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Crisis Management

6 Strategies for Keeping Your Composure While Leading Through COVID-19


by Suzanne Bates

Composure helps people make a bad situation better, instilling in them a positive, can-do spirit.

©Sam Edwards/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Anxiety, concern and frenetic energy can bring out the worst in the best of us. Yet right now more than ever, we must lead in a way that helps people stay focused, calm and productive. Every corner of the financial services industry is being buffeted by volatility and uncertainty. Yet you may wonder, why shouldn’t I express emotions if they are real?

Why Restraint?

When you exhibit restraint, people experience you as calm, deliberate and not managed by your emotions. Restraint goes to temperament. Some of us are naturally calm, but all of us can develop a reasonable demeanor. When you create a sea of calm, people feel comfortable coming to you, sharing their challenges, and even bringing you bad news.

Amid crisis and uncertainty, you need real-time information so you can problem-solve. You stand out when you’re the one people turn to for help. Create a calm environment so they feel safe talking with you. This will provide you with real-time information that is critical to decision making.

What Does it Mean to Have Composure?

Composure is related to restraint – and it’s also the ability to communicate in a way that keeps people focused and on task. Think of the emergency room physician whose team needs to save a heart attack patient. In the emergency room this leader is calling out the steps to saving a life. This requires focused, clear communication. Your composure enables you to communicate to your teams in a clear, timely way, provide direction, and enable them to move more quickly to address issues. You are helping others do their best work.

Your teams are working right now on the bleeding edge of extreme uncertainty in the markets, dealing with worried investors, handling unanticipated, difficult requests. Composure helps people make a bad situation better, instilling in them a positive, can-do spirit.  

How to Be Calm When You Are Feeling Stress Yourself 

As the markets continue their roller coaster, the economy deteriorates, and people become more anxious, you have front line employees and back offices that will be even more overwhelmed with activity. The sheer volume of work alone will create a fear of chaos, and as you deal with stressed out people, you’ll feel it yourself.

Here are six strategies to help you, and others, tap into a calmer place, so that you can ensure business continuity, service to your clients and strong operational discipline while you weather the COVID-19 storm.

1. Assure people you want to hear the news, good or bad, and create a safe, welcoming environment.

Communicate clearly to the organization that you want to hear from them, whatever they have to say. Back this up by being visible and accessible. This is not the time to hunker down or be invisible. Increase your check-ins—one-on-one with your reports and together with your teams—to ask how things are going, what they are learning, and what they think could be coming up and needs to be addressed.

Listen carefully and take note of what you learn. If your office has gone virtual, get on video for those check-ins, and use the technology to chat and connect virtually. Use email strategically to inform and share. Worst case scenario – pick up the phone.

2. Gather all available information before you make a judgment or solidify your view of a situation.

While the volatility and fast pace of market conditions seem to call for quick action, now is not the time to default to snap judgements based on a single piece of information, or half the story. Talk to all of those involved.

Check multiple sources to fill in the facts and hear multiple sides of the issue. Make sure you have all available information in the moment to make that call or delay the decision to gather more information. This will help you make better decisions and reinforce for your team that you are seeking all input and ideas.

3. If you feel angry, upset or confused, wait before reacting (count to 10!).

The relentless pace in the financial industry, and the flurry of bad news, conflicting information, and pressure for results, can push the buttons of almost any leader. A time-proven trick to tamp down the instinct to explode is to pause before you react. Force yourself to take a deep breath before you respond.

The old method of counting to 10 may feel like something from your childhood, but it works. Listen, pause, think, and count before you say a word. Or, buy yourself some time by responding in a measured way to delay. It’s ok to say, “I need a minute before I can come back to you on this.” People will respect your honest response and be relieved they don’t have to confront an explosion.

4.Don’t make impulsive decisions. Give yourself time to consider everything.

This industry attracts leaders who have a strong action bias. Volatile situations tend to exacerbate this reaction. You’re used to making things happen now. Since events are unfolding rapidly, and you need to stay agile, you may be tempted to hit “go” before ready. Yet slowing down just a little will prevent you from making decisions you later have to change or retract. Examine the situation and consider the ramifications to decisions.

It’s always ok to take some time to think.  That’s your job as a leader!  Resist impulsive action to create clarity and understanding. You can’t afford to make wrong decisions in the swirl of activity, and you need to set the example for others. Letting the heat of the moment pass will bring more clarity to your thought and give you more control over the situation.

5. Urge others to gather facts and follow a process for evaluating situations.  

Create the expectation that you and others will follow a process before taking a course of action. That process of decision making can happen rapidly if you use the right approach.  Set criteria for the decision before you start generating ideas and picking the best. Each problem has many potential solutions, and creating the criteria first (easy to implement, cost-effective, can be done with few resources) is a way to evaluating those solutions.

Provide guidance by creating and communicating a clear process for the team to assess and evaluate a situation before making decisions. Clarify who needs to be involved, what steps to take, what resources to tap, and how you will help with questions or challenges. This takes the guess work out of navigating the unexpected and reinforces a culture of openness to news and input, whatever it is.

6. Strive to be the one in the room others admire for bringing perspective to the conversation.

Situations like the COVID-19 crisis are the opportunity for leaders to set the example and make their mark on the organization, and their teams, as the steady hand who carried them through, and set them on the path for renewed prosperity on the other side of the crisis. As you navigate the landscape, and encounter the challenges we have talked about, focus on how you can be the voice of reason.

If you are usually the talkative person in the group, you may want to listen and synthesize what you are hearing before you speak. This ability to pull together several ideas and consolidate thinking is highly valued. If you are a quieter leader, this is the time to speak up. If you’ve been thinking about something, write it down if you need to, but say it when it needs to be said.

Final Thoughts: Self Care

Self-care is an understood but overlooked aspect of life in financial services. The pace is always go-go-go and the expectations are often that leaders are available 24/7 for work. You know what you should to take care of yourself, but now is the time to really connect with that again. If you become depleted physically and mentally, you will not be at your best for others. Restraint and composure will be that much further away.  

Taking care of yourself means caring for body, mind and spirit. Start and end your day with reflection, meditation, yoga, exercise, or reading something pleasant. Minimize your time on media and social media to maintain a hopeful and balanced perspective. Feed your mind and body. Eat nutritious food. Pick up a biography about a great leader. And take breaks. Every hour. Encourage your team to do the same. All this will help you go the distance. It is often in crisis when we learn to be the best leaders we can be.   

Suzanne Bates is CEO of global consulting firm Bates.