Five opportunities to reimagine your ‘new normal’

Five opportunities to reimagine your leadership in the 'new normal'

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We hear a lot about the ‘new normal’ in relation to the way we will live, socialise, work and communicate after the pandemic ends.

Like most challenges, this also means we have an opportunity to think about a ‘new normal’ approach to leadership. There are many lessons we can learn from strong, effective leaders during this crisis and apply it to our leadership styles now. Not in the future. Not even after the pandemic.

Whether we like it or not, our legacy as a leader is being made today. The way your decisions, actions, words and choices make those you lead feel during this crisis will be remembered for a long time to come. It is not too late to focus on your personal leadership and to seize the opportunity to lead in a way that will leave a powerful, positive legacy for all those in your wake. Fortunately, thinking about a ‘new normal’ is a chance for us all to reimagine our ‘new normal’ way of leading as well.

Powerful leadership examples

Early in the health crisis, Arne Sorenson, Chief Executive Officer of Marriott International, gave a five minute speech to his global staff which was candid, vulnerable, humble and emotional while balancing that with a decisive path forward and a sense of reassurance, for those who are being led by him, that they will see this crisis through together. Sorenson showed himself to be a leader that was resolute and courageous and able to combine that with a massive dose of transparency and emotional intelligence.

Adam Silver, Commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA), made one of the first high profile decisions to suspend a major sport when the 2020 basketball season was cancelled very early in the pandemic. He made that decision in the face of great uncertainty – the virus had not yet reached the United States – and at a time when you can imagine there would have been many stakeholders counselling the NBA and Silver against making such as significant financial decision without much more information.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is often seen at the podium making strong decisions about the fight against COVID-19. Yet at the same time, she is prepared to be incredibly authentic with an example being a Facebook Live session she held answering questions from New Zealanders while sitting on her living room couch, wearing her sweat pants, having just put her toddler to bed. Jacinda Ardern is the type of leader who confidently and comfortably adapts her leadership style without any loss of respect by those she leads. Quite the contrary, her authenticity and transparency earns trust.

Five opportunities for all leaders

So what do these examples mean for us and what opportunities can we seize as leaders now as we think about our ‘new normal’?


Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else. It means truly being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

This pandemic has affected everyone in very different ways. While some people are enjoying the ‘pause’ from regular life and are happily baking bread at home, others are struggling for survival after losing their jobs and financial security. One of the many responsibilities of a leader is to understand that individual situation for every person they lead.

Never has it been more important for a leader to be able to put themselves in the shoes of others to understand what is driving people’s decision-making – knowing what is going on for them – for example, before jumping to conclusions that they are not performing at work or are not adapting to the ‘new normal’.


The next opportunity for all leaders is truly practice becoming highly self-aware so you are aware of the impact you have on those around you. This is a skill that all leaders should aspire to build given it is also an essential ingredient to being able to show empathy.

Whether you are a leader who has been leading your country, your business, you community or your family, every leader in the world would have had moments when they would have felt anxious, scared or overwhelmed by this crisis. No one has been trained to prepare to respond to a crisis of this magnitude and the decisions leaders make can result in lives saved or lost. A self-aware leader is able to assess whether they are feeling anxious and manage it as best they can and not create further anxiety for the people they lead through responding to those they lead with frustration, anger or despair. Self-aware leaders are also able to assess whether the way they are communicating with those they lead is having a positive or counter-productive impact and adapt their style accordingly.

Decisiveness in the face of uncertainty

We are all naturally inclined to want to make decisions after we have gathered all the data and can assess the risks. This crisis has shown though that you cannot wait for information – if you wait for proof that something will work you are guaranteed to fail. In many cases, that information may not be forthcoming for some time, if at all, and those you lead are looking to you to confidently lead them forward. Some of the best leaders in the world make decisions confidently, quickly and courageously and they do so with empathy, self-awareness and transparency.

An ability to adjust the pace of your decision making and to be able to make decisions in the face of little or no information has been a critical factor of success for many leaders in this crisis.

