Are you a fluffy finance director?
As a leadership coach and expert in the future of work, Blaire Palmer predicts that leaders will need to focus more on the softer, “fluffier” aspects of leadership. But what are they and what can FDs expect as we enter these uncharted waters?
The role of FD is rapidly changing as we navigate our way through the Covid-19 crisis and enter the next phase of restrictions lifting.
FDs have been asked to take on a whole range of new responsibilities – projects normally associated with HR, prioritisation of team wellbeing, even hosting the weekly quiz on Zoom… things that weren’t in their job description.
And with all the talk of a permanent move to more remote and flexible working, the possibility of an economic downturn, the need to make significant cuts in staff costs and look at ways to reduce overheads like office space, it doesn’t look like the role of the FD is going to return to its pre-Covid remit any time soon.
Radical collaboration between finance and HR
This is a time when the wellbeing of our people is foremost. Without them, there cannot be a speedy recovery. Lockdown has been tough. Burnout is now at the top of the stressors list.
While we might be tempted to get a firm plan in place, set targets and start taking actions we have to remember that people are not returning to life as it was. There will be fewer jobs and we have had no time to recover from working at home with kids at home, being isolated from friends and family, perhaps coping with the disease itself and being wrenched from the habits, disciplines and routines of our former life.
Finance teams need to get close to HR in a way they may not have done in the past. It’s time to listen to what your colleagues in HR are telling you, to understand what staff have been through and what they need now and in future.
Be curious, ask questions, and listen so hard that you might change your mind about what you would typically do at times of great change. You might not like everything you hear. When you feel resistance bubbling up, ask yourself what beliefs are being challenged? What fears are coming up when you hear what HR would like to do next?
To paraphrase Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand, only then to be understood, and then find a third way forward”. Before you set out your business recovery plan, make sure you have understood the human perspective.
Then explain your position (which may have shifted having listened to HR) and work together in radical collaboration to find a third way forward. The ideas you generate from this place of mutual understanding will be far superior to ideas generated by both teams in isolation.
Losing the ego as your remit broadens
If you've furloughed staff or are making significant redundancies there will be more for each remaining person to do. And that includes you.
You might be rather excited to get back to the technical aspects of the role. I remember coaching an FD years ago who always liked to spend some of Friday creating spreadsheets. It was his reward for a week of high-level strategic meetings.
But having made it all the way to FD level you may be reluctant to get your hands dirty again doing the ‘drudge work’.
On one hand, it is important to maintain a leadership posture during this time. Your value comes from your vision, your ability to mobilise others and to create the environment for them to do their best work. It doesn’t make sense to have someone at your pay grade neglecting the leadership aspects of your role to do a job that someone on a third of your salary can do.
But pacesetting, as it’s called when you roll up your sleeves and do the day to day operational work, only works as a short term strategy.
It shows others how to do the job – they learn so much by watching you with your years of experience. It also shows others that you willing to join them in all-hands-to-the-pump moments. If you have any ego around this, any thoughts of “I’m too good for this” then you need to let them go now. Everyone will have to muck in and you have to demonstrate your willingness to do this if you expect others to pick up the slack too.
Just remember that pacesetting long term creates dependence and undermines empowerment. People will start expecting you to step in rather than them stepping up. And, of course, you may find that you have lost some of the technical skill you used to have or that times have changed and you aren’t actually as skilled as you thought. You could do more harm than good!
Tap into your softer side
Your team’s needs have changed over the past few weeks. Remote working messes with one's head. There is too much time for reflection, staff feel isolated from others, they don’t know what’s going on because they don’t have accidental corridor conversations. A vacuum is created in to which staff put their speculation about their own performance, their value and their future with the company.
You need to call them for informal virtual coffees and a chat about the family. You need to have heightened awareness of the signs that someone is suffering, working too hard, being too hard on themselves or burning out.
You need to be willing to tell people to take their foot off the gas, to take a day off, to opt out of unnecessary meetings and turn off their emails at the weekend.
It is hard to do because you need people to be especially productive at this time. But extra productivity comes at a cost, and that cost is the wellbeing of your people. A plan which is reliant on people fearing that they aren’t doing enough, that they risk redundancy if they don’t produce super-human outputs or simply the fact that they don’t know how to create boundaries between home and work when they work remotely is not going to work in the long run.
How we treat people during this time will come back to haunt us if we aren’t careful.
Take care of yourself
You are not immune to burnout. A broader remit which includes both big picture, strategic thinking and detailed, operational work means you are using multiple parts of the brain at once and flipping between different kinds of work throughout the day. That is tiring.
You have also been adapting to massive changes in how you live and work and supporting your family to cope as well.
The future is uncertain but people are looking to you for reassurance. That takes a toll. And your role is changing, requiring you to be emotionally attuned to your team and other colleagues and to give them your full attention at a deep level.
You are a human too. Don’t under-estimate the need to top up your own resources when you are giving so much to others. Take breaks, lean on a coach or therapist, manage your own boundaries around work and non-work, build in some fun and take help when it’s offered.
Being softer and fluffier is a lot harder than it seems.
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Blaire Palmer is a leadership coach, author and conference speaker. As CEO of That People Thing she works with senior executives to help them rethink how to lead in these fast-changing times. Blaire is a judge in the Investing in People category of the 2020 Accounting Excellence Awards...