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The power of Empathy

There’s a quote that often circulates in the wake of devastating events, ‘Look for the helpers’. In times of disaster, you will always find inspiration where people are helping’. The helpers during these uncertain times have come in all forms. We speak to Shaun Donaldson from Halpin Partners on the power of empathy in the face of adversity.

You don’t need the media to tell you that COVID-19 has had an extraordinary impact on thousands of small businesses around Cairns and the rest of the country. Whether it’s a Government-sanctioned shutdown on business within 24 hours or anxious Australians slashing their spend, the uncertainly of what’s yet to come has been unnerving. Here in Cairns, we’ve seen diametrically drastic differences in economic forecasting in the short space of three months, and while it might be easy for many businesses to assume the worst, there are some business owners and operators who a leaning on the old adage of being stronger together in order to keep each other afloat.

“For many Australians, COVID-19 is the first time they have faced true adversity, but here in Far North Queensland we know all about it,” says Shaun Donaldson, Senior Partner at accounting firm Halpin Partners. “We’re a pretty tough lot up this way, and whilst survival at both business and personal levels are the main challenge, my experience is that this region really knows how to come together to help each other out. That’s my main goal – to make sure as many businesses and jobs survive this crisis, and that people who are doing it tough are okay.”

  

THE PANDEMIC IMPACT

Whether it be in the form of late-night phone calls talking clients through next crisis management steps, helping business owners navigate their way through Job Keeper applications or Federal Government Business Loans, or simply reaching out to clients on a personal level to check in, Shaun’s genuine empathy and care for people has shown a different side, a truly human side to business.

“We know so many of our clients personally, so checking in on people was second nature. It was March 23rd when PM Scott Morrison had the press conference where he shut everything down with 12 hours’ notice. I was on the phone that night to clients who have pubs, bars and restaurants, tourism businesses – everyone was in a bit of shock. All I could do was ask if they were okay and if there was anything I could do. Every phone call had a professional element, but also a personal element – to let them know we were there to help.

“A lot of the clients are my mates, my wife knows them, their kids go to school with our kids. Checking in on people might be going a bit over and above, but it’s just what you do. It’s not just about business – that’s culturally an Australian thing to do. You’re there for your mates during the tough times, which is what we did. We helped a few of our clients to apply for the Government loan; we’d get responses back late at night, we’d pass it onto clients as soon as we found out just to keep the ball rolling. Response time was the key. Letting people know they had been approved were some of the best phone calls I’ve ever made – people were in tears, happy and relieved, it was such an emotional journey. We genuinely care about people, and we saw it as our responsibility to help guide people through that. I’m pretty proud that we were able to get in there early and that businesses were able to keep staff on, keep their heads above water, and making them sleep a little easier at night.”

THE GREAT RECALIBRATE

“Because we’re in Cairns, we were lucky enough to have seen certain effects from the international stage early on, especially those in fishing, agriculture and tourism. Darren (Halpin) and I were worried about the severity of this quite early on. Around the end of February, we suspected things were going to get a whole lot worse, so we set up our own Stage 2 Plan. We made sure people could work from home. We already had this contingency set up in case of natural disasters – turned out to be useful in a pandemic as well! Most importantly though, we maintained constant communication with our team. We encouraged the teams to take the same advice we were giving our clients, putting ourselves on the front foot.

“This situation has really shaken people up a bit. The ‘she’ll be right attitude’ is such a prevalent part of our culture, but now so many people are more focussed on the financial position of their business. In normal situations, most people have a rough idea of where they are. But when something completely abnormal like this happens, focusing on the numbers is critical. Financial positions can change very quickly, so doing the modelling, doing the forecasting is the most important. As I look at things now, although we are nowhere near the finish line, we’re in a much better position than I thought we would be.”

LESSONS LEARNED

With restrictions relaxing a little and businesses across all industries starting to operate again, life seems to be regaining a sense of normality once more.

“The pandemic has touched every single person personally. One of the biggest impacts I’m sure no one else saw coming was the impact of the lack of socialisation. And kids have probably been affected the most here. The impact of not going to school, sports, dancing, other extracurricular activities or chatting with their friends has been difficult, as with adults. It’s really highlighted the importance of social interaction. You can’t hide from all this, but you still need a social outlet to lighten the mood.

“Managing pressure is about staying calm, maintaining a routine, checking in with each other, exercise. I like to plan things in advance, so this whole ‘one day at a time’ notion is completely out of my comfort zone. I love a spreadsheet. There are no spreadsheets for a pandemic! I love reading data, so not knowing or being able to predict what’s going to happen in a week, a month from now is quite destabilising. I’ve really had to supress that part of me and just concentrate on the now. Taking one step at a time – I can’t stress the importance of routine.

“The first month of the lockdown will always be etched in our memories, just how scary and tough it was. All the uncertainly, the long hours, the stress and anxiety. There were great outcomes at the end though, which made the long hours’ worth it. Professionally that will stay for a while.

Shaun chokes up a little “I didn’t plan for a pandemic to nearly destroy the livelihoods of many of my friends and clients. I didn’t think, ‘What a great opportunity here’ to impress people. It was a tough time. But I’m very proud of how we came together and got through it. Every day brought a new challenge and new procedures. Some of these things we would have taken months to plan and implement, yet here we were rolling things out over days.

“I feel like we’ve come through the natural disaster part, and the lockdown was the crisis management. Without a doubt, that was the worst part, primarily because of the shock. The hard work part is coming – the recovery period. This was the sprint, next is the marathon. We’re accustomed to it up here thanks to our cyclone contingencies, there’s always initial support but then the cameras go away, and attention drops off. The recovery is the hardest. For everyone, personally and professionally, the hard road is still ahead – the message is still that we need to continue supporting each other.”

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