Leadership in Times of Crisis

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By Lucy Franklin

What a difference a few weeks makes. When planning for the new financial year, I doubt anyone in Europe saw this coming or marked it in their contingency scenarios. But arrived it has, and businesses across the board must now quickly deal with the impact of Covid-19 on business operations, staff and the future. This is a challenging time for everyone, and as business leaders – whilst we’re by no means front line workers – we have our own struggles to face. We find ourselves thrown into the unknown while suddenly bearing significant responsibility for the continued functioning of the economy, the safeguarding of jobs and the mental health of employees, and all the while managing the clamour of concerns from shareholders and the board. Leading a business is usually exhausting, always rewarding and presents daily challenges – but doing so in unchartered territory with the need to keep the economy afloat an ever-present concern turns leadership in a crisis into a very different affair. 

At the time of writing, many companies throughout the continent are dealing with similar issues – the mass movement of workers from office to homes; higher than usual rates of staff sickness; issues with supply chains; and global economy slowdown.  At the same time, workers are understandably anxious – both about their own and their loved ones’ health, and their job security and financial future. To make matters more complicated, as anxiety levels reach a peak people also find themselves at home, without their support networks, the camaraderie of the office, or the presence of friends and family to support them. 

This is an explosive combination and its crucial to emphasise that employers have a duty of care to employees, and that means ensuring their mental health and wellbeing is cared for. 

We don’t know how the coronavirus situation will evolve. By the time this article is published, there could be significant differences in how European nations are functioning, and people may be back to work as usual. So the question is not how to manage coronavirus specifically, but rather how best to show leadership in a time of crisis, securing both business future and helping to protect the mental health and wellbeing of staff. 

For me, this has been a valuable lesson in active and present leadership and the value of internal communications. In times of crisis, communicating honestly, regularly (but not too regularly) and in a supportive way with staff is fundamental. I’m lucky to have a dedicated and talented team assisting me in these functions, whose support has been invaluable. 

Communication is, as always in leadership, fundamental – but the often-forgotten trick in communication is not what to say, but how to listen. Under usual circumstances when there is important or difficult news to deliver, I would do so via face to face company meetings – there is no substitute for people seeing you in the flesh, taking cues from body language and tone of voice and being able to grab you for five minutes of they need to. Likewise, I learn about how news is being taken from observing the nonverbal language of my staff.  But as we’re all aware, these are not normal times. 

But leadership obviously goes far beyond creating a company Zoom account. What is said, how it is said and who says it acquires even greater importance than normal.

Communication with staff has to be digital, and that means the additional challenge of getting to grips with new forms of communication and new channels for engaging with staff, while existing at the mercy of overstretched internet connections. But it’s also an opportunity to ask questions of staff and make them feel heard, while creating channels to enable them to provide feedback. A word of caution though – in getting up to speed quickly on new technology, it’s important not to forget to be human. Staff need to know that you’re in control, but the crisis is affecting you too. If there was ever a time when you can afford to be your personal self and show an element of vulnerability, then this is it. In a way, digital communication facilitates this – broadcasting from your living room breaks down some of those traditional barriers. Use this to your advantage to build further trust and engagement with staff. 

But leadership obviously goes far beyond creating a company Zoom account. What is said, how it is said and who says it acquires even greater importance than normal. In times of crisis, it’s important that the voice of the leadership is heard – but others should be present too. Consistent messaging, reassuring communications and honesty are key – but sometimes it is better for the wider organisation to hear a range of people telling them the right things.  For this to work, there has to be effective involving and devolving of responsibility. Handing down tasks is a regular issue for leadership – the core is to trust your team members, and to have surrounded yourself with strong, capable and empowered staff. 

Finding time for fun and entertainment – though it might seem like a nice to have rather than an essential business activity – is really important. Team building at a distance is hard – but finding ways to bring everyone together and have moments of lightness and enjoyment is key to helping people feel connected. Again, devolving actions to other staff here depending on expertise, interest and digital prowess is vital. We’ve had team members organise ‘Quarantini cocktail hour’, run mindfulness sessions and deliver live cookery classes, with Disco Yoga on the way – it’s been a great way to showcase diverse skills and engage the rest of the team. 

For me, this feeds into a broader need for leadership in a crisis to demonstrate flexibility. In an ever-evolving situation, people must be empowered to deviate from a plan where necessary and to keep momentum and agility. We should always be looking to foster proactivity among workers, and now more than ever it’s essential. Flexibility is a two-way street – management must be flight of foot in a crisis, pre-empting potential issues, but staff also need to flag where they need help and be proactive in seeking solutions. 

Team building at a distance is hard – but finding ways to bring everyone together and have moments of lightness and enjoyment is key to helping people feel connected.

Again, a wider objective is to encourage everyone – the Senior Management Team included – to turn challenges into opportunities. This is essential for morale and can stop people feeling helpless, but it can also thrust you outside of your comfort zone as a business, driving innovative solutions and generating new and often better ways of working that otherwise may not have been discovered. Focusing on the positive – what we can do and have, rather than that which we don’t – is also a kind of mental health 101, and is good practice in and outside of business. Throughout my career I’ve found that situating the business in the community in which it operates makes a big difference to changing people’s focus. Companies can’t and don’t operate in a vacuum – and throughout the coronavirus we’ve been encouraging those who are able to give back, whether that be through volunteering, getting involved in community groups, or donating to food banks. 

Leadership needs to inspire and instil calm, while attending and acknowledging people’s concerns.

Finally, steering the ship calmly has never been more important. Involving people in the responsibility of keeping business as usual running, without making them feel like they are solely responsible for their jobs and avoiding furloughs unless strictly necessary are, I believe, essential. There is a balance to be struck between honesty and over-involving staff in the day to day fluctuations of business planning. In troubling times, staff need to be able to tap into facts, not fear. Whilst creating a culture of mutual support is fundamental, no one can afford to allow platforms for stressed staff to offload on – negativity is often louder than positivity, and this is not the moment for individuals to influence others in a damaging way. Leadership needs to inspire and instil calm, while attending and acknowledging people’s concerns.

To conclude, the coronavirus experience has shown us all that unforeseen circumstances can always occur, and that procedures and practices in place save time, skills and sanity in the long run. Leadership is not an easy affair at the best of times – and in moments of crisis, leaders must harness the full range of their skills and draw on new technologies and untapped reserves. I believe the core focus of crisis leadership are clear, reassuring communications and clarity of message; listening to concerns and staying human; effective devolving of tasks; making time for team building; making flexibility a two-way street; turning crisis into opportunity and giving back where possible; and a clear head and calm attitude which you pass on to those around you. 

About the Author

Lucy Franklin is the Chief Executive Officer of Accordance since 2019.  She has a vision for Accordance which puts people at its heart – to harness its experts at every level of the business, enabling people to reach their potential, and facilitating business growth through their empowerment. With two decades of managerial experience, her strategic thinking and knowledge of the developing VAT landscape ensures that Accordance can drive greater trade, harmony and understanding across Europe.

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