Leading in troubled times

Thursday 11 June 2020

Adrian Furnham

Senior figures in the investment management industry should think about a few key tenants, in order to lead successfully in these uncertain times, says Adrian Furnham

Times are tough. Employees in most industry sectors are concerned and demoralised, either in relation to their own situation or about the wider geo-economic effects. When will this Covid-19 crisis end? Public company shareholders, from large pension funds to individual investors, await the outcome of decisions on their investment income and preservation of their capital. Pressure is piling on CEOs, and senior leadership in particular. They can do a lot to calm the situation and to give people confidence.

If a CEO or senior figure 'feels' confident, it is pretty easy to 'act' confident. It’s less easy to appear confident if you don’t feel it. But some are doing it brilliantly. They know how to steady the ship, inspire people, energise employees working from home and reassure or at least manage the expectations of their lenders and investors.

The question is what to do - and when. It takes courage, confidence and commitment to build a successful management and leadership style. The most important step is to communicate with all stakeholders. Senior figures must be open and transparent and project a vision of the future, but not to lie. We can learn a lot from those politicians who did a good and bad job in difficult times.

It was Churchill who told the British people in their darkest hour that he had nothing to offer but “blood, tears, toil and sweat”. He travelled a lot and spoke to large and small audiences all the time, using the more limited methods of communication of the time. And it was apparent he never wavered in his belief in ultimate victory. He was not a young man (late 60s) but he worked hard and demanded that all around him should do likewise.

The Management Essentials

There are many things senior leaders in the investment industry can do to be successful during this difficult time:

  • Leaders need to re-engage all stakeholders through frequent, consistent, honest communication. People look to their leaders for inspiration. Be available. Repeat the message. Be consistent.
  • Senior figures need to lead from the front. If they are strong, bold, and adventurous, they will bring confidence to others. Don’t delegate things to PR, HR or IR. Double your visibility. Be consistent. Have a simple, but understandable recovery plan. Be optimistically cautious.
  • Learn from previous recessions and crises. Beware of cutting the things which add customer value. 
  • Fix the leaks that soon appear when people leave or things are cut.  Provide help and hope for those who stay. Set clear and challenging targets; give people all the support they need (informational and emotional) and give them lots of feedback on how they are doing.
  • Innovation is key. Senior leaders should get creative with all their stakeholders. Now is the time to be really innovate.
  • Make use of technology. People accept new ways in a crisis. See what technology can now do to improve processes and engagement.
  • Try to attract talent which is being badly managed elsewhere.  See this is an opportunity to get the best people.

Being A Successful Leader

The messaging is vitally important, but there are other characteristics that the confident leader needs to project. This is done in body language and image. The CEO literally has to be the embodiment of the company, and other senior leaders need to project confidence also.

First, to be 'steady and calm under fire'. The pilot, the surgeon, the soldier has been trained to deal with difficult and dangerous situations. We know stress and anxiety leads to bad decisions. Further anxiety and nervousness spreads quickly. The confident leader needs most of all to project that they are not stressed or rattled, but are in command and possess the strategic vision and the underlying tactics to lead through the crisis. 

Second, that they are both 'defiant and vigilant'. They will not succumb or give in. They convey a determination to protect their people, the reputation of the company, and also ensure its future. They will always be vigilant as to the tasks and challenges ahead of them. They will be aware of threats, but also opportunities. You won’t catch them napping now.

Third, that they and all around them are 'fit in body and mind'. Fit for the challenge, fit for the journey. This is about energy, not lethargy. Nimble of foot and mind. 

Fourth, the image of the CEO and other senior leaders must be of 'understanding of business and people problems'. They must be insightful and supportive. It is encompassed in messages which say: We support our staff who support our customers who support us. 


Adrian Furnham is the principal behavioural psychologist at Stamford Associates in London, and author of several books on behavioural psychology.

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