Lockdown reflection - Andrew Corbett-Nolan

16 March 2021

A personal reflection by Andrew Corbett-Nolan, Chief Executive (Partner).

A year ago today GGI locked down. We were a week ahead of the rest of the country, and like any business proprietor the preceding weeks had been ones of growing anxiety over what on earth was about to engulf our world, and how as an employer and a business we were going to navigate our way through whatever was coming our way.

We were better informed than most because of our work with the NHS. And also regardless of any business risks that would come our way we felt a sense of a compelling duty to do ‘our bit’ at what was going to be a moment of defining national crisis. For long enough we had called ourselves a national institute, and now was the moment when we needed to act like one.

So having a clear sense of a higher duty actually helped. Also, we had operated on a semi-virtual basis anyway and so from agreeing GGI would lock down at 5pm on Monday by lunchtime Tuesday we had gone virtual, and by 5pm were having our first meeting as a team on Zoom.

We took some early decisions that turned out to be absolutely on the mark. Regardless of the financial consequences our mission was just to plough onwards. We had the privilege of supporting the NHS at a time when it was the one institution that the country would be dependent on for survival. So we decided to focus on three simple things:

1. We would convene, once a week and for as long as it took, a national forum for NHS non-executive directors. From Friday 23rd March 2020 we have hosted a weekly webinar free for any NHS NED, and what a journey we have gone on together. It is a unique forum of peer-to-peer support and insight. And each Thursday with colleagues from the NHS Confederation we hold a similar forum with the Chairs of NHS mental health trusts. This has amounted to more than 4,000 attendances now.

2. Within our limited means, we would offer a free governance advisory service to the NHS and third sector. The service is to resolve simple matters we can deal with within a particular time budget, but the 83 cases we have resolved within this have provided huge value to those using it, from smaller third sector organisations that had nowhere else to turn to board secretaries of large NHS Foundation Trusts needing a bit of advice, counsel and practical help.

3. Published advice – starting with 100 daily bulletins of original writing on the governance issues the pandemic threw up. With a total word count of 95,000 this matches Tolkein’s The Hobbit in terms of scale, and the feedback we have together with the impressive data from downloads etc proves that many have found this insight and help invaluable.

At the same time, GGI have worked on 65 client assignments, held the largest ever Festival of Governance, hosted over 130 virtual events and increased our staff team significantly. One of our executive directors returned to the NHS to work on a Nightingale project. We set up a Faculty that now includes around 80 experts in different fields of governance that work with the staff team, our associates and partners to make governance what we believe it to be – a force for the good in a complex and frankly tricky world. The figures could go on and on - 55,265 people have visited our website in the last year, there have been 1,124,800 impressions on our twitter account and our newsletters have been opened 59,673 times, mainly by a senior NHS audience.

So yes, I can say we walked the walk as well as talked the talk.

Personally too this has been an extraordinary year. Like most, I have had to dredge up energy and inspiration in a way I never imagined possible. Virtual working is a little like being a battery hen with long, long days spent working in a small room intimately connected to the world through my laptop. I have got to know many wonderful people through our work that I have never physically met – indeed a whole swath of the GGI staff team I have yet to have the pleasure of meeting in person. I don’t think I’ve ever been better informed because as well as running webinars, I’ve been attending many, watching virtual board meetings and reading voraciously. Much of my work is just talking with people leading large public bodies. I am there for more one-to-ones than could ever have been achieved in a more traditional work pattern – and gosh these conversations have been both fascinating and candid.

How people have got through this is impressive. Just thinking of my team I have had staff members trapped abroad by lockdowns. Others have found themselves suddenly the sole breadwinner. For some of the team working at home means working in the bedroom of their shared flat, on their own and away from their friends and families. Everyone has felt anxious for themselves and their loved ones with the various levels of their own Maslow’s pyramid hacked away at – financial security, health, the comfort of company, privacy – the list goes on and on of the compromises and demands made by the pandemic and the lockdowns. Some team members have lost loved ones – two of the team have lost parents abroad and never had the chance to say goodbye. One couldn’t attend his own father’s funeral. That is unimaginably tough and will cause pain that lasts a lifetime. There has been real courage and rude adjustments for many this last year that are inescapably cruel.

In one way I do feel my experience has been relatively unique. Unusually for today, I live in the house I was born in and in which my mother and her father saw through the last world war. Pandemic parallels with going through the war are usually best not made, but in the sense of sharing a space with ghosts of my own past who too went through extraordinary times I have felt a sense of connection that has buoyed me up and along. I am writing this sitting at the desk where my grandfather – a farmer - filled in the Ministry of Food paperwork and ate my dinner at the same kitchen table where he and my Mum shared their rations. Human beings are remarkable for their adaptability and resilience. There is a comfort in knowing that our species has got through much worse, and that quite quickly we can adapt and stay focussed. And oh boy do I value now so many ordinary things which I spent years taking for granted. But I think we all do now.

Meet the author: Andrew Corbett-Nolan

Chief Executive

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Prepared by GGI Development and Research LLP for the Good Governance Institute.

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