It is certainly much easier to be a motivational leader when the news is good and there are plenty of perks to dole out. When your latest pep talk includes a mention of free baseball tickets or, better yet, bonuses, you can be sure the troops will love you. But when the company is under intense pressure and there is little to announce other than wage freezes and plant closings, even the most fearless leader can be tempted to hunker down and keep his office door closed.
While the urge to hide is an understandable impulse, it is precisely the wrong thing to do. As the recession drags on, many workers are dragging, too, and in need of inspiration. Employees are looking more carefully than ever at their company’s executives, not only hanging on every word but also observing nonverbal cues like facial expressions or other seemingly innocent behaviors: Is that door closed because the CFO is on a personal call, or because layoffs are being discussed?
Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at the Stanford Engineering School, says that when employees feel threatened they become distracted from their work and devote more attention to watching what their bosses are doing in an effort to figure out what’s going to happen next. “People in the organization are carefully watching every word and action from the CFO to know whether their jobs are at risk,” agrees Alexander Grashow, managing director of Cambridge Leadership Associates. “They’re looking to see what the CFO says while he’s getting lunch, while he’s in meetings, while he’s in the hallway.”
Finance executives can boost their leadership quotient by taking several specific steps to improve communication; some of these actions will serve any executive in a leadership role, but one is unique to finance — and offers an opportunity to not only help the company but also raise the CFO’s profile.
One of the most important ways to provide crisis leadership is also one of the easiest: be there. People take comfort in knowing that top managers are on the job, working alongside them through the business’s challenges. “In a difficult environment, I think employees and external constituents look more than ever to a leader for cues about the state of the business,” says Steven Kafka, vice president of finance at biotech firm Infinity Pharmaceuticals. “One thing I’m trying to do is to be more visible. I’m very optimistic about our business, and I think it’s important for my finance team and the rest of the company to see that optimism.” Kafka says he builds time into his schedule to roam the halls and tries to eat lunch in the cafeteria regularly.
“You have to get out from behind your desk,” agrees Cosmo Alberico, finance chief at Odyssey Logistics and Technology, a transportation- and supply-chain-management firm. “You need to communicate more than ever, not only with staff but with your customers and analysts, both formally and informally.” Alberico now travels more frequently to Odyssey’s various far-flung locations to hold small-group meetings. He and the firm’s CEO hold formal, companywide meetings once or twice a month instead of every other month as they had in the past. The CFO also holds face-to-face meetings rather than conference calls with his direct reports in the finance, IT, and facilities groups. “I think people feel better when they see a C-level guy coming and spending an hour with them,” he says.