Be prepared to accept failure

Now is the time for leaders to set ego aside and accept they do not have all the answers and that they are going to make mistakes. Maybe quite a few. The pandemic has provided leaders with the unique situation that no one knows the answers, no one knows what will or won’t work in any given situation. We still don’t know how the crisis will unfold.

The skill for leaders to be able to make decisions and accept that some choices and decisions won’t work is incredibly important – just as it is important to be able to change course as soon as you realise that is needed. Make decisions as you need to, watch how it unfolds and as soon as it is time to change course, do so without any fear of appearing to have lacked decisiveness. Be prepared to seek advice, admit you don’t know all the answers and accept that this decision is the best one you can make right now but that you may need to change course again soon.

Adapt your leadership style

This crisis has seen us inside the homes our leaders – there has been a true ‘bringing our whole selves to work’ – as we see pets, children, casual clothes, bookshelves of our leaders. Leaders should not be afraid of this as it does not mean that we lose sight of the strength and effectiveness of those leaders we trust.

Don’t be afraid to adapt your leadership style to the situation. What matters more is the consistency you live the values you lead by and the ability you have to share good news and bad.

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What opportunities will you seize to define your ‘new normal’ as a leader?

What opportunities will you seize to define your 'new normal' as a leader?

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There is no doubt that the legacy of every leader is being written right now as we work through this crisis. We are unlikely to ever see our leaders, and that includes ourselves, tested in this way again during our lifetimes.

We will remember those leaders who made us feel safer just as we will remember those leaders who added to our anxiety. We will remember the leaders who checked in to make sure we had everything we needed at our lowest points just as we will remember those leaders who never asked.

Every single one of us is a leader, whether a leader in our homes, our local communities, our businesses or our governments. Each day we are making decisions about how best we can choose to lead through this crisis. And every decision we make is being watched closely by those we impact.

The words of Winston Churchill are often remembered during challenging times and none more so than this particular quote from 1940 when Churchill addressed the nation –

"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that...[people] will still say, 'This was their finest hour.’”

While Churchill was speaking to the entire country, implicitly he was also calling on each individual to think about their own contributions to the war effort. In the case of the COVID-19 crisis, I think this quote is a reminder that, as leaders, we need to hope the people we lead look back and feel that we too showed it to be our finest hour.

Even the best leaders are self-aware enough to know there are areas where they are challenged and need to develop. Therefore all leaders have an opportunity, right now, to assess their leadership style through understanding that the ‘new normal’ will not just impact the way we work in the future but also what we expect from our leaders.

The most valued leaders around the world during this crisis have been those who have been able to lead decisively and courageously with a compassionate, ethical, emotional intelligence. Sheer intellect has not, and has never been, enough. The smartest people in the room are often not the leaders you would choose to follow into battle and this has been demonstrated in this health crisis.

It is leaders who are ethical, values based and purpose driven who are the leaders we wait to listen to each day. We trust them to have our best interests at heart whether it is in their decision making about our businesses, our schools or our communities. It is those leaders – and those leadership attributes – we will remember and call upon in the future.

It is not too late for all leaders to seize the opportunity to define what kind of leader they wish to be in the ‘new normal’. It is a time to put ego aside and to acknowledge that this is a challenging time, you have been tested beyond all previous expectations and that you are grateful for the wisdom and support of others. Ask those you lead what they need from you and then listen, really listen. Put yourself in their shoes and help them to feel safe in the new way of working as you lead them into the future.

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Leaders: What would you have done in this moment? Spoken up or stayed silent?

Leaders: What would you have done in this moment? Spoken up or stayed silent?

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For those who may have missed it, during a White House briefing this week, President Trump speculated that injecting detergent into coronavirus patients might be an effective form of treatment for COVID-19. After a barrage of negative comments from health officials, including brands like Dettol and Lysol confirming that under no circumstances should their products be ingested or injected into the body, Trump reversed his comments and claimed he was being “sarcastic”.

In the White House Briefing Room with President Trump that day was Dr Deborah Birx, a highly respected and accomplished physician who specialises in immunology, vaccine research and global health. Birx is no stranger to working in a political environment having worked for three Presidents during her career including her appointment by President Obama to lead the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief and more recently an appointment by President Trump to lead the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

The footage of Dr Birx’s reaction to President Trump’s comments immediately went viral. Birx did not correct Trump but remained silent during the awkward exchange. Birx’s body language is revealing as you see her avert her gaze, stiffen in her chair, rapidly blink and take a number of deep breaths. You could be forgiven for thinking she appears completely dumbstruck by what she hears Trump suggest.

What do you think you would have done in Dr Birx’s shoes?

Missed opportunity to lead

Putting politics aside, I believe we can all find empathy for Birx during these few moments. Birx’s entire career has been in the medical profession seeking to find cures to communicable diseases and enhance public health. She would have known, clearly, the consequences of what the President was suggesting. I am sure if any of us were in Birx’s shoes we would have wanted to be anywhere, but there, in that moment, especially as he looked to her to confirm his views.

Despite the extremely challenging situation, it is also clear what needed to be said by Birx in that moment.

Birx needed to summon all the courage she could to correct the President when he called on her. She needed to say, respectfully, something to the effect of “No, Mr President. What are you suggesting is not correct and will cause significant health consequences.” As an individual, this was an opportunity to demonstrate authentic, courageous leadership. As a physician and leader in the response to COVID-19 in the United States, this was an opportunity demonstrate leadership on behalf of the scientific community and health workers putting their own lives at risk to keep people safe.

It would have been completely understandable for Birx to spend those few moments weighing up the personal consequences that might flow from speaking up and questioning the President so publicly. There would have been an ingrained deference to her leader (compounded by the fact he is the President) as well as a genuine fear of losing her job and the very real risk of public humiliation. It was an understandable, human response to remain quiet in that moment.

Yet leadership is about seizing these kinds of opportunities to be courageous and to truly lead. To stand up for what you know to be right even in the face of personal consequences and immense discomfort. Leaders legacies are made in the tough moments when everyone wishes they were not you.

This was Dr Birx’s moment.

On a broader level, Birx had the opportunity to represent and lead the scientific community. Birx holds a position of significant influence and importance in the American fight against COVID-19. The decisions she makes can save lives.

In a letter to the Editor published in the medical journal Nature (coincidentally only two days before this incident) by University of Cambridge academic Patricia Andrews Fearon and others, the following clarion call is made to all members of the scientific community –

We urge the scientific community to seize the opportunity to build trust ... Now, more than ever, we must show our commitment to humility, honesty and the public good.

This was Dr Birx’s moment to do just that.

While we may all like to imagine how we would have bravely spoken up if we were in Birx’s shoes, the reality is very few of us would. In her book The Fearless Organisation, Amy C. Edmondson reports that in one research study 85% of employees reported at least one occasion when they felt unable to raise a concern with their bosses, even though they believed the issue to be important. We should therefore not be surprised that Birx remained silent.

Yet this is also precisely why, as leaders ourselves, we must ensure our workplaces are psychologically safe environments where people are encouraged to speak up.

My hope for all of us as leaders is that when our moment comes and we find ourselves in a challenging situation like this, we find the courage to step up and lead. Those we lead are relying on us to show the way.

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Leaders: You need to decide. Quickly.

Leaders: You need to decide. Quickly.

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Leading your teams decisively while also demonstrating high levels of emotional intelligence has, quite frankly, never been more important. Not only that but many leaders now need to lead in this way remotely, making decisions very quickly and with no real idea of when this crisis will end.

Rapid decision making

While I talk a lot about leaders needing to be emotionally intelligent, in a crisis that does not mean needing to talking issues through, seeking consensus and making measured decisions with all the information to hand. That is simply not possible during a rapidly changing crisis where your team members may be feeling anxious, isolated from their colleagues and looking to you for direction.

