‘Crisis has shown us why kindness must prevail in good leadership’: CEO Yolanda Finch

‘Crisis has shown us why kindness must prevail in good leadership’: CEO Yolanda Finch

Yolanda Finch calmly switched to crisis mode when the first wave of COVID-19 hit Australia, just as the Melbourne Fashion Festival she was leading was in full swing in March 2020.

Having been in the festival’s acting CEO role for just months, after former CEO Graeme Lewsey stepped down to undergo treatment for cancer (he is now in remission), Finch had to make some fast decisions in consultation with her team. 

“There was no rule book,” she says. “I had to make the announcement we were closing, with days left to go. I walked into the Royal Exhibition Hall, called everyone on to the runway – from backstage, out of the kitchens, all the teams preparing for the next three shows because it takes an army of people to put this on – I had to tell them it was over.” 

Hundreds of people were sent home, where they stayed as lockdowns and restrictions started. Tickets had to be refunded. Sponsors needed to be worked with. There were casual staff to pay from missed days of work. 

And Finch, with the help of her chair, board and other experts, went into damage control and forward planning mode. 

“You realise that you’re managing people’s emotions, as well as their job functions – it’s such a critical aspect of leadership.” 

They moved fast, staging a hybrid festival in 2021 that weaved in the live and digital worlds to bring a better experience for more people, and vastly improved their tech capacity in the process. Then they were able to do a bigger event in 2022. 

So how did she do it? 

Finch says 24 years in the events space has been excellent training. Event professionals must be resilient, flexible, and adaptable to whatever challenges come up. 

As Finch explains: “These shows must go on and nothing can get in the way of the curtain going up.” 

And she adds that continuous learning is an essential part of maintaining flexibility and adaptability; one reason why she chose to undergo further training with the Governance Institute of Australia. 

“I knew we had to lean into certain skillsets as management professionals, and absolutely anything I could do as part of my upskilling was going to be really important. I knew I was going to need to better understand governance principles, to keep us alive and to help mitigate risks. I knew I’d need to be learning better communication strategies. When you’re in a crisis moment, with different types of stakeholders, you need to be able speak to their needs.”  

Finch adds that having a calm nature has also supported her during these crisis years, as it did when she first went into the fashion events space, having previously worked in neither industry. 

Everything is preparation, she adds, and knowing that can ultimately prepare you for whatever comes up in what you need to lead – whether it’s an event, a presentation, or something else.  

“You over prepare and prepare earlier than you ever think you need to, so you can make room for whatever comes up at the last minute. You need to be able to make yourself redundant by the time you’re on site, because you will be required to put out the fires and to problem solve. 

“So, when people perceive me as being remarkably calm in a hectic situation, it’s simply that I’ve done my prep work in advance. I’ve got it all in my head. I’m now watching it roll out as it should. My role is to ensure I’m present, so I can push that last five per cent, to take something from ordinary to extraordinary.” 

Kindness matters 

Finch has had to respond to shifting health requirements and plenty of uncertainty regarding whether shows may proceed for more than two years she’s been leading the festival. Again, she notes how this can place an emotional toll on team members, and the need for her to be able to support them through that. 

“Leadership now has a mandate for kindness – which doesn’t always fit with what leaders are trained on, which is typically about performance,” she says. “But kindness must win if you’re going to have a good approach to staff wellbeing, and therefore staff retention.” 

Finch says she’s excited to return to a Chief Operating Officer role once her new CEO starts, as it will give her the ability to focus on collaboration and return to being the person that coordinates things behind the scenes. “I’m happy to be returning to that position, but also to be able to put more energy into the creative output.” 

During these COVID years and the uncertainty that’s corresponded in the events space, Finch recalls the quiet periods of working from home. 

She says that the Governance Institute course she undertook gave her connections and further stimulation from her CEO work, during the lockdowns. Taking the course over Zoom, she says she connected with professionals from various industries who were all dealing with their own challenges.  

“It gave me something to look forward to and enabled me to stretch my own potential beyond my own organisation and team,” she says. 

“I leant into the chance for that further learning because of my acting CEO responsibilities, I also could see that being in this unprecedented, challenging time, that all business leaders need the broadest, deepest, possible arsenal of skills possible. It also gave me a much better comprehension of the board around me.” 

Finch has seen her leadership grow significantly in the past few years, due to the response she had to make to the circumstances, as well as her own desire to keep learning and connecting with others. 

“I knew we had to lean into certain skillsets as management professionals, and absolutely anything I could do as part of my upskilling was going to be important. I knew I was going to need to be across governance principles, to keep us alive, to mitigate the risks, and communicate effectively.” 

A national membership association, Governance Institute of Australia advocates for a community of over 40,000 governance and risk management professionals. We offer a range of training and education study options, including the Effective Director Course, which explores the role of the company director and the board’s vital contribution towards organisational culture and sustainable governance. Find out more and register now

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