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She’s handled tsunamis, fires and terrorist attacks, but nothing like this

PRODUCED BY TELENOR

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“I’ve never experienced a situation of this magnitude, duration and uncertainty all combined”, says Joanna Oustad.

- Senior Vice President of Health, Safety and People Security at Telenor

How are you in a crisis? Do you panic? Maybe you’re the one who stays calm, breathes deeply and sees solutions where others don’t. As we wade through what is perhaps the biggest global crisis in our lifetime, we have those cool-headed folks to thank for keeping the pot from boiling over. Joanna Oustad, Telenor Group’s Senior Vice President of Health, Safety and People Security, is one of them.

Let’s be honest: a title like that carries with it what you might call a ‘weight of responsibility’. During the first weeks of the escalation, at the beginning of March, Joanna’s phone rang almost ceaselessly and when it wasn’t ringing, it was plinging with text messages across multiple platforms.

“My days started  before 6am and began to slow by 9pm”, she says, remembering the most hectic weeks.

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The telecom company, Telenor, is one of the norwegian businesses with most employees abroad  meaning Oustad dealt with businesses in 10 countries in Asia and the Nordics – all with different Covid19 situations and time-zones.  Approximately 19,000 employees relied on the right guidance and decisions from her and their employer.

It sort of goes without saying that someone who can carry a responsibility like that, is the kind of person who hears the word ‘crisis’ and thinks ‘Let me at it!’

A new kind of crisis

Since completing her studies on both sides of the Atlantic in both the UK and the US, Oustad has been looking crises square between the eyes since 2011, when she began her career with the seismic imaging company, Petroleum Geo-Services (PGS). Seismic shocks, you could say, are her bread and butter.

“Over the past decade, I’ve been involved in managing many incidents and situations operationally and strategically. That covers things such as fires, fatalities (caused by ourselves), terrorist attacks, security related incidents (caused by others), and even tsunamis (caused by nature).”

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A list like that is enough to make the less stoic among us come out in a cold sweat, but for Oustad, it doesn’t compare to the shock of COVID-19.

“I’ve never experienced a situation that had this magnitude, duration and uncertainty all combined. It’s different from every other crisis, because it wasn’t caused by us, we don’t know how long it is going to last, and it has impacted everyone. On top of all that, we have to manage it remotely.”

“We did it all by video”

One of the most publicised results of our upended reality due to COVID-19 was how quickly life went digital. Work meetings were all on video, school hopped online and industry events went virtual. Meanwhile, Joanna and her international team of health and safety experts across Asia and the Nordics were way ahead of us.

“When the first cases were reported outside China, we started monitoring the situation and preparing for how this could affect our businesses across the world,” she explains.

That finesse for preparedness, you imagine, is a vital weapon in the arsenal of any crisis management professional, and Oustad and her team are no different. What, though, about Telenor? How prepared was the company for one of the most difficult challenges in its 165-year history?

“First of all, we’re in a favourable position because we have the products and services that are essential in these situations. People need to stay connected, and I’ve heard from so many employees across the board that the last few months have proven that our purpose is now even more relevant than ever. One other thing that helps you through situations like these is culture. What has impressed most is our people. Everyone has stepped up, stayed engaged, kept aligned, and pulled in the same direction. It is a global team effort I am really proud of.”

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Among Oustad’s tips to leaders in a crisis are to think long-term and to focus on maintaining business as usual.

More tips below

That doesn’t mean the pressure wasn’t on, and building daily.

Within a normal day, in addition to the actual handling of the crisis, she had to find time for regular updates to employees, reports to management and curating task forces, all the time with one eye forensically monitoring stats, cases and guidance across the 10 countries that Telenor employees call home. 

When you’re that busy, breakfast and lunch are things that happen to other people.

Picking the positives

As the fevered urgency of the situation begins to gradually retreat in some parts of the world, many in business and public life have begun to switch their focus to what they can learn in the fog of the aftermath. As someone who found herself in the middle of the maelstrom, what’s Oustad’s take on life-after-COVID-19?

“I think that we’ll have an even more flexible working environment where we can work from anywhere at any time. I’m also confident that we’ll continue to use our technology tools that have proven to work so well.  At the same time I believe that people are social creatures, so we’ll need to find space for offices or arenas where we can physically meet and interact with each other.”

Before Oustad ends this interview to continue managing Telenor’s employees through this particular emergency, we had to ask: what tips would she give to a leader managing a crisis?

STAY POSITIVE and try to stay on top of the situation, adapt to the changes that you and your teams face. We’ve seen that we cannot always prepare for everything, so being flexible and adaptable is vital.

THINK LONG-TERM and focus on keeping business as usual. Start thinking about the future, looking at the opportunities that can be derived from the crisis.

STAY CONNECTED to your team. Keep them engaged and communicate frequently. This is a challenging time for everyone and we know that many are struggling, so we should all be understanding and show each other empathy.

Produced by Telenor

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