Leading through COVID-19: Interview with Charles Eason, Cawthron Institute


As leaders, the COVID-19 crisis has presented us all with unexpected challenges. Facing these unprecedented circumstances head-on has led to many stories of great leadership across all industries and sectors in Nelson, Tasman, and Marlborough. Our 'Leading Through COVID-19' interview series is designed to inspire and support a sense of togetherness as our region moves through and beyond this challenge.

In this interview, we talk to Charles Eason, Chief Executive of Nelson's Cawthron Institute, about what COVID-19 has meant for them as an organisation, how they have managed the transition between alert levels, and what challenges and opportunities lie ahead.

How has COVID-19 affected your business overall?

Our initial response before and during lockdown was on Health and Safety to ensure that, as far as possible, our staff were not exposed to the virus and we had work for those that could continue to work.

Throughout Level 4, part of Cawthron’s operations, its laboratory services, continued to operate. They are recognised as an essential service to support food safety and public water supply testing to keep New Zealanders safe and healthy from pathogens such as Listeria, and certify food products for export. We increased our lab services capacity in Level 3, as more of our clients and partners involved in the food and nutraceutical sector worked extremely hard to keep going, and we responded wherever possible.

Our other research and support colleagues (around 240 people) have been progressing some of their scientific research and support from home. But, many have been severely impacted by lack of access to our labs and our aquaculture park at the Glen. All field research was also halted.

Hence, Cawthron has been significantly impacted by COVID-19. In part, because we have had less work from our primary sector clients and partners and because most laboratory and field research ceased during the lockdown. We anticipate facing a tough economic environment well into 2021. With this in mind, science leaders and management are focused on trying to ensure we maintain our scientific and technical workforce and do not lose unique, nationally significant expertise and capability in aquaculture, food safety, marine biology and chemistry.

All of these skills are essential for a prosperous future NZ.

As a leader, what has been key in keeping your team engaged?

  1. Regular and honest communication using multiple channels, acknowledging our multi-generational workforce and ensuring early notification of decisions that affect staff. This included CEO addressing all staff by video conference articulating direction through the crisis and a destination.
  2. Support to help people adapt to working and using technology from home, especially Microsoft Teams.
  3. A wide range of online offerings to keep people connected and feeling supported – from COVID-19 information to resilience tips, online training, virtual staff morning teas and other staff events, such as online yoga and TOM Talks (Cawthron’s version of TED Talks).
  4. Ensuring communication channels are open for feedback on what’s working and how we can better support staff remotely – constantly reviewing and refining how we do that.
  5. Cawthron’s Science at Home initiative. This has been a great morale booster and provided a sense of contributing to the community.


Any learnings or advice you can pass on to other leaders? 

  • Staying true to our values and our organisational strategy to keep us focused.
  • Emulating the national approach. We are in this as a team of 300. Everyone can play a role, with care and continuity as a message linked to the journey and destination.
  • There’s no substitute for preparation. Early proactive steps and ongoing pre-emptive actions by the management team stood us in good stead for helping people with a focus on wellbeing.
  • Similarly, the value of fulsome, honest communication across an organisation of 300 people cannot be underestimated.
  • Once our immediate response was sorted and staff were set up to work in a new environment, shifting our focus from surviving in the short-term to thriving (and helping our partners thrive) in the medium to long-term became an aspirational focus.
  • Remaining positive, and encouraging staff to identify opportunities where Cawthron can contribute and proactively lead new research opportunities.


Have you been able to identify any opportunities for your business as a result? 

  • Looking with greater vigour at how our research and development can accelerate progress in primary sector growth and export, particularly focusing on partnering with those who are well placed to help the NZ economy recover from the pandemic.
  • Finding new ways to support primary industries, while balancing how we protect and restore our environment as part of any recovery efforts.
  • Looking at innovative, new opportunities for NZ Inc, exploring global partnerships.
  • The value of specialists and science and fact-based technical information informing decisions, if carried forward, will lead to better investment decision for those facing headwinds or opportunities.
  • A better appreciation of the importance of R&D linked to economic growth and disease mitigation.
  • The importance of being proactive in future to mitigate versions of diseases like COVID, PSA, mycoplasma bovis and the pacific oyster virus, which impact human and animal health and the primary sector; learning from these experience with targeted, preventative R&D.


Any thoughts on what will change for your business as a result of this disruptor?

  • New and innovative ways of working – testing flexible working arrangements and different ways of communicating; reconsidering reliance on travel.
  • Looking at different and diverse revenue streams.
  • Worries about technology and work practices have been reduced. Coronavirus has decoupled jobs from offices, and new ways of meeting are now BAU. We will carry some of this forward and gain advantage from it.
  • Being well placed, in spite of the pandemic, to progress exciting opportunities coming up. For example, the development of the National Algae Research Centre.


Enjoyed this interview? Read more from our Leading Through COVID-19 interview series here.

Intepeople Locations

Brannigans Locations

Quick Links

Better people make a better world
Better people make a better world
chevron-down linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram