A time for leaders to shine
It feels like the ancient proverb/curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ has collided with Forrest Gump’s observation that ‘s--t happens’ (although some seem to have taken that too literally!). Events over the past few weeks reminded me that the most stressful periods in my career provided me with invaluable learning experiences – resulting in frequent ‘if I knew then what I know now….’ reflections.
There were times when I felt that the challenges of running various banking and financial services businesses through the dotcom crash, 9/11, and the GFC were overwhelming. Over that period we also had to resolve legacy issues (some dating back 30 years) in an international banking group that we had inherited through a merger, that included flawed business practices, corrupt politicians, tax avoidance/evasion, ‘unknown unknowns’, etc – stuff that you really couldn’t make up.
So, when you’re fighting fires on any number of fronts, it’s a great time to take a step back and figure out what really good leadership looks like. Insights from my own executive experiences combined with experiences of my coaching clients include:
Define the problem and speak honestly – in times of uncertainty people will be looking to you for clarity and certainty. David Rock (‘Your Brain at Work’) contends that Certainty is one of the five domains of social experience that your brain treats in the same way as a survival issue. This highlights the importance of leaders effectively communicating a vision and strategy for their businesses – and being as transparent as possible in the process
Show your team that you’re also human – you won’t have all the answers in times like this, so it’s ok to admit that and show vulnerability. Be empathetic and don’t discount the anxieties of people that report to you. One of the most important ways to engender trust amongst your team is to demonstrate that you are actively listening - which involves suspending your inner dialogue and giving them your full attention
Manage your emotions – people won’t want to see you panicking or being alarmist. This is the time to demonstrate high levels of Emotional Intelligence, the key pillars of which include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management (ref: Daniel Goleman)
Manage your own time and energy – you’ll likely have no end of demands on your time and issues to resolve. You’re no good to anyone if you’re stressed and exhausted so be sure to maintain a healthy work/life balance that includes exercise (or whatever else helps you de-stress) and to keep a sense of humour. At work, figure out what you can eliminate from your diary to make sufficient time to focus on the most important issues and try to tackle those when your energy levels are highest. Your family will also need you to be present for them and you can always rely on them to keep you grounded!
Demonstrate that you’ve done the work – while you may not have all the answers, your team will want to see that you understand the issues and that you have worked through multiple scenarios. When doing sensitivity analysis be sure to include extreme outcomes as that will help manage expectations. When reporting up (e.g. to your Board), don’t sugar-coat the message – but make sure that whatever you present is backed by thorough research and analysis. Markets have recently shown in no uncertain terms what happens when a leader (who shall remain nameless!) is perceived to be winging it
Be your authentic self – we all have a preferred/natural leadership style, but the mark of really good leaders is that they are able to tap into other styles as circumstances dictate. By way of example, while democratic leadership may be your go-to style, it won’t do the trick when the building’s on fire and needs to be evacuated in a hurry. Remember that people quickly pick up on a lack of authenticity and won’t respond positively if they see you trying to be someone you’re not
Involve your team – leadership is always a lonely business, especially in times of crisis. Relieve the pressure on yourself by relying on your team for support. Involve them in key discussions and use their collective wisdom to figure out the best solutions. This is the time when organisations with high-performing teams come to the fore – and there is no better way to build trust than to show vulnerability and seek out your team’s views
Create a psychologically safe environment – teams cannot be effective, never mind high-performing, absent a climate in which people can raise questions, concerns and ideas without fear of personal repercussion. Be sure to credit any successes to your team/good teamwork – there’s no limit to what can be achieved provided you don’t mind who gets the credit! On the flipside, taking personal responsibility for things that may not have worked out as planned will build trust and establish authenticity