In the first part of this three-part series for our Building financial fortitude programme, financial journalist James Ashton talks with Louise Durkan, a managing director in our financial advisory team and Rachel Cutler, trainer and executive coach from the Gro Group about business leaders; how they've coped over the past 12 months and the ways in which they can manage their fears and resilience as we slowly emerge from the pandemic.

The video and a transcript of the interview can be viewed below.

Creating fortitude in your people

James Ashton: Louise, it's been a long slog going through the pandemic. How do you think business leaders are coping right now?

Louise Durkan: The businesses I'm speaking to - there's a mix in terms of where they're at. There are a number of people that are feeling very, very confident - they've made some very good decisions, they implemented a number of changes early on, did all the things that we talked about this time last year and they're making a success of that business. There are some that I'm speaking to that actually in a more challenging place - there's a bit of an underlying current of concern, we're not quite out of the woods yet and what else is to come over the next 6 or 12 months? So, some are actually still looking at some very tough decisions that they need to make.

James Ashton: And Rachel, when you're a boss and you've been going through a tough time like this where do you go? Where do you draw those reserves from to carry on?

Rachel Cutler:  Well, I think of it as an internal and external process. There are things outside that can help, resources inside and I think what Louise is talking about there is fear -  you know, that group of people that are struggling - their fear of the unknown is huge, we want to control as much as possible and we can't and I think accepting that is really helpful. So, if you work at your own resilience, that's part of what you need to do, so draw on your own resources. Like I said, there's four pillars I see as self-care look after yourself - if you don't look after yourself no one else will look after you. You have to have a self-belief, so that you take others with you, you take yourself with you.  Nobody is going to follow somebody who doesn't really have a sense, even in times of doubt, doesn't have a sense of who they are. Build up your tolerance - use the tolerance that you've built up over the last year during doing the pandemic. And use your life experience - bring everything you've got to the table for yourself and your team.

James Ashton: And if you're an owner operator of a business, is it really possible to divorce the personal from the professional?

Rachel Cutler: I think it's worth the effort to try because your business and yourself - you can fall out of both of those roles. You forget who you are and you lose your business, you've got to have a boundary in place even though it's difficult because you're tied up with the identity of your business. It's very difficult to do but to hold that boundary is important.

James Ashton: Louise, you're spending your time now advising a lot of CEOs as they go through the pandemic. Do you agree with Rachel's assessment?

Louise Durkan: It's current - I've had some conversations just this week on that particular subject, and it's very difficult to separate the personal and the business. Some people over the last 12 months have decided that actually carrying on in that business in that organization isn't for them, maybe they've had a difficult year for one reason or another, whether it's been challenging on a health basis or certainly on a business level as well, but certain owner-managed businesses may need to have a change at the top because that's what the individual wants and they're struggling with that idea around, well is it me or is it the business? What's the right thing for me to carry on with and you can't continue forever just because the business needs you. If that's not the right place for you too.

Rachel Cutler: And part of being strong and resilient in that position is looking outside, so if you don't know what's going on, if you can't make a distinction between you and the business, then look to your mentors, look to people who understand you and can say right, I can talk to you really straight and honestly and say now's the time.

Louise Durkan: And that's a real challenge for us as advisers as well because it's a balance between being honest and being open, and maybe we see more clearly perhaps because we are a step removed from the situation. We can perhaps call it a little bit quicker, but you're dealing with individuals emotions here and this is a business that they've invested maybe their whole life in but realize that they're a place that they're not the right person to take that business forward. It has got a lot of potential, it has got a lot of value and the people in the business need that leader that's invested. They need that vision and that creative strike in someone and that's a hard call for anyone to make.

James Ashton: So Rachel, we expect the UK economy to improve from here. Does that mean it's going to be easier to be a leader?

Rachel Cutler: Oh I just think of the analogy of your kids growing up actually - it just gets different, so nothing gets easier necessarily, it just gets different. So, the last year has been all about the pandemic and the difficulties that brought. Does anyone remember Brexit? Something's coming around the corner, so I think leadership is be as creative as you can, stay creative, stay ready, stay prepared. Imagine a future where you can be positive and respond with resilience to any changes that have to come.

James Ashton: Rachel, Louise, thank you.

Louise Durkan: Thank you.

Rachel Cutler: Thank you.