By Sally Percy
Santander chairman Ana Botín made a powerful gesture when she gave up half her salary to help fight…WIREIMAGE
Santander chairman Ana Botín made headlines this week after it emerged that she had taken a 50% pay cut. Her earnings will be used to back a €25m medical equipment fund that has been created by the bank to help counter the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
Through her powerful gesture, Botín is leading by example. As a business leader, she is getting personally involved with trying to address the huge health challenge facing the world today.
Other leaders will not have Botín’s level of resources. Nevertheless, they can still act as examples – to their teams and colleagues, as well as peers in other organizations. So, how can a leader be a good example in these difficult times? Here five experts share their thoughts.
1. Be an effective homeworker
“Home working in the virtual world is very different from being in the office every day,” says Dr Alan Watkins, a physician, immunologist, neuroscientist and CEO of coaching and development company Complete. “It requires a significant shift in our energy, how we organize our day and how we communicate with each other.”
Watkins, who is also author of HR (R)Evolution: Change The Workplace, Change The World, adds that leaders can help their teams to respond better to stress. “If we panic, we increase our cortisol levels which makes us more susceptible to infection,” he says. “But if we remain optimistic and positive in the face of the challenge, we will increase our levels of DHEA, which is the body’s antidote to cortisol. DHEA will improve our immunity, increase our resistance and reduce our threat to others.”
2. Avoid cognitive shortcuts
“Stress is usually a bad platform from which to lead,” says Stephen Frost, founder of global diversity and inclusion consultancy Frost Included and co-author of Building An Inclusive Organisation. “By necessity, it means we take cognitive shortcuts to save time. This often relies on stereotype – what we already know and trust.”
Frost argues that in times of stress, leaders must seek out feedback from people whose opinion they wouldn’t normally solicit. “The cognitive short-cuts in our heads can lead to an empathy deficit, groupthink and other forms of excessive and unhelpful bias,” he said. “It’s in your own interests, as well as those around you, to slow down and be inclusive so that you make better decisions.”
3. Put social value above profit
U.K. supermarkets are offering priority shopping to elderly and vulnerable customers as a result of the coronavirus pandemic – even though they would probably make more profit from prioritizing big spenders such as families and young professionals. This is the correct approach to take, according to Alex Edmans, professor of finance at London Business School and author of “Grow the Pie: How Great Companies Deliver Both Purpose and Profit”.
He says: “My research shows that putting purpose first is not only the right thing to do in a crisis, it actually delivers more profit in the long term by building stakeholder trust.”
Edmans also suggests that leaders think creatively about what resources their organization has and how these can be used to serve society. “covering the cost of hotel accommodation for health workers so that they can avoid long and disrupted commutes due to the reduction in public transport.”
4. Be authentic
“Leaders must maintain a positive mental attitude, but it is not enough just to cheerlead,” says Raj Tulsiani, co-founder of executive search consultancy Diversity and Inclusion for Leaders: Making a Difference with the Diversity Headhunter. “We must demonstrate authenticity and humility in admitting that we, too, are fearful of what lies ahead.”
Tulsiani also emphasizes the importance of acting with integrity. “It may be that we have to make decisions we didn’t expect to make and, if so, we need to do this in an honest and transparent manner.”
5. Steady the ship
“A leader’s first job is to steady the ship and ensure that people don’t panic,” says Kevin Green, former CEO of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation and previously HR director of Royal Mail. “If fear and panic take hold, poor decisions get made and a difficult position can often be made worse.”
Green, who is also author of Competitive People Strategy: how to attract, develop and retain the staff you need for business success, emphasizes the importance of aligning the top team. “The leadership team should talk every day so they are talking with one voice,” he says. “They should map out what decisions are needed in the days and weeks ahead. At the start of each meeting, it’s good practice to get everyone just to talk about how they are feeling and what’s on their mind. This allows you, as the leader, to calibrate what state the team is in and how you support them during the crisis.”
It is vital to give yourself space and time to think and reflect. “When the pressure rises, human beings have a tendency to become myopic,” notes Green. “As a leader, you need to find time to stand back, reflect and anticipate what comes next. Go for a walk – fresh air and gentle exercise will help the thinking process. Find half an hour each day to just sit with a blank sheet of paper. I use mind maps to help me think though the big decisions.”
Green believes it’s essential to give the top team time to think the issue through before making a decision. “Make sure that both sides of every decision are fully explored. Ensure everyone in the team contributes and reinforce the point that no thought is too small, wild or random to be listened to. If it’s a big strategic call, give yourself and the team a day to reflect.”
Finally, says Green, make sure that you look after yourself. “Eat well, get exercise, try to sleep and try to stay fresh,” he advises. “Energy is an important commodity in a crisis, so you need to be on top form.”
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