Today at Telstra we announced a range of incentives for our customers to be vaccinated and a care package to support them while they are in lockdown. This is in addition to incentives we announced two weeks ago for our people. It’s important that as a business leader I do everything I can to encourage our customers and the Telstra team to get vaccinated – to keep ourselves and others safe and to give them hope that there is a pathway out of the severe lockdowns so many of us are facing.

As COVID restrictions grind on, I’m seeing a loss of hope across the 50,000 people that make up the team at Telstra, I am seeing a loss of hope with my friends and my family – a loss of optimism, an erosion of confidence. Each of us has our own stories of how COVID has impacted us personally.

A few months ago, and shortly after her 60th wedding anniversary, I lost my mum in the UK. Like many others, I had to farewell her over Zoom thousands of miles away and I have not been able to get back since to give my dad the hug we both so desperately need. My sister-in-law has been in and out of intensive care with COVID in the US and I have lost count of the number of times my daughter, who works in hospitality, has either lost her job or been stood down. These experiences will shape us for the rest of our lives – we need to make sure they do not become our lives.

As the CEO of Telstra, I am very used to receiving advice, invited or not, on how I should do my job! I get it every day, but I have made it my business to not do the same to others in leadership positions and I know I am no health expert. However, I do know the challenge of balancing conflicting priorities in complex situations, of responding to many and varied stakeholders, and changing opinions.

I also know, as leaders we have a role to play in providing hope and never before have I seen the need for that hope more so than I see it today. The Scottish author and editor Alexander Chalmers wrote in the age of enlightenment, “The three grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, someone to love and something to look forward to”. At the moment, it’s very hard for people to find something to look forward to. We’ve got to change that and give people hope, but how?

An authentic conversation

I think the bottom line is people do not trust that even when we get vaccination rates to 70-80%, restrictions will be lifted in a meaningful way and that domestic and international travel will remain very challenging. Moreover, if that’s so, what is the end point, where is the light at the end of the tunnel and exactly how long is that tunnel?

To address this, we need to find the courage to be authentic about the issues holding us back. We need to talk more openly about what it means to live with COVID in our society without restrictions, including accepting infection rates will increase and health systems will come under pressure. Not fear these realities but come to terms with them and focus our efforts and communications on the strategies to manage and mitigate the consequences of them, as hard as they may be.

Australians have the strength of character to understand the reality of this pandemic – the human spirit can overcome just about anything when we are forced to confront it. So, let’s not hide from it, or run from it, let’s be authentic and face it head on and in so doing we will create the confidence that there is a path forward and give our people the hope that we will get through this and emerge stronger.

Balance the narrative

We need to move from a focus on the problems to the solutions and we need to have the courage to work out what is preventing us from opening up. If it’s our health systems, how do we come together and find solutions? What can business do, what can government do, what can community leaders do? How do we come together and work collectively with an eye to the solution and not just the problem? Without the courage to have these types of conversations and be open about where we don’t yet have answers, we risk a further erosion of trust and hope.

We need to better balance the focus of the narrative from what the problem is and why we need restrictions to how we get out of them and some of the realities we will have to face in so doing.

Let’s unite as leaders

And that is why a national plan is also so important, we need to align behind it in a nonpartisan way. I know there are differing views but now is the time to work through those views and commit to a plan that works going forward. And we can’t rely on just the government to do all the heavy lifting – business and community leaders have a role to play too and that is why we at Telstra are making the announcements we are making today, and made two weeks ago, with more to come.

I have no doubt some of the things we will collectively try won’t work or could be done better but let’s not persecute people for trying. These are unprecedented times and unprecedented events, at least in my lifetime.

#Hope

Against a drum beat of daily COVID case numbers and lockdowns, we also need to be cognisant about the mental health crisis so we can properly mitigate that toll too. We need to address the impact on remote indigenous communities and how we keep them safe. We need to consider the many other health conditions that are now not getting diagnosed or properly treated. We need to support the next generation and how we educate and train them for the future workforce when they’re learning has been so disrupted.

We need to focus on rebuilding hope and the sooner we do the better and that’s something in which we can all play a role.