4 ways to demonstrate leadership at your firm in uncertain times

Leadership is always important, but it’s especially vital during times of crisis and uncertainty. A notable example of this type of leadership was Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famous explorer who courageously kept a group of sailors alive and upbeat despite being stranded in the Antarctic Ocean for nine months.

Looking up a rocky mountain from the base. There are 4 people at the base climbing up, each with a colored backpack. At the very peak, there are a handful of other climbers.

Granted, you and your team may not be cut off from civilization in an icy tundra, but you can still demonstrate leadership during times when your team feels uncertain about their own futures. 

#1: Demonstrate wisdom and compassion

When Better.com employee Christian Chapman logged into a Zoom call in December last year, he had no idea that he would be one of 900 staff to be laid off over Zoom by CEO Vishal Garg. Vishal’s actions, including those before the fateful Zoom call, spawned thousands of comments on social media platforms as indignant bystanders criticized Vishal’s lack of compassion. 

Gone are the days when rash decisions can be excused or overlooked because of some redeeming qualities or achievements. Rather, we must consider the plight of those around us so we make decisions that achieve the optimal outcome. There’s a wide chasm between wisdom and foolishness, even when it comes to compassion.

Studies have identified 4 models of compassionate leadership:

  1. Caring avoidance: We care for people but avoid the tough parts of leadership like giving hard feedback.

  2. Ineffective indifference: We act in a way that shows a lack of concern for others.

  3. Uncaring execution: We ruthlessly achieve our business goals at all costs, even the feelings of others.

  4. Wise compassion: We balance our concern for others with the need for progress and results in our company.

As leaders, we must strive to demonstrate the fourth model of leadership, consistently finding the balance between achieving business objectives and acting with humane wisdom. 

#2:  Forge and maintain your bond as a team

Over the past two years, I’ve seen the culture within MBS Accountancy grow and improve, despite the challenges we’ve encountered in our transition to a hybrid work model.

As Simon Sinek points out, leaders are responsible for building support systems and nurturing a culture of camaraderie so everyone feels well taken care of.

This is an ongoing endeavor for me, but here are some best practices I’m following:

Encouraging real-time team activities

Despite the many benefits of asynchronous communication, there is no replacement for meeting together as a team in real-time to brainstorm ideas, engage in casual conversation, or participate in a friendly competition.

In my own firm, we’ve started scheduling weekly virtual coffee breaks for real-time conversations about anything but work. These efforts to build culture have helped us remain united and connected as we’ve slogged through rough months.

Participate in monthly team challenges

A 2019 study showed that we increasingly crave a deeper connection with others that goes beyond a quick ‘like’ or positive comment on social media. Brainstorm team-building activities that you and your team can do to stay connected even during times of unrest.

Learn company chat etiquette

Without intentional effort, digital communication mediums like Slack and email can feel sterile and impersonal. In her book, Digital Body Language, Erica Dhawan encourages us to replace cues from in-person interactions with digital alternatives.

For example, use emojis and GIFs to express emotion, be inclusive in your language, and avoid terse replies whenever possible.

Recommended reading: How Karbon uses Slack: 10 tips for reclaiming sanity and productivity

#3: Improve your external and internal communications

In his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie noted that most management problems are caused by miscommunication. As our ideas about productivity and work have been transformed over the past few years, our communication methods have also shifted. We now send Loom videos, post GIFs on LinkedIn, and use emojis in company chats and emails.

But, we must remain vigilant when communicating with clients and staff to ensure we aren’t assuming clear communication has happened when it hasn’t. 

Clear, frequent communication deters anxiety and alleviates doubts in your team and clients alike, which is why it’s vital that you develop a communication strategy for your firm. As Simon Sinek points out, “Strong relationships are based on trust and communication. But if there is no communication, there can be no trust.” 

Trust is the bedrock of our relationships with our team and our clients, which means that any critical failures in our communication lead to mistrust.

Here are some key points to consider in your communications, both with your team and your clients:

Don’t ignore reality

It’s a mistake to wear rose-tinted glasses while discussing an unfortunate situation with your clients or team. As Kim Scott points out in her book, Radical Candor, being direct yet tactful in your communication is the best way to show people you care about and support them, even in the worst situations.

Use technology to scale your efforts

While running an accounting firm, Ryan Lazanis used automated client check-in emails to maximize his time while ensuring every client felt seen and had the chance to bring up concerns or ask questions.

Whether you use automated emails or another method, it’s wise to let technology handle the rote aspects of check-ins for you. This maximizes your limited time but ensures that everyone feels seen, heard, and remembered in the times when it matters most.

Choose the best communication method

It’s easy to see everything as a nail when you only have a hammer. Consider your recipient’s preferred communication method, as well as the most effective medium.

For example, my team uses Loom videos to walk through reports and returns with clients and Karbon’s comment feature to discuss emails and work items. When facing uncertainty related to COVID-19 and its impacts, our clients would often thank us for communicating with them frequently and clearly as tax updates occurred or new guidance emerged.

#4: Elevate resilience over readiness

As leaders, we often have the mistaken belief that we must be ready for anything. But this is unrealistic and leads to decreased morale when unforeseen challenges arise. A better approach is to take steps to foster resilience, both within ourselves and our team.

Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, explains that, to develop resilience, we must develop four traits:

  • Interest: A committed love for our profession allows us to stick with it through ugly times. It’s critical that you hire people who share your commitment to your profession. Taking time to plan your hiring strategy will ensure you attract the most talented and competent people to your firm.

  • Practice: An attitude of ‘kaizen’, or continuous improvement, is another key component of resilience. At the heart of all top-performing firms is a drive to always become better. When difficult circumstances arise, innovative firm leaders look for ways to turn challenging obstacles into learning opportunities.

  • Purpose: The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer showed that 59% of workers who changed jobs last year did so because they wanted a job that aligned with their personal values. This answer outranked better compensation and career advancement, which was only provided by 31% of job-changers. Align the work done by you and your team to a broader mission that promotes your clients and fulfills a shared sense of purpose among your team.

  • Hope: One of my favorite quotes is from Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” In the most tragic of circumstances or after we’ve made a foolish mistake, it’s easy to lose hope that things will ever be different. But it’s vital to instill a sense of conviction about your work and share your vision with your team so they have something to cling to during rough patches. 

When hard times come, keep growing

American civil rights activist Maya Angelou once said, “I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.”

As your firm grows, you’ll encounter hard times that challenge you and your team to stretch beyond what is comfortable. But, if you embrace hardships as opportunities to improve, you’ll inspire those around you to do the same and pave a path for relentless success.