Many banking and financial leaders are struggling to find clarity and direction through the COVID-19 crisis, and if this is how you’re feeling, be assured that you’re in good company. There is no proven model to turn to, no “playbook” or set of competencies that will make it all normal again.  

As a leader, you are in the spotlight more than you may think, or even want to be, as people tune into your words, moods and behaviors for daily guidance. The ambiguity of the macro-environment we’re living in means that the people you’re leading are searching for more certainty in their micro-environment, which is dominated by their work and their relationship with you. This relational style of leadership may be even more important in financial services, where remote work has not been the norm, and leaders could rely on the workplace” for community and culturebuilding. 

Most effective leaders pride themselves on being results-driven and goaloriented, and when times are less ambiguous, this approach can be very inspiring to others. While not suggesting you abandon goals and metrics during these challenging times, flexing to a more relational style can help bring others along, assure them there’s a way forward, and humanize you as a leader.  

This is the kind of gravitational pull that will provide motivation and commitment as people navigate a new workfromhome environment, which for some involves a daily juggle of family and professional demands.  

Put it Into Practice 

But what does that look like? Leaders have six steps to help them build a more relational style. 

If you haven’t done this already, stop and reset goals and expectations with your team(s), because this is hardly business as usual. When you openly acknowledge this, it builds trust and credibility and everyone can breathe a sigh of relief as they think to themselves, “she gets it. 

Practice realistic optimism so that others can begin to shape the future with you. A mood of pessimism is extremely contagious, and will demotivate others just when you want them to be more instrumental in helping to define the future. If you notice pessimism on the team, inquire about it so you can understand the root cause – maybe they need to hear more from you about what’s possible. 

Create psychological safety on the team so that people feel they’re working in an environment where they can openly and easily express ideas, concerns and ask tough questions without fear of being humiliated or isolated. Creating this safety is the opposite behavior of shooting the messenger, or shutting people down when they offer controversial thoughts. 

Watch for overreacting, and instead adopt a stance of: Pause, Reflect, Respond. Sometimes this takes 10 seconds, and sometimes you need to sleep on it, but it will ensure that you don’t do relationship damage that’s often difficult to repair.  

Empathy Is Key 

Practice empathy with yourself and others in an open and expressive way; this too will engender a feeling of, “he gets us. That may mean sharing a story about a struggle you’re experiencing as a result of the crisis, or simply saying on a Friday call that it was a rough week. Expressing empathy for others in your 1:1 calls is an easy leadership behavior that’s often overlooked as you forge ahead into tasks and problemsolving. The first two minutes is an ideal time to ask how things are going for them, or what new challenges may be emerging as the weeks go by. This type of personal connectivity is “sticky” and builds emotional buy-in from others. 

Lastly, invest in your wellbeing so that you’ve got fuel in your tank for the stressful calls or the long workdays sitting in one place. What’s your new operating model as you work from home? Consider this question for yourself and also whether you might dedicate one of your team calls to sharing how others have adjusted their operating model to make the most of their current circumstances.  

As you refine your relational leadership style, remember that leaders everywhere are realizing that this is a test of their ability to connect in meaningful ways while still navigating a highly ambiguous business environment. Taking a moment to acknowledge the human element is the kind of leadership equity you want to build.   

Angie O’Donnell is an executive coach and co-founder of 3D Leadership Groupa Wellesley-based leadership development firm. 

Leading in Ambiguous Times Could Mean Taking a New Approach

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min