Emotionally intelligent leaders can assess which decisions need to be made immediately and will be confident to make those decisions without all the information or data.

For decades, leaders have been taught that decision making requires moving through some of the classic stages of change – gaining buy-in, building a guiding coalition, sharing a vision for the future etc. In a crisis, these steps need to occur simultaneously and immediately. Leaders who communicate well can often do this through being transparent around the reasons for their decision, explaining what they hope will be achieved by it and then once the decision is made, listening to feedback on any adjustments that might be needed.

Leaders simply cannot wait for more information right now. In many cases, that information may not be forthcoming for some time, if at all, and your team leaders are looking to you to confidently lead them forward. Some of the best leaders in the world make decisions confidently, quickly and courageously and they do so with empathy, self-awareness and transparency.

Now is the time for leaders to put ego aside and lead with authenticity, humility and vulnerability. Trust that those you lead will value and respect you for that and in turn, trust you even more.

I have been calling for courageous leadership during this crisis so it seemed an appropriate time to pluck up the courage to do my first video for LinkedIn. In the quick video below, I talk about leading change during the current crisis and how it requires bold, courageous leadership with a massive dose of transparency and emotional intelligence. I would love to hear your thoughts on how you are handling having to make rapid decisions when perhaps in the past you may have been more measured. What is working best for you?
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Leaders: It’s time to step up. Right now.

Leaders: It's time to step up. Right now.

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For the first time in living memory we face a crisis of the sort we have never experienced before. Every conversation focuses on the impact of COVID-19. Every visit to the local supermarket serves as a reminder of the fear people feel. Every headline features a new, frequently shocking, development.

Amongst this there seems to be an inability amongst many, not just in Australia but around the world, to understand that being prepared to lead with extreme transparency and fearless honesty will actually reduce panic, not increase it. Courageous leadership increases trust at a time when trust and confidence amongst those being led is critical.

Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest ranked United States military prisoner-of-war in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War said it well,

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be”.

There is an urgent need for all leaders to share the brutal facts of the current crisis. People already understand that tragically, people will continue to lose their lives as a result of COVID-19. People already understand that our daily lives will change for the foreseeable future. People understand that there will be jobs that are lost or businesses that may not survive.

Even during the best of times, we need highly emotionally intelligent leaders who are self-aware of the impact their words and actions have on others. However, these skills are even more critical during times of crisis. We need our leaders to share the brutal facts fearlessly while also communicating a confidence that we will endure and we will succeed.

Telling people to stay calm is counterproductive – it increases panic and decreases trust. While a call for calm might work in some leadership situations, it does not work when those you lead see the impact of a crisis with their own eyes and are looking for their leaders to confirm their concerns, not minimise them and then provide a clear path forward.

We need all leaders to lead courageously, authentically and honestly. To have empathy for those they lead and understand the panic people feel is real. We need our leaders to listen to the experts – really listen – and then act on their advice.

We need leaders to urgently issue clear, easy to follow plans to help the people they lead work through this crisis. Those plans need to be communicated widely and then communicated again. And again. This is a time for frequent, honest communication and frankly, as much of it as possible.

These comments are not aimed at any particular leader. We all need to accept we are leaders in our families, communities and businesses regardless of our formal job title. We all have a role to play in leading our way through this crisis with acceptance of the facts and a sureness that we will succeed.

I have lived and breathed “leadership” my whole life, both as a leader myself for almost thirty years and having completed a PhD in the field. I speak about leadership around the world, mentor and advise other leaders and I write about leadership. I have found myself leading people amidst crises where the desire to be fearlessly transparent is not only difficult, but sometimes impossible, to do in practice.

So I can say with absolute confidence that the COVID-19 crisis is the kind of situation every leader thinks about as a possibility but in reality, rarely experiences. These are not usual times.

Leaders, it is time to step up. Right now.

This is what all those years of leading through the good times has been for. The legacy you leave now is the one for which you will be remembered.

Leaders please also remember that having the intellect to be in the position you are is one thing. But far more important right now is having the emotional intelligence to truly understand what you need to say and when.

