CEO Outlook Magazine

Growing a business through COVID and beyond

Growing a business through COVID and beyond

The COVID-19 pandemic devastated many businesses, with healthcare being most affected.  So what does it take to steer a care company through such an event, and come out the other side with a growing business?  Johann van Zyl had only been operating his specialist care company, Cornerstone Healthcare, for 18 months before the pandemic hit. 

Here, he shares what he learned from the experience and how that informs how he operates as a CEO.


The care industry is, by the nature of its work, unpredictable.  With vulnerable people at the heart of its operation, so much can change so quickly.  

It’s not possible to be prepared for the outbreak of a global pandemic but as a CEO in a sector where no two days are the same, you have to be able to handle unexpected challenges, make strategic decisions at short notice and provide guidance to your team.

So, although the pandemic was an event such as we’d never seen before, the principles of our day to day operation went a long way to mitigating the impact for both our residents and our staff.

Key to this was an experienced and diverse executive team.  While I was having to run the company during periods of illness among our executive board members, our anticipation of the potential difficulties meant we’d already employed the clinical knowledge that existed on every level of the company to establish strategies to provide the best care possible to our residents.

I knew that I could concentrate on the running of our services, while drawing on the advice of our COO who was isolating, and leave our financial director to manage the economic demands of the pandemic from home.  Both our executive and our non-executive directors had the confidence in me to let me do whatever I felt was needed during the pandemic.  Our longer-term strategy had to take a back seat but I think it’s testament to our combined skills as an executive management team that we came out the other side still in a growth position.

Building a strong team is a key role of a CEO and I believe that, as well as assessing what you see on paper, you have to trust your gut.  The skills, dedication and tenacity of my head office team, which at the time consisted of my executive assistant, our Head of HR, a training manager and our Quality and Compliance Manager, made it possible for me to make the bigger decisions like where to find PPE, to establish and maintain lines of communication with the homes and support the managers through this period.

Teamwork is very much at the heart of the culture I’ve developed at Cornerstone Healthcare, and it’s something I’ve worked hard on.  When I first became MD of my own company back in my native South Africa, my perpetual sense of urgency often made me anxious and abrupt, hindering effective communication with my team.  I failed to truly listen to their perspectives and overlooked their valuable insights. It was a humbling moment when I recognized the areas in which I needed to grow as a leader.

It’s experience, rather than formal leadership training, that’s taught me to listen to colleagues, from all levels of the business.  COVID was an education in that respect as I didn’t have all the answers and I had to trust my team and the information they gave me.

I’ve also learned to lead by example.  During COVID, I felt it was important to be close at hand for staff to feel I was working alongside them.  I worked from the basement of one of our nursing homes and made sure I was in the parking area when staff were going on shift in the morning and leaving again in the evening.  It meant they could address any issues with me directly and it made them feel supported.

Employee wellbeing is so important in a sector with a high staff turnover.  

With staff having to self-isolate due to contracting COVID, we had to find agency staff in considerable numbers.  Rather than book them for individual shifts, our approach was to block-book carers and nurses for weeks at a time.  This did mean that, at times, we had more staff than we needed but it gave us flexibility and the agency staff, stability.  We could train them in the specific needs of our client group who live with challenging behaviours associated with complex neurodegenerative and mental health needs.

Training must be comprehensive in this sector.  One of the major reasons that staff leave is they feel unsupported and unsafe.  We have developed 17 day in-house training programme tailored to our business’ specific needs.  There is a range of study methods to suit people’s varied learning styles and no-one goes onto the floor until we feel they are competent and confident.

Investing in agency staff in this way, and indeed the team as a whole, makes staff feel more confident and invested in, and the strategy has paid dividends.  Many of those who worked with us temporarily during the pandemic have now become permanent members of our team.  Today we only have 0.3% staff vacancies out of 385 staff.

We kept the door open for staff who chose to leave because they needed time out physically and emotionally, and to assess if they wanted to return to care.  And many of them did.  

This is one reason why all of our staff, at every level in the business, go through our training programme.  We all work within the homes of our residents and need to know how best we can be part of that ‘family’.  It also creates a cohesive structure, with shared knowledge and goals.

It’s vitally important to have an open culture and good communication when caring for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, especially in times of crisis.  Their needs have to come first and we can only meet those effectively when we have open, respectful debate across teams.  

There is no manual on how to be a good CEO. It is about following your gut and instinct, being brave and innovative.  Leading Cornerstone Healthcare through the COVID pandemic taught me a great deal about acknowledging people’s strengths but also having the courage to accept failure.  Not all ideas will be successful so you have to let them go and start over with something better you’ve learned from the failure.  I always tell my managers “if a plan is not working, let it fail fast and move on”.

It’s this approach that’s made us the UK’s fastest growing specialist care start-up and it’s one that I will take with me as we prepare to open two more homes to meet the growing demand for our model of care.

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