How to lead under pressure: Sandy Chong

Sandy Chong of Suki Hairdressing in Newcastle, NSW PHOTO Max Mason-Hubers
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As the owner of Newcastle’s Suki salon, and the CEO of the Australian Hairdressing Council, Sandy Chong understands leadership. She shares her tips for service-based businesses here. 


When COVID-19 swept into Australia in March 2020 and forced the closure of shops and services, Sandy Chong was among the many business owners left reeling. As the owner of one of Newcastle’s most prominent hairdressing salons, she, like many salon owners, was consumed by anxiety over what the future held.


“It was heartbreaking. There was so much uncertainty. I had all these people, who I’d employed for years and years, and we didn’t know whether we’d be reopening.”


But Chong wasn’t just grappling with the management of her own business. As the CEO of the Australian Hairdressing Council (AHC) and a director of the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia (which represents 1.3 million small businesses across the country), she was also responsible for helping steer other salon owners through the crisis.

Sandy Chong at her salon in Newcastle, NSW. PHOTO Max Mason-Hubers

In the early days of the pandemic, she found herself fielding a constant stream of calls and emails from panicked business owners, while simultaneously trying to extract information from the government on behalf of salons. “I was working till three in the morning and then from 6am just to answer the calls. We were slammed. But it was crucial to find the right information and respond correctly and with clarity and help [salon owners] be safe.”


It was an experience that drew upon all of Chong’s leadership and management skills, and, here, she shares her top tips for steering a service business, as well as the insights she gleaned about leading during a crisis.


Suki Hairdressing in Newcastle  PHOTO Max Mason-Hubers

Communicate clearly

“In the early days of the pandemic it was very stressful and emotions were high,” says Chong, who quickly noticed that while some salon owners were proactive about communicating with staff and customers, others “just went under the covers”.


In fact, a new report from the AHC found that just over half of salon owners updated their staff via text message during the pandemic – a figure Chong finds disappointing.


“Communication is so important, and I think the one big thing missing in 2020 was community and relationships. We all missed that face-to-face time.”


Not only does Chong recommend communicating with clients and staff early and with clarity, but she says it’s incumbent on leaders to consider staff mental health during a crisis.


That’s why the AHC launched a programme of digital events, from online cook-offs to mental health seminars, “to help create the sense of community [hairdressers] had lost”.


Check your headspace

As a leader, Chong says it’s important to be in the right headspace before you communicate or interact with employees or customers. “You have to have clarity of thinking – especially when things around you are not as they should be.


“You have to ask: ‘Where’s my head at?’ As a business owner, it’s easy to get emotional, so before I make any decision I will always check in with where my head is at.”


If you’re feeling distracted or frazzled, Chong says it’s important to take a moment to re-centre yourself, otherwise there’s a good chance your decision-making or communication will be off-base.

PHOTO Max Mason-Hubers

Accept that you will have to adapt

“I think you have to accept that change is permanent, regardless of what industry you’re in,” says Chong, who explains that strong leaders are agile and resourceful.


She points to one NSW salon owner who successfully increased retail sales during the pandemic thanks to constant communication with her clients via Zoom meetings, social media or online appointments.


Stay informed

As a leader, it’s important to be informed, states Chong. “As a business owner you have to be accountable and responsible. You can’t say, ‘I didn’t know’… If you’re in business today, you have to know.”


That means keeping up-to-date with everything from regulatory changes to your own accounts. “You’d be amazed by how many business owners don’t know what a P&L [profit and loss statement] is or don’t understand how much it costs to open their doors.”


Seek help where you need it

Chong acknowledges that, as a small business owner, it can be difficult to be across every aspect of your operation – which is why it’s important to lean on experts to fill skills gaps.


“Get a good accountant,” she says. “Or, for example, unless you’re really savvy with reading legal documents, then get a lease broker. I’m someone who believes in finding smart people to advise you.”


Similarly, to stay up-to-date with regulatory changes, Chong recommends turning to trusted sources of information and peak bodies, like the Australian Hairdressing Council.

Sandy Chong of Suki Hairdressing in Newcastle PHOTO Max Mason-Hubers


Look after your staff

Some of Chong’s employees have been with her for decades, and she believes that retaining staff is about being flexible and caring – and rewarding them where possible.


“Flexibility is important. Most of my staff are part-time,” says Chong, who checks in with all her employees regularly to find out more about their goals, both professionally and personally. She then incentivises excellent performance with non-financial rewards – like travel or editorial opportunities – that match their goals.


“We create opportunity for them,” says Chong, who also regularly brings in health and wellbeing experts, as well as accountants, to keep staff engaged and happy.


“As a leader it all comes down to the culture of how you manage people and the interest that you take.”


Anna Saunders is a journalist who has worked for a range of newspapers and magazines, including The Sunday Telegraph (UK) and British marie claire. She is the co-founder of PRIMER

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