From crisis comes opportunity: How strong leadership can help businesses navigate difficult times

Disruption can present opportunities to discover alternative routes to success. See how two AGSM @ UNSW Business School alumni used entrepreneurial skills gained through their MBA programs to guide their start-ups through challenging times.

| 24 Sep 2021

Resilience in the face of disruption is key for navigating challenging periods, and according to Melanie Fisher, AGSM Adjunct Faculty Member and General Manager at Alta Corporate Psychology, resilience starts at the top.

“I think resilient leaders manage their energy really well,” Melanie said on the AGSM Business of Resilient Leadership Podcast. “They're focused on self-care, and they're focused on learning and new ways of doing things.

“I think this is a two-way process. I always say it's much like putting on your own oxygen mask first during a plane crash landing. As a leader, if you're not feeling at your best and you're not managing your energy well, it's very unlikely you're going to be able to care for other people.”

Taking an “oxygen mask” approach provides leaders with the confidence to ensure they are in the best position to help others face business or industry-wide obstacles.

“Building a supportive community at work is paramount to navigating disruption in an organisation and developing agility,” Melanie said. “When people feel safe, they're much more likely to show up and bring their best self to work.

“People are then willing to work in a different way or try something new, as they still feel supported and connected. Organisations that go the distance rely on their people to be more agile and weather storms, so to speak.”

When disruption threatened their businesses last year, alumni Quirin Schwaighofer, (AGSM MBA Executive 2013), and Adele Schonhardt, (AGSM MBA Executive 2019), were able to use the frameworks from their AGSM @ UNSW Business School MBA (Executive) program to lead their start-ups through challenging times, showcasing their own resilience while adapting to these challenges and helping their peers navigate unprecedented territory. 

Empowering your people to succeed 

Quirin is the Co-CEO and Co-Founder of MadeComfy
Quirin is the Co-CEO and Co-Founder of MadeComfy (AGSM MBA Executive 2013)

Quirin is the Co-CEO and Co-Founder of MadeComfy, a business that manages short-term rental properties. An official partner of Airbnb in Australia, MadeComfy has grown between 100-200% per year since starting in 2016. But the company faced extreme challenges in 2020 due to COVID-19. 

With MadeComfy’s revenue drastically reduced, Quirin had hard decisions to make. He could have let some employees go to save costs. Instead, he created several cross-functional teams within the business – MadeComfy mini-pods – to tackle the pressing issues facing the company. 

Each MadeComfy mini-pod had a captain and a maximum of six team members – with representatives from different channels of the business, such as marketing, sales and tech in each group. Initially developed in the face of a crisis, the mini-pods have become a permanent fixture in the MadeComfy workflow.

“It's incredible to now see it was the best thing we ever did to not let people go, but instead empower them to help us stay aligned with our strategy and our goal to evolve MadeComfy,” Quirin said on the AGSM Business of Adaptive Leadership Podcast (Part 1)

“And when I look at the faces of the team, from this anxiety they had to where they are today, empowered and really excited – there’s nothing better than watching that.”

Quirin says to help MadeComfy survive, he had to change his leadership style to focus more on transformation and strategic methodology.

“It was important to have our team of over 80 in the right mindset of creativity, focus and ambition whilst we supported and motivated them to enter the difficult journey during our transformation.”

He also said he leaned on what he learned in his AGSM MBA (Executive) course when plotting the future of MadeComfy.

“The MBA (Executive) program prepared me with multiple frameworks and practical experience by applying them to real-world cases,” he said. 

“Now I’m able to assess the changes in our industry and prepare, communicate and implement a detailed pivot-transformation strategy with confidence.” 

Taking action to save the classical music industry

With concert venues closing and festivals being cancelled in 2020, classical music industry veteran Adele, Co-Director of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, watched with dismay as many of her friends and colleagues struggled. 

Adele, Co-Director of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall
Adele, Co-Director of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall (AGSM MBA Executive 2019)

But Adele and arts industry colleague Chris Howlett turned unprecedented disruption into a creative opportunity, opening new doors for performers by launching Melbourne Digital Concert Hall (MDCH). The start-up live streams classical music performances online for paying audiences.

Within 10 days of their first conversation about what they could do to support the industry, Adele and Chris, Co-Directors of MDCH, had the platform up and running. In less than seven months they raised $600,000 to support Australian musicians. 

Adele said on the AGSM Business of Adaptive Leadership Podcast (Part 2) that working in a team of two is a freeing experience, and was a big reason why she and Chris were able to get MDCH operational so quickly.

“It's just been amazing actually how agile you can be when there are just two of you; because you don't need to consult with the marketing department and the finance department and the operations team and everyone else when you're wanting to get an idea off the ground,” she said.

Adele knew her role with the MDCH gave her a chance to make an impact across an entire arts sector – something she was prepared for thanks to her AGSM MBA (Executive).

 “One element we learned in the MBA was about T-shaped leadership or enterprise leadership, which is where you perceive yourself as a leader, and not only within your one company. I was a media and public affairs manager at a big performing arts company, and I loved it there. 

But when it came to this situation, I started to see very quickly that if you work in a big company, you are in a way hampered by the fact that you need to carry that whole infrastructure with you. It becomes unviable when you're looking for a lean solution to fix a problem.”

She said that going back to basics is important when trying to solve a problem under stress. And so is a willingness to hit the ground running even if things aren’t exactly right.

“You need to be able to be very agile, to forget about your perfect product,” she said. “You can't spend weeks running surveys or tweaking it or making it look brilliant. You need to grab your minimum viable product and just run with it. 

“As we learned in our MBA program, it's a design thinking process in action. Of course, it wasn't perfect, particularly for our first concert, and there are still some rough edges we're working on. But we don’t get as hung up as we used to in a consultation processes and designing the product. 

“We just try something new. So long as the heart of your product is there, and you're very clear about your purpose and why you're doing it, the sky’s the limit.”


To learn more about AGSM’s Business Of Leadership Podcast, click here.

To find out more about AGSM @ UNSW Business School, click here.