In June, I had the opportunity to deliver the opening virtual keynote at a Finance Executives International conference. The organization asked me to speak about navigating chaos in uncertain times. As I prepared my presentation, I realized that the leadership principles I’ve been interested in for a while now—ones that draw on the findings of psychology researchers more than management “gurus”—are more important to achieve mastery in (or to be skilled in) than ever.

In the last three months, we’ve experienced a pandemic that most of us could have never imagined. And now we’re facing the most significant period of social unrest in 60 years in response to systemic injustices.

According to the mental health care provider Ginger, 70% of employees indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic is the most stressful time of their entire professional career. This level of volatility creates a new psychological dynamic. And this dynamic requires a new kind of leader.

Traditionally, organizations expected leaders to be in command of situations, to be rational and to tell others what to do. But this “strong” leader model no longer applies. Your finance teams crave psychological support and real connections. You might remember a scene from the show Mad Men where Don Draper, a brilliant advertising executive, was called out by an employee for not saying “thanks” after the team delivered a successful pitch. Draper coldly replied, “This is what you get paid for.”

Times have changed since Mad Men’s era, but according to research we conducted in 2019, emotional intelligence is still lacking among leaders. In fact, about 65% of C-suite leaders rated self-awareness, empathy and intuition as their weakest skills.

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Here are five guidelines for getting your leadership style in synch with these difficult times:

#1 Get comfortable with ambiguity and chaos

Most people don’t like living in a state of ambiguity. The idea of having to accept unknowns and cope with incomplete information invokes immediate anxiety for many. But as finance leaders, we must embrace it.

We have to decide quickly and take action based on what we do know, even if it results in “failing forward.” We have to create and maintain a sense of urgency and hyper-alertness to the crises at hand. And we have to collaborate across the enterprise to solve problems flexibly.

#2 Practice empathy to mitigate fear and anxiety

Boost the energy of your finance team by developing a common sense of purpose and solidarity as a bulwark against fear and anxiety. Check in and stay socially aware to get their pulse. Balance their needs with those of the organization. And look for opportunities to elevate those who excel at practicing compassion.

Our Midwest Leader, Lee Moore, decided to focus his communications solely on our people — their physical, emotional and social needs — for the first two weeks of quarantine. Lee created a Microsoft Teams site and posted pictures of his family life, including the desserts his daughter was baking. It had a viral reaction: Thousands of professionals across eight states, most of whom have never met each other, started sharing how they were feeling and handling the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. 

Lee recognized that in that moment, his primary job was alleviating fear and creating community.

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According to Accenture research, emotional intelligence is still lacking among leaders. In fact, about 65% of C-suite leaders rated self-awareness, empathy and intuition as their weakest skills. The leadership principles I've been interested in for a while now—the ones that draw on the findings of psychology researchers more than management "gurus"—are now more important to achieve mastery in than ever.

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#3 Communicate what you know and commit to ongoing transparency

Transparency is important. In my experience, if you allow space for assumptions to be made, people will often make incorrect, and anxiety-provoking, ones. It’s our nature to fill in gaps with negatives.

When I recently stepped into a new position, the uncertainty surrounding it was three-fold: COVID-19 and economic uncertainty, an operating model change we rolled out in March and structural changes to our CFO & Enterprise Value - Strategy practice, of which I was named the leader in April.

In a note to my new team, I addressed rumors head on, acknowledged what was not under my control and vowed to bring as much micro-level clarity as I could around the future of our business unit. I closed by sharing my belief that during times of change, leaders emerge. It was my emotional plea for others to rise up.

#4 Don't let a crisis stop you from moving toward what's next

One of the strategies we endorse at Accenture is anticipating new business models. Disruption happens when there is a gap between the product or services offered today, the increased expectation from the customer for something better and the emergence of digital technology to meet those rising expectations in new ways.

Sound familiar? The COVID-19 crisis has opened up an array of needs and expectations, and smart finance leaders will be leveraging new technologies to meet those new demands. Directing your team toward innovating amidst uncertainty is a great way to channel their anxiety productively.

#5 To lead and care for others, we must first take care of ourselves

As leaders, we need to self-regulate and focus on the needs of others. But to do so effectively over an extended period of time requires you to care for your own physical, mental and relational needs. Self-care isn’t selfish — it’s essential to staying in a socially aware frame of mind.

Develop your “chaos-proof” leadership skills now, and you’ll not only guide your team to greater things, you’ll also be ready for whatever else is on the horizon. 

Cherene Powell

Managing Director – Accenture Strategy, CFO & Enterprise Value

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