“The future of work happened. And it happened on 11 March when the World Health Organization announced a pandemic.”

For Naomi Simson, Shark from Shark Tank Australia and founder of experience business RedBalloon, the outbreak of COVID-19 was like watching 20 years of her life disappear before her eyes. 

“The world changed in that moment,” recalled Simson “and we are catching up with it as fast as we can.”

How can a brand based on incredible getaways and unique shared experiences survive at a time when people couldn’t leave their homes? Simson leaned on her entrepreneurial instincts – balancing customer focus with operational discipline – and began preparing her teams for the day when Australia and New Zealand would reopen.

Simson’s decision was prescient. Just last week, the Australian government began relaxing restrictions on movement and economic activity. New Zealand has reopened schools, restaurants, offices, and retail trade. 

I caught up with Simson in this week’s Leading Through Change virtual event to ask her about staying positive through change, preparing for reopening, and reimagining business and societal relationships on the other side of the pandemic. Here are highlights from our conversation.

 

On innovating in times of crisis


“We’ve always been a nation of innovation,” says Simson, noting ideas are coming out for new ways of doing things as a result of COVID-19. 

“I think that we’ll see a massive wave of innovation, ideas and startup entrepreneurs. We need to look after the startup ecosystem. We will see a lot more innovation as we choose the road we want to take forward.”

 

On leading through ambiguity


“One of the greatest challenges is we've never been here before,” grants Simson. “This comes back to who we are as leaders.” 

Then, commenting on the importance of transparency and authenticity, “It’s really important that people can see us for who we are. I am worried for my business. I’m worried for my supply community.”

Simson reminds us things can never be completely under our control. “Our customers keep changing, customer sentiment changes, tastes, trends, they keep changing,” she says. “No matter what it is, businesses have to stay agile – this is just on a scale we've never seen before.”

“But I do know I can count on myself,” asserts Simson. “I do know where we are going. This is when our vision, our purpose, our sense of contribution are really important to us.” 

 

On the future of work


“What we've seen is it's not about inputs, it's about outputs.” Simson is confident people can collaborate in completely different ways. She recently posted on Instagram: ‘Work is not a place that you go, it’s something you do.’ 

“What is important is the connection piece,” says Simson, stressing the need to make sure people are included, that they’re listened to and that they feel safe. “The emotional resilience piece is something that as leaders we must stay completely diligent to.”

Simson’s motto of positivity – “If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me” – shapes her view of the future and hopes for her community. “I am grateful that we're one day closer to our better normal, to the new world we’re able to create. Let’s make sure that this better normal we create, as leaders, we do not leave people behind.”  

That spirit of selflessness is what inspired Rivers Cuomo of Weezer to quote a letter he penned in Hero, a tribute to frontline workers: “You are the reason we will rock another day.”

 

Watch the full video of my conversation with Simson, with a special performance by Cuomo:


Pip Marlow is CEO, Salesforce Australia and New Zealand. Read more from Pip Marlow.