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Luis von Ahn

CEO and co-founder of language learning app Duolingo, and professor of computer science, Carnegie Mellon University

What do you wish you’d known six months ago?

I’m sure everyone will say the same but I wish we had known how long Covid would last. We have a team in China, so we had greater foresight than most, but I don’t think anyone was predicting the turmoil it would cause or how much of a profound and long-term impact it would have on society.

For us, we have seen a rise in online learning that has remained outside of lockdown as people prepare for future disruption and recognise how effective online learning can be. We’ve seen huge growth for the Duolingo learning app and our Duolingo English Test all over the world.

Luis von Ahn’s worst decision was not getting a haircut before lockdown
Luis von Ahn’s worst decision was not getting a haircut before lockdown © Justin Merriman

What are the best and worst decisions you have made since the pandemic started?

Our mission is to develop the best education in the world and make it universally available, so I’d say our best decision was launching Duolingo ABC, our new literacy app, early and prioritising the Duolingo English Test. We planned to launch Duolingo ABC in 2021 but brought it forward to help parents trying to homeschool during lockdown.

We also diverted resources to our English proficiency test because we knew students wouldn’t be able visit physical testing centres and still needed to take exams. Personally, I am also proud of how we kept our culture alive. Lockdown affected our team in so many ways, with parents juggling childcare and new employees and interns adapting to work when they’d never met their colleagues, so keeping people connected and reassured was paramount.

The worst decision was not getting a haircut the week before lockdown.

Jackie Stevenson

Founder and CEO of creative agency The Brooklyn Brothers and president of Women in Advertising and Communications, London

What do you wish you’d known six months ago?

How bad the pandemic was going to be for women in the workplace. It’s created the perfect storm that will result in so many talented women leaving businesses and downshifting. If we’d had a bit more foresight there’s so much that industry, governments, we all could have done.

Jackie Stevenson says the pandemic will result in many talented women leaving businesses
Jackie Stevenson says the pandemic will result in many talented women leaving businesses © Julian Hanford

What are the best and worst decisions you have made since the pandemic started? 

The best was making our business “flexible first” overnight by giving our team the power to decide when, where and how they work. It’s been so much more effective to learn as we go rather than do what we used to and debate for hours.

The worst has been planning for a “return to normal”. There’s so much more freedom in planning “for better”. As soon as you shift to this way of thinking a weight is lifted and you are back in the box seat.

Sir Douglas Flint

Chairman of Standard Life Aberdeen and former chairman of HSBC

What do you wish you’d known six months ago?

I wish I’d known how adaptable and agile (to use the modern word), people are when faced with challenging circumstances. The scale and pace of change that people managed was beyond anyone’s estimation of what could be possible.

The way people supported those in more difficult circumstances was also just fabulous. It’s what you would have dreamt would happen, but never knew was possible.

Sir Douglas Flint thought it was ‘fabulous’ the way people supported those in more difficult circumstances
Sir Douglas Flint thought it was ‘fabulous’ the way people supported those in more difficult circumstances © Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Bloomberg

What are the best and worst decisions you have made since the pandemic started? 

The best decision I made was continuing and completing our succession planning process, which was challenging in a period of remote working. It would have been easy to say it was all too difficult. But we decided to go ahead with it and brought in a first class chief executive, with the huge support and commitment of the retiring CEO. [Standard Life Aberdeen finalised the replacement of its chief executive, Keith Skeoch, with former Citigroup banker, Stephen Bird, at the end of June.]

The worst decision I made was not doing something in the very early stages of the lockdown to improve the quality of my home broadband. We had five people using it at once, in a lovely village in Sussex, which at times was a real frustration.

Rebecca Henderson

Harvard Business School professor and author of ‘Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire’, shortlisted for the FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year prize

What do you wish you’d known six months ago?

That entrusting my signature red leather jacket to a dry cleaner on March 10 was a bad idea.

That it would shortly become startlingly obvious that having a competent government really was essential to the health of the economy. I would have been rather less apologetic in advancing the idea.

Rebecca Henderson regrets handing her favourite jacket to a dry cleaner as a national lockdown loomed
Rebecca Henderson regrets handing her favourite jacket to a dry cleaner as a national lockdown loomed © Evgenia Eliseev

What is the best decision you have made since the pandemic started?

To work my way (slowly) through the entire Harry Potter series.

To start a gratitude practice. To focus deliberately — every day — on how incredibly privileged I am.

To buy a Blue Yeti mike on March 19.

And the worst?

To say nothing to our 24-year-old son about his diet when he came to live with us for four months, despite the fact that he seemed to live on almost nothing but granola bars.

Mitchell Baker

Chief executive of Mozilla Corporation, chair of the Mozilla Foundation and judge for the FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year award

Mitchell Baker’s best decision was openness with her employees
Mitchell Baker’s best decision was openness with her employees © Zuma/Shutterstock

What do you wish you’d known six months ago?

More about how to help people build organisational resilience to weather multiple simultaneous crises. The specifics of real-time learning are irreplaceable, but a deeper foundation six months ago would have been invaluable.

What are the best and worst decisions you have made since the pandemic started?

The best is the commitment to openness with our employees and community about the state of our organisation and our business. There is often no model for how to communicate openly as one works through difficult decisions. As a result, it can take more time and problem solving work to determine how best to provide accurate assessments, be realistic about problems and also provide positive leadership for the future. I have found the “upfront” time doing this to bring long-lasting rewards in the form of employee commitment and dedication.

The worst decision wasn’t actually a conscious decision at all. The error was to allow the fatigue from the pandemic and extreme wildfires to cloud the need to move quickly to resolve a culture issue.

Cal Henderson

CTO and co-founder of workplace messaging app Slack

What do you wish you’d known six months ago?

That it was even possible for businesses to go through such a seismic, rapid and permanent digital transformation, which was unimaginable at the start of the year. We quickly recognised our unique position and responsibility to help businesses make this major change in how they worked, and it was hugely motivating and inspiring for everyone at Slack.

Cal Henderson has learnt that we will never get back to how things were
Cal Henderson has learnt that we will never get back to how things were

What are the best and worst decisions you have made since the pandemic started?

From very early on, the best decision we made — which played a major part in driving our business forward — was to focus on the health and wellbeing of our employees. It’s the same notion of putting your oxygen mask on first on a plane, before helping others. We worked hard to ensure that work was not a point of stress for our people. We were very clear that we wanted people to take care of themselves and their families — even if that impacted work. We are all human first.

As for the worst decision, along with many others, I assumed that leaving the office and working from home would be a shortlived experience. With that as an assumption, I was focused on how we get through this difficult period and get “back to normal”. I know now that we’ll never get back to how things were, and figuring out what that meant for operating in a distributed way sooner was a missed opportunity.

With thanks to Pilita Clark, Andrew Hill and Emma Jacobs

Join the conversation

Tell us what you wish you had known at the start of the pandemic. What were your best and worst decisions? Share your thoughts in the comments below.




 









 









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