Alice Laugher, the CEO of Committed to Good, a private company that provides specialist staffing and logistics solutions to the humanitarian community, is accustomed to working in crisis zones: South Sudan, Gaza, and West Africa during the Ebola epidemic, among others. These experiences have taught her how to build a corporate culture that allows business to thrive, even amid uncertainty and turmoil. In this interview, Laugher explains that the relationships between employees and local communities are key: They help organizations anticipate crises in ways that competitors without those trusting connections don’t, and they create an organizational culture that is resilient in the face of drastic external change.
In the new era of constant crises, a handful of CEOs have become experts at preparing for and navigating them.
Among these leaders is Alice Laugher, the head of Committed to Good (CTG), a private company founded in Afghanistan and based in Dubai that provides specialist staffing and logistics to the humanitarian community. When we met Laugher in 2014, for example, CTG had just built out the medical and emergency services that the World Health Organization used in West Africa to address the emerging Ebola outbreak. Since the company’s founding in 2006, its clients have included most major humanitarian organizations; it now operates in 26 countries. In 2019 Laugher was awarded the prestigious Oslo Business for Peace Award.
We recently asked Laugher what she and her team have learned about uncertainty through working in crisis zones, and how this might help managers new to the type of crisis leadership our tumultuous time requires. The conversation occurred in September 2021, right after Kabul fell to the Taliban and the United States withdrew from Afghanistan. Our meeting was punctuated by calls and messages from the members of Laugher’s team on the ground there and local staff members who continued their work of supporting humanitarian action. We later used email exchanges to ask follow-up questions. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
You’ve worked in Afghanistan for more than a decade. How are you handling the current uncertainty?
We navigate a new normal every day. The situation, the rules, the regulations, and the needs of the local population shift constantly. Can you imagine running a business in a place where banks are not operating? Or where corporate accounts are frozen? There is still active fighting and hostility in parts of Afghanistan where we have staff. How do you deliver salaries and make payroll to thousands of employees scattered across the country in such an environment? When the Taliban took over, we were forced to reevaluate our core objectives, achievements, and progress.
The United Nations has said it will “stay and deliver,” and so will CTG. We’re able to do it only because we already have battle-tested systems in place to make sure that payments get made to our employees on time. While nobody foresaw how quickly the Taliban would reach Kabul, we were perhaps able to react to the takeover better than other international businesses because we are so locally connected through our staff. We prepared for eventualities that seemed obvious to us, yet so many well-intentioned groups that simply weren’t paying attention to the situation on the ground were taken by surprise. And we had all hands on deck to assist our partners with urgent evacuations because we knew they would most likely need our help.
These kinds of crises — and Afghanistan is only the most recent example — test how strong our relationships with our staff, clients, and partners really are. We ride the waves together. It’s as simple as that. We share the same goal: to build humanitarian projects so that aid can get to the people who need it no matter the danger or challenge involved in getting it there.
You’ve been recognized for your work in conflict zones, particularly in how CTG has helped enhance peace in those locations. What are the most challenging uncertainties your business faces in conflict zones?
Each country is radically different, but preparation goes a long way everywhere we operate. You have to navigate local laws, some of which may be unpublished. In one country, the tax law is from 1921, so it certainly cannot be found easily and downloaded from the internet! And meeting tax obligations — something that is considered a back-office task — has much more serious consequences in conflict zones. I have witnessed these obligations being enforced by unlawful detentions and on occasion by supposed officials armed with AK-47s.
That’s why it’s so important to have local staff members as part of your core team. They can help navigate the nuances and sensitivities of their country, and they have a deep understanding of their environments, a level of insight that can’t be matched by outsiders no matter how much research they do. CTG recognizes this, which is why we offer decent work opportunities that can otherwise be hard to come by in low-employment nations. We give people a sense of stability and financial security and create mutual respect with local community leaders, who, in turn, provide support when a crisis strikes. While conflict-affected regions do need international support for both humanitarian and development needs, you cannot arrive in a country as an outsider and solve all its problems. That’s not the path to sustainable recovery.
How does CTG’s corporate culture help you and your employees deal with the VUCA conditions you regularly face?
We have a culture that encourages people to go the extra mile because of the value of the work that we are enabling. We believe in what we are helping to deliver.
In Gaza, for example, our senior manager, who is Palestinian, once delivered food supplies to local and international staff while they were in their bunkers and moved people to safe locations while his own house was being destroyed by a rocket attack. He went beyond the call of duty amid his own crisis, which set the tone for his team. Many CTG employees have done similar things in similar circumstances. It’s actions like these that make our culture what it is, not statements on a website or in a press release.
