs in the real-money gaming space and certain behavioural traits will be advantageous in meeting these, writes Andrew Bulloss

As lockdowns enveloped the world and consumers faced the prospect of staying indoors for three months, the gambling community went online.

Notwithstanding the cancellation of most mainstream sport and the impact this had on sports betting revenues, for those gaming operators and suppliers who generate the majority of their revenue online, this wholesale shift by their customer base to digital arguably created more opportunity than challenge.

However, the recent crisis is an entirely unexpected one, one that has disrupted the industry and set unprecedented challenges for leadership executives and teams.

A crisis is often seen as the ultimate challenge to management and a true test of character, so what have we learned from this about the leadership qualities that have been most useful in recent times and what does that mean for future leadership in the industry?

In our ongoing assessment of top-level executives in the industry, we always look for generic qualities that we know need to be present in any successful leader. This would include being visionary, people-focused, resilient, curious, communicative and inclusive, among others. The recent crisis has forced us to reprioritise this list and upgrade certain character traits.

A measure of confidence in leadership
Odgers Berndtson recently undertook a global study to investigate the nature of leadership in a world of accelerating change, in association with Harvard Business Review Analytic Services.

We asked almost 2,000 senior managers and executives at companies of all sizes around the world how confident they were that their company’s top leadership team could successfully navigate a world of ever-accelerating change.

It found that just 15% believe their top team would do well when facing change at scale.

Importantly, however, The Odgers Berndtson Leadership Confidence Index also identifies how specific leaders are coping and pinpoints the qualities and attributes companies need most from those in top roles to succeed in turbulent times.

Our work identifies three key traits as being essential in leaders who can successfully manage through disruption.

The first of these traits is a blend of compassion, empathy, humility and authenticity – what many might call emotional intelligence, but it’s more than that.

There is still a lot of machismo among management in the gaming industry but expressing empathy effectively and authentically is gaining ground as a leadership behaviour. 

Leaders that have been able to engage displaced workforces during a time of emotional distress and upheaval have all adopted a similar approach. They are willing and consistent communicators, able to convey the message of ‘we’re in this together’ and recognise that they don’t have all the answers but temper this by displaying an urge to do the best they can for those they are leading.

It is a new workforce engagement skillset that has inspired loyalty and even pride within workforces.

More than this, however, it is a behaviour that employees now expect from their leaders and will be critical to leading them in the next six to nine months where the real-money gaming industry in particular will face significant workforce engagement challenges as it tackles continued remote working, further compliance and regulatory challenges imposed by regulators while also ensuring focus on business continuity AND allowing time for innovation.

For those businesses with brick and mortar venues, the additional health concerns of employees returning to work and engaging customers is a further leadership test that will benefit from an empathetic approach.

The second trait is agility and the pace at which change is made within a business. Acting on available data, learning on the go and dynamic course correction.

Those leaders getting it right have led their organisations down two paths; they’ve pivoted to win customers in completely new demographics or territories and they’ve doubled down on those parts of the business that they know are going to succeed in the ‘new normal’.

It’s required courage, resilience, entrepreneurialism and an ability to inspire a workforce in order bring them on a journey. Not only must they understand what’s needed across their teams, but they must also be able to work collaboratively, inspire and foster new ideas, and engage people across the organisation.

In the real-money gaming industry, this will have meant some brave decisions from CEOs on either staying in or pulling out of existing markets and the merits of entering new ones. It will also have required courage to stick with new product and tech road maps rather than remove investment when the going got tough.

Indeed, following the early lockdown period, after businesses had adjusted to remote working, many gaming organisations have invested time and resource into new product and technology – taking advantage of thinking time away from the office to innovate while also accessing great talent that may have been released from competitor businesses. The results of this innovation time are still to be seen and may come later this year.

For business leaders outside of the real-money gaming industry however, reframing has meant much more than just adapting business models and products.

Those at the top of their game have either built upon or adapted their organisation’s cultural identity to instil a sense of purpose within the wider context of the pandemic.

They know that the existential question of ‘why we do what we do’ has become front of mind for almost everyone and talented people will increasingly choose to work for organisations whose purpose resonates with their own beliefs and values.

So the third trait is about creating purpose. This is particularly challenging for leaders in the real-money gaming industry. How do you create a sense of purpose in the workplace when faced with age-old negative perceptions of gambling and the increasing media scrutiny around the industry’s impact during the pandemic?

On top of the pandemic, going beyond industry expectations in tackling diversity and inclusion, and adapting positively in light of the Black Lives Matter movement are two areas where we may see real-money gaming leaders with high-performing skillsets take novel approaches to create a sense of purpose in their organisation.

This is important. As the industry fights a perception battle, the need to create a message to prospective future talent will be critical.

If employees are now much more aware of the need to engage in work that is meaningful, with organisations that serve a higher purpose and are seen to ‘do good’, what does this mean for the gambling sector in terms of talent attraction?

How do gambling businesses create more value beyond the bottom line, in line with the drive for companies to be more purpose-driven?

How can companies and the industry reframe themselves post-Covid? How will the sector adapt and move forward? Has the pandemic made a moral compass an essential leadership tool?

At the same time, how many gaming leaders are looking to use the pandemic as a way to reset or restructure their business for a post-pandemic environment?

How are organisations using remote and home working to rethink their approach to attracting more diverse talent? In the future, flexible working policies will likely drive employee retention and attraction, and not having one will put your business at a disadvantage

As leaders move from managing the crisis to resetting the strategy and leading the transformation of their organisation, this is the time for leaders to take risks, change the game. Here are a few things for leaders to contemplate:

• Incentivise by something other than survival – change the mindset to leading with positivity.

• Turn new-found agility into a good habit – innovate and execute quickly to embrace new ways of thinking and working.

• Don’t allow positive behaviours and practices adopted during this period to be lost post-lockdown. What have you learned during this crisis that will drive future change?

• As a people-focused leader what are you doing to present a sense of purpose for your business and use new ways of working during Covid to build a more diverse workforce for the future?

Over the next six to nine months, evolving employee expectations, shifting customer demographics, societal movements, new technologies and successive waves of the virus will create further change in real-money gaming.

This new set of leadership capabilities will be critical for industry CEOs and other gaming leaders in not only charting a course through the disruption but in bringing their organisation out of the pandemic even stronger than it was before.

Our society is unlikely to revert back to its pre-pandemic state so why should our industry?

That being said, there are no precedents for organisations in the industry doing things dramatically different and being successful, but surely unprecedented times demand unconventional approaches.

Which of the industry’s many businesses is willing to be unconventional?

Andrew Bulloss is partner and head of the global gaming practice at Odgers Berndtson. He specialises in executive search for organisations recruiting directors, senior executive, C-level and non-executive directors in the international gaming and gambling industries. He is the practice head within Odgers Berndtson responsible for promoting our firm's global capabilities within these markets internationally.