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Every word counts when saying sorry

Every word counts when saying sorry

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Sydney Boys Grammar School recently made a public apology to a former student who had been the victim of sexual abuse by a former teacher.

What was striking about this particular public apology was that the school focused on the bravery of the victim in coming forward and gave the victim well deserved praise for having the courage to speak up. The school acknowledged that the victim’s courageous action would have prevented further victims of abuse.

How, when and who you apologise to matters

We can tell instantly whether an apology is genuine or a shallow attempt to minimise damage and redirect public vitriol in another direction.

What we know for sure when it comes to apologies is that what can be intended to have one impact can have the opposite if you are treating it like a public relations exercise.

From #MeToo to child sexual abuse allegations, or from corporate malfeasance through to environmental breaches, we frequently see apologies (or worse, non-apology apologies) being made. Some appear genuine expressions of regret and give you the sense the person issuing the apology actually means it. Other apologies are conditional or seem to have been written by a person fearful of saying too much and incurring additional liability.

If you are going to make an apology, make sure it is a good one.

Words matter

The specificity with which Sydney Boys Grammar apologised to their former student made it a powerful example of a meaningful apology and hopefully may set a benchmark for future apologies of this kind. It had the additional benefit of making it much more likely in the future that other victims will come forward and rightfully expect to be believed, supported and treated with respect.

Whether this particular apology was court ordered or not, or whether the apology was too long delayed or not, it is not possible to know. It also goes without saying that the situation should never arise where any such apology should ever be needed. However the actual wording of this apology made it stand out from so many others like it and serves as a valuable example of how five key elements can make an apology so effective.

1. Be specific – clearly describe the relevant act, omission or errors you are apologising for. In the case of Sydney Boys Grammar, the apology outlined the context of the sexual abuse which had occurred by a teacher employed by the school and the criminal charges which followed.

2. Acknowledge the harm caused – show you understand what you are apologising for. The Spacey apology questioned whether there was any harm at all which ensured any apology he offered was never going to be viewed as genuine. In contrast, the Sydney Boys Grammar apology states that the abuse “had, and continues to have, a profoundly harmful impact on the student.”

3. Take responsibility – this needs to be an authentic acceptance that whatever happened was due to your actions. It should be an unconditional acknowledgement that it was your actions or behaviour that caused the harm. The Sydney Boys Grammar apology acknowledged that their policies and procedures “did not prevent or detect the abuse against its former student.”

4. Apologise – it may sound obvious, but an apology needs to include a genuine expression of sorrow, sympathy or regret. Without this the apology itself will ring hollow. The Sydney Boys Grammar apology finishes with the statement that “the school is deeply sorry and apologises unreservedly to its former student and his family” so there is no question as to how the apology is intended to be received.

5. Outline action to prevent further re-occurrence –  It is important to make a clear statement of the action you propose to take to ensure you will do everything in your power to prevent this situation occurring again. In the case of Sydney Boys Grammar, the apology states the offending has “caused the school to review its policies and procedures”.

Elton John said it best when he sang the words “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” The challenge for many when reading advice about how to give an apology often comes down to the question of liability. Any number of lawyers and insurers will advise that making an apology of any kind can potentially impact any legal action or jeopardise insurance coverage that may follow. Of course, they could be correct, and you always need to heed the advice of your professional advisors.

However, the point of making an effective apology is that when you do make one to make it as effective, powerful and genuine as possible.

An apology is an opportunity to demonstrate leadership, emotional intelligence, values and ethics.

Understanding the way an apology can be given effectively will also be an important way to rebuild trust that may have been lost. Making such an apology may also potentially prevent legal action happening at all.

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A letter to my 21 year old self

A letter to my 21 year old self

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What advice would you give your 21 year old self?

