Leading with care through COVID-19

Jacqui McGillivray, executive vice president and chief people officer at Element Fleet Management, talks about what she’s learned about keeping employees motivated and connected as they work remotely and grapple with COVID-19 through openness, focus and understanding.

In this episode, Jacqui McGillivray discusses:

  • The impact of COVID on her organization (03:18)
  • How a culture of agility and accountability is helping her team be practical and deal with change (04:01)
  • The importance of communication and trust in a crisis (06:12)
  • The importance of considering people’s individual situations and being empathic to their needs (07:18)
  • What her company is doing to help employees be productive while working form home (08:21)
  • Creating connection points and collaboration when you aren’t face-to-face (13:19)
  • Why you should be open to all ideas in this unprecedented time (18:01)
  • Her self-care routine – and why these matter for leaders (19:33)
  • Positive lessons from COVID-induced changes (22:12)
  • Her hope for other leaders during this time (23:11)
  • The importance of leaders being human in a crisis and showing vulnerability (24:44)
  • Her favourite work-from-home attire (27:30)

Advice for leaders:

  • Take care of your employees as people (08:31)
  • Foster connections and collaboration (10:18)
  • Build in space to be present (16:43)
  • Slow down and listen effectively (17:16)
  • Leverage the different generations in your workforce and the perspective they have to offer in challenging times (17:59)
  • Be practical, not perfect (22:19)
  • Be honest about how hard this time is for everyone, including yourself (25:00)
  • Be flexible (25:27)

More about Jacqui McGillivray:

Jacqui McGillivray is executive vice president and chief people officer at Element Fleet Management, where she’s worked to create a culture of collaboration to drive productivity. At Element, McGillivray handles talent management and development, global compensation and benefits, real estate and workplace and communications. She’s also responsible for the company’s global balanced scorecard, people and organizational performance.

Before joining Element, McGillivray was executive vice president of safety and organization effectiveness at Cenovus Energy. She has held senior HR leadership roles at Talisman Energy, Royal Bank of Canada and Nortel. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Western Ontario and an international MBA from Manchester Business School and McGill University.

Links to additional resources:


A note to our listeners, 

Covid-19 has created an unprecedented time for leaders. There is no playbook or easy way for leaders to navigate the tremendous economic, social and emotional toll.  

With this in mind, we decided that it was important now more than ever for leaders to help each other by sharing their stories and practical experiences. So, we’ve decided to focus our upcoming episodes on how Leaders  are navigating this crisis: how they’ve shifted direction, what they are doing to keep their teams safe and motivated, and how they personally managing through this tremendous uncertainty.

We are grateful to the number of leaders who have offered up their experiences. Their creativity, resiliency, humility and positivity has been inspiring. Our hope is that by sharing their ideas and stories we can help each other find a way forward.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: Hi, it’s Tineke here. Welcome to today’s LeaderLab. As you know, LeaderLab is focused on having inspiring leaders share their stories and practical leadership tips in order to help others be more effective. Today is March 26, 2020, and we are facing an unprecedented time for leaders as they navigate the uncharted world in dealing with the global health pandemic of coronavirus.

We debated internally whether to stop or postpone these podcasts when a leader we deeply respect suggested that we continue but refocus on helping leaders share their personal insights and tips on how they are responding to the crisis. Clearly, there’s no playbook on how to tackle the economic, social, and emotional challenges that leaders are having to navigate through. But our hope is that by, perhaps, making lessons from others available, we might be able to help share some ideas and let leaders know that they are not alone.

Our next few episodes will be focused on how leaders are managing through these times and we hope you find them helpful.


NARRATOR: Welcome to LeaderLab, where we talk to experts about how leaders can excel in a modern world. Helping leaders for over 20 years, your host, Tineke Keesmaat.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Today, I’m joined by Jacqui McGillivray. Jacqui is the leader in the field of people and is passionate about helping individuals and their teams achieve their fullest potential. She’s currently the executive vice president and chief people officer at Element Fleet Management. She has had senior leadership positions in a range of industries including financial services, oil and gas, and telecommunications.

Jacqui and I were planning on doing a podcast today on engagement when these COVID-19 crises broke. She has generously suggested that we continue with the podcast but focus specifically on practical leadership tips, on how she and her leadership team are responding to the crisis, knowing that there’s no perfect answer and that every leader is trying to figure it out. Jacqui, thank you so much for joining me today on LeaderLab.

JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: Thanks, I’m thrilled to be here.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: So Jacqui, just help me help our listeners understand a bit more of who you are. First, can you tell me what Element Fleet is?

JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: Element Fleet is a leading global fleet management company. So what that means is we provide both financing for commercial vehicles as well as services to manage those vehicles. So it’s all about making the fleet safer, smarter, more productive for our clients.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: What is your specific role at Element Fleet?

JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: So I’m proud to be a member of our executive team, and I have three key areas of responsibility. One is what we call our balanced scorecard, so that’s translating our strategy into key objectives and measurable outcomes. That’s what creates focus for the organization in each year.

Secondly, I have the people function, so everything regarding human resources from start to finish. And then thirdly, I have our global communications and events group.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That’s a very interesting set of roles that you have. What has the impact of COVID-19 been on Element Fleet?

JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: It’s an unprecedented situation for our business and our people. We’ve seen a softening of demand as people self-isolate, work from home. And as a result, the utilization of Fleet declines. Many of our clients are making changes to their operations and their needs are changing. Our suppliers are also responding in this environment. And so we’re working with both suppliers and clients to understand and adapt to their changing business environments so that we can continue to deliver a consistent superior experience.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Jacqui, how has the leadership team been working through this crisis? What’s the same and, potentially, what has had to be different?

JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: Well, the team’s been on a transformation journey for the last 18 months, so it’s been quite a dynamic environment in and of itself. And we would be very honest in our approach to say that it’s been difficult. But we’ve grown as a team. We trust each other and we lead with that focus, which is anchored in our strategy.

What’s different is that we have to be very practical in our execution right now. And we can do that because we have created a culture of agility and accountability. And with that, we’re able to play as a team, right? We all have a role. We all have a position. And we’re playing both offense and defense.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Give me some examples of what that agility has looked like over the last four weeks as this crisis has unfolded.

JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: Over the last four weeks, we’ve enacted our BCP, as many companies have. And we’ve taken the action to move 90% of our workforce to work from home. And for those that are within our facilities, we’ve taken all the necessary precautions to ensure that those facilities remain safe for our people.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And what does it look like in practice?

JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: Yeah, so it looks like deep cleaning. It looks like strong security measures. It looks like really limiting the amount of work that needs to be done in the office– because there are a few pieces of our processes that do– to the essentials.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And I’m curious what that has been like for employees where so many people get to go work from home and some are still in the office. Has that created any tension or questions, or any concerns for folks that some people actually still need to go to the office every day and others are getting to work from the safety of their homes?

JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: It’s actually created a feeling of connection and we’re all in this together. We are rotating staff in and out of the office so that we don’t have a full complement there. And that’s doable because we have seen a slight softening of demand. And people are reaching out and making sure, what can I do? And also trusting in our leadership because of the credibility we’ve built throughout the transformation, that we’re taking the necessary steps and we’re putting our people first, and their health, and well-being.

And the last thing I’d say is we communicate every day. We have a goal of transparency beyond anything I’ve ever seen.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: What does that communication look like every day? Is that an email? Is it live chats? How are you communicating each day to team members?

JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: So it’s been really fun. It’s been tough messages but in creative ways. So we commit a daily update to our senior leaders. And then the following day, we send out employee communications. It can be over email. Our CEO recently did his own production of a video, which was so comforting and endearing. And people have responded wonderfully to it as we all learn how to work from home. We sent out a virtual care package.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: What was in that?

JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: Yeah, so it was just a number of tips, and links, and information to help everyone adjust to working from home– parents of younger children, people who are caring for family members– just even apps that can help you be mindful, workouts, tips for healthy eating, exercise. And people got it. And they just responded in numbers to say, thank you for thinking of me because I don’t even know where to start.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Well, that sounds sounds a very holistic, whole-person approach, right? It’s not just come and get this work done it. It’s hey, we recognize that this is uncharted, uncomfortable times and we want to take care of you as a person, not just an employee.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: Talk to me a little bit about helping people transition to working at home. You mentioned some people are caring for others, some people have small kids. How are you helping people think through how to be productive from wherever they’re situated today?

JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: The challenge is we will all feel like we need to be on 24/7 and there’s no clear division of work and home anymore. And so we need to step into that, and acknowledge, and accept that it’s OK if children run in, dogs run in. It’s OK if you need to take a break, step away. We’ve really got to create a structure, and a beginning, and an end to the workday. At the same time, we also ask that some of our people be available 24/7 in the event that we need to respond quickly.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And the structure– so, is everybody expected to be on from 9:00 to 3:00? Or are sub-teams coming up with their working hours? How are you creating a structure that is both productive so that folks can get into a flow but also flexible to accommodate the dogs running in, and the children, and the random things that happen when you are just at home?

JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: Structure feels somewhat nonexistent in this environment. I think what we’re looking at is starting with, what’s the work that needs to get done? Who are the people that we have? We do have excess capacity in some of our people. How do we redeploy them to where the priorities are or where they’re needed most? Because we have some clients whose demand is increasing and we have others whose demand is softening. And so we’re looking at active redeployment.

And then lastly, I would say the tools that we have, we all– it was amazing what our technology team did in a week, not even a week. I would say in three days, we had 90% of our workforce working from home. We had a gentleman drive a U-Haul truck with 90 monitors–


JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: –from one site to the other site. These selfless efforts are part of who we are and we share those stories, both what we’re doing for each other and what we’re doing for our clients, particularly in the health care industry. And it is so uplifting. People just want more and more of that.

And lastly, I would say these tools, it’s hilarious when you’re sitting with the executive team on Zoom and we’re all learning, oh, if you click this, you raise your hand.


JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: Oh, if you click this, you have the cool moon background. And it’s almost somewhat juvenile but hilarious at the same time, right? We’re forced to use these tools and in a fun, collaborative way.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And isn’t it amazing how people that I’ve been really shy about tools or thinking that they’re complex, how quickly people can learn and adapt? I think of some of my clients that– oh, we’re going to move to remote work. We will get there. But we have to go through these massive programs to get our teams ready. And yet like you said, in the course of three days, you’ve got 90% of your staff up and running on it. And I think it’s fascinating just what is possible in organizations and how adaptable people actually can be when they need to be.

JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: The journey that we’ve been on, as I mentioned earlier, our transformation, it hasn’t been easy. We’ve asked a lot of our people. We’ve made some difficult decisions. But through all that, the one thing that we have committed to is open, honest, frequent communications from our CEO right out through the organization. And we have committed that even through the most difficult decisions. And it’s created that trust, right? And it’s not something to take lightly because that can easily break if we don’t follow through in this environment in particular.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: There might be some people listening to this who haven’t got the right communication channels in place yet or they’ve not been the most open with team members. How would you advise them to get started? Because in this particular moment, it is more important than ever. Any advice for folks getting started, particularly at this rather unique time in our world?

JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: Well, it starts with going back to the basics. Our CEO, Jay Forbes, laid that out as a key principle in our strategy when we started our transformation 18 months ago. And a lot of us went, what does that mean? And we quickly realized that it starts with the understanding of, what is the work we do? How do we work? Who do we work with? Why are we doing this, our purpose?

I don’t mean to get philosophical on you. But I do think when you go back to your core purpose and the basics of how you work, you can think of it similar to how you communicate. And so let’s now think we don’t collide into each other at work because we’re not physically present. I now need to create those collisions by setting up a daily meeting, a weekly huddle. I need to put one-on-ones with my direct reports into the calendar where I could have crossed the hall and knocked on their door. These are basic means of ensuring those connection points throughout the day.

And then encouraging people to come together and solve the problems in front of us and collaborate. This is– I mean, we talk about collaboration, Tineke, so many times we’ve talked about it. This is collaboration at its best.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Right. Because there’s no choice. There’s no perfect answer. As you said earlier, there’s no playbook. And there’s just really tough problems everyday that companies are having to face. And so people need to be in it together in order to come up with the best possible solution in this moment. So collaboration– I can see that the need for it is exponentially higher than people have experienced in the past.

And I think some people think, well, how can I collaborate if I don’t have those collisions and if not sitting in the room with somebody? How are you guys using technology to facilitate people collaborating from a distance?

JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: It’s almost expected, just assumed that we’ll all jump on Zoom. We’ll use our cell phones. And you know, it’s funny. At the beginning of this, I would think about– OK, so I’ve showered, I have makeup, I’ve dressed appropriately. Now it’s like, OK, some days I need to put my hair in a ponytail and ask for forgiveness on what you’re going to see. Because–


JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: –this is isn’t about looking pretty. This is about being present.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: It’s amazing. From where I’ve sat, I’ve had so many client conversations or colleague conversations– very humanizing, right? So I’m seeing the insides of people’s homes. I’m seeing their children. I’m seeing people on bad hair days. I’m seeing people that have literally just come in from a run and their ponytails are all crazy.

And it’s interesting. It’s not getting in the way of productivity and it’s helping me to connect with people in a different way than I have in the past. So I think it’s very interesting that you’ve just raised that point that it isn’t about looking pretty. It’s just about being in the work together. And it is creating a way to connect that we may not have had in the past.

JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: Yeah, it’s being authentic, right? And that is what society, I think, forgets, is bringing your authentic self to every situation. Some days you’re going to have good days. Some days you’re not going to have good days. It’s being present with yourself and your team. And I read something this morning. The common question we ask people is, how are you? How are you doing? And often, we don’t listen to the response. Well, now we’ve got to listen.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And I imagine that you are getting answers to that question at a time where people feel like hey, I’m actually not doing really well, I’m scared at this moment. Or my husband is in a job and there’s economic uncertainty with his. So how are you encouraging your leaders to really listen. And in those moments where an employee may not be having the best day ever, how are you encouraging them to connect? Or what resources are you providing to help people through these moments?

JACQUI MCGILLIVRAY: Yeah, I would say three things. One, build in the space. And I know that’s hard because we’re jumping from one call to the next Zoom meeting. But try to build in space such that you, yourself, can get up from your workstation and just go for a quick walk around the house. Grab a healthy snack. But create that space so you are present. And the reason I start with that is because a leader needs to be present, right?

Because the second point I would say is put the camera on. Look at people. See how they’re doing. Is there a question in their eyes? Is there pause? And ask them. Be curious. What’s going on? Talk to me. And if they can’t right now, then give them the space. But come back to them. Don’t forget them.

And the third thing I would say is there are so many wonderful resources. Bring those into the workspace. Make them available. You don’t have to have the best written communication. You can do things through PowerPoint. You can do things through email. You can do a quick video. There’s so many tools being made available now.

And leverage the generations, right? We’ve got people with so much experience and we’ve got people new to the organization. This isn’t about hierarchy. This is about us all bringing our ideas to the table and leveraging the best of those ideas.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: The great equalizer, right? Focus on the ideas versus the role– yeah, interesting.