Our people share a fundamental desire to make a difference and help those in need. Everyone trusts that we will jointly make the right decision for security and safety based on local knowledge and information, while still getting the job done. CTG is not a “look to the CEO for the answer” culture. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Instead, we work together to find solutions to complex problems.
How do you shape this kind of culture?
We embed it in everything we do. Our company name is CTG: Committed to Good. And we make that commitment because we must — not for appearances but because it’s better for our staff, clients, the communities we work in, and, frankly, our bottom line. If we didn’t act in ways that affirmed these values, we wouldn’t have been in business for very long. Our employees, clients, and communities would have abandoned us.
One key strategy is to expose our headquarters staff to the realities of the business. We don’t want to have an “ivory tower” feeling. All of our team members go to the countries we work in, because everyone must see the jobs their colleagues do in order to understand how we all fit together.
It doesn’t matter if you are in a back-office finance role — understanding our on-the-ground work, who it benefits, and what our partner organizations want is critical. It is simple things like seeing that a cash machine withdrawal of $100 might require a B6 armored vehicle and a costly private security detail. We all try to get to the field as much as possible.
How do you adapt quickly given the speed with which things change?
We have several plans of action as part of our day-to-day business in each country. For example, our team in South Sudan was prepared for some serious civil unrest and escalation at the end of August, when the opposition parties called for mass protests against President Salva Kiir. Thankfully, the street protests didn’t really happen. This is the ideal scenario for CTG, of course, as there was neither a disruption to our business operations nor a threat to our staff’s safety.
Nonetheless, a lot of times our emergency plans do have to be used. So, we must remain versatile at both the local and leadership levels, and our culture and the trust we have in our team approach are essential. Without those, it would be impossible to prepare or to be particularly resilient. Every time there is a new issue, we look for opportunity. Had the Taliban not taken over in Afghanistan, for instance, the country still would have had deep problems, and CTG would be there to help enable solutions. That doesn’t change just because a new group comes to power. We adapt to fit the environment while very much keeping our core principles and values a business priority.
For example, gender equality is a core value of CTG and is a major passion of mine. We prioritize the employment of women in conflict-affected countries and in humanitarian programming through our Female First program. Will the roles we used to support for women in Afghanistan still be safe? Will women want to continue to work in these roles? I honestly don’t know yet, but they’ll still be our priority in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Our relationships — with the local community, clients, and the wider humanitarian aid sector — also help with adaptation. I have spent 18 years working in emergency and conflict settings and have built many relationships. Relationships are not just part of your broader network of contacts; they take time, effort, and care. Ultimately, like all businesses, you must know your sphere of influence to get done what is needed, but in fragile environments trust is very hard to come by — so if you’ve done the work of building good relationships, it’s one less thing you must worry about. Trust helps us play a role in making these places safer.
How has Covid-19 impacted CTG?
In many ways, Covid-19 was just another crisis for us. Our ability to travel was obviously the biggest challenge it posed. The pandemic made it challenging to frequently and easily mobilize to the field from HQ, due to long quarantine restrictions, suspended airline routes, and other regulations. We also lost a critical colleague to the virus — one of our operations managers, who was on leave in the UK — and his passing hit us very hard.
But honestly, our staff is prepared for the worst every time we deploy, so Covid-19 was a much bigger deal for people in countries that don’t regularly face difficulties doing basic things. In the countries we work in people die all the time; in that sense, Covid-19 was just another issue to navigate, along with other medical diseases — such as cholera, malaria, or Ebola — famine, drought, displacement, and terrorism. We have managed travel disruptions before in specific countries, and so we had already built out a digital system to replace regular on-site meetings to the point where most of our staff members are not office-based — they are out in the field. Pandemic restrictions just meant that we had to use those systems in more countries for an extended period, whereas in previous crises we would use them for shorter periods in specific places that we couldn’t travel to.
What advice do you have for leaders and organizations that aren’t used to dealing with crisis?
In a crisis, you have to work together as a team: An organization with a hero culture will not survive. You have to rely on your staff — from the most junior to the most senior — to step up. This is why it’s so important to really know everyone before crisis hits. You want to know how far you can push people and who you can rely upon. It’s wonderful when you see new talent in the organization stepping forward to assist their colleagues to get a needed job done.