Dear Kirstin

If you could see where you will be when you write this to yourself in 25 years’ time, trust me, you would not believe it. All the dreams you have for your future right now don’t begin to describe how your life will turn out. You create a family that will bring you joy, happiness and love you didn’t know was possible. You learn more through formal and informal education than you ever expected. You travel to countries that you have always dreamt about visiting. Your career takes twists and turns and sees you succeeding in ways and achieving goals that you did not know existed.

But it is not all perfect. Things don’t go to plan when you had hoped they would. You make plenty of mistakes along the way and continue to have lessons you never seem to learn. You have friends that you haven’t stayed in touch with and opportunities you have missed. The important thing I want you to know is that despite the challenges, you are able to look back at your life, 25 years on, and feel grateful for all that has passed.

So as you read this, before any of that is to happen, I want to share some advice with you that I wish I had known.

The first is to say yes to opportunities as they come along. When I think about all the opportunities we have ever been offered, whether they be jobs, or studying or even having children, you have a default thought that you could not possibly do it. You worry about what will be involved, whether you will fail, whether you will end up making a bad decision. You wonder why they are asking you – surely there is someone more qualified, more suited to the opportunity. You will come to understand all too well the ‘Imposter Syndrome’ that many women struggle with regardless of whatever the opportunity is you may be offered.

So here is what I would have loved to have told you –

  • Stop trying to predict what might be around the corner or what could go wrong – you have no reason to think you will fail so seize every experience and go for it 100%;
  • Continue to be yourself and trust that you will be successful as you, not as the person anyone else thinks you should be; and
  • Say yes – while you may not think you are ready or that you don’t have the precise experience needed, trust that it will come; you will be successful. You will become a better leader for being willing to learn. And even if you don’t see your potential, others do. Believe in them.

The second thing I would say is that trying to be perfect is exhausting. Unfortunately perfectionism will serve you well in helping you to achieve many of your goals but over the years you will see that like everything, perfectionism has a dark side that will cause you to be far too hard on yourself if you fail to achieve incredibly high standards.

Knowing this, I would have said to myself when I was 21 –

  • Allow yourself to be a beginner – no one starts out as excellent.
  • Be kind to yourself – just learn from your mistakes and move on. What is guaranteed is you are bound to make more so there is no time to worry about what has happened, just keep moving forward and keep learning.

Finally, I would tell you at 21 that you cannot do this alone and if you should be so fortunate as to achieve your own goals – whatever they may be – you have a responsibility to help others get there too. I would let you know that you will end up finding some of the most rewarding times in your life when you help other women  – whether that is to help a woman you know apply for a trade they have always considered starting, or helping a friend find a safer environment to live in at home, or encouraging a woman you work with to accept a promotion she has been offered but isn’t too sure she can do. Help other women wherever you can. You will learn that you need to forget that old saying to drop the ladder down to help the next person up behind you – a ladder will only help one person at a time. Rather make sure you throw down a fishing net and help many, many women raise up together.

If I think about the past 25 years, of course there have been challenges. Of course there have been things I wish we could have done differently. Things we have said and later regretted. Opportunities we may have turned down and wished we had accepted. People we are no longer in touch with that deserved our gratitude and time. Lessons we never seem to learn.

Yet over the past 25 years you can feel proud you have taken responsibility for your life. You have made choices every day to become better at what you do. You have lived your life with a deep sense of purpose, true to your core values and integrity. You have looked to empower and provide opportunities to those around us. You have built enduring relationships in all facets of our life. And most importantly you have dedicated time to developing yourself because you know that being a leader, whatever your role, takes a lifetime of personal growth and learning.

Be aware now that your experience in becoming more skilled, more aware of who you are and understanding how you role model to others never ends. Over the next 25 years you will find there will be times to be inspiring and motivating, and times to be tough. There are going to be times when you will need to delegate and times when you need to immerse yourself in the details. There will be times for you to make grand public statements, and times when private, authentic conversations are required.

Trust in yourself and be kind to yourself since I know you can do this. You are going to love every minute of this amazing adventure of a life you will create.


This letter was published in a book commemorating the 21st anniversary of Lou’s Place, a refuge in Sydney for female victim’s of domestic violence.

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