In the second 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 and the fundamental skills needed to lead their business in difficult times.

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

The role of leaders in difficult times

James Ashton: Rachel leaders are nothing without followers. How do they maintain a team dynamic in difficult times?

Rachel Cutler: Learning from what we’ve been at the last year would be helpful because we’ve had to do it remotely. The best way of starting any team is to trust - so trust is key to any team dynamic. You’ve got to be a trustworthy leader and you’ve got to be trusting of your people, so what you’ve got to do is connect the different types and allow difference within that team. That’s the most important thing because if we’re talking about moving forward, we always need creativity and unless we tolerate difference in our team, we’re not going to get anywhere.

James Ashton: Louise, do you agree it’s all about trust as well?

Louise Durkan: Yes, it’s all about, as well as the trust that’s there for me, it’s very much about strategy and alignment around strategy, so it’s the buying and the alignment to that strategy as well, but that does come from trust because are you being told the right story? Are you being told the full strategy? Are you deliberately being given one version of it because perhaps you don’t form a part of it in the longer run? So yes, I think it’s very important and that trust is pretty vital actually, whether it’s a good situation you’re dealing with or it’s a more challenging situation because if it’s a difficult and challenging situation and you haven’t already got that trust there, people really don’t want to be onboard with you in a tough time.

James Ashton: Yeah.

Rachel Cutler: They’ll go silent, that’s what happens if there’s no trust, so you won’t know how to change everything up and you won’t know who is actually onboard and who’s not.

Louise Durkan: Exactly.

James Ashton: Louise, we talk a lot about all being in it together in business teams at the moment, but we know there are some CEOs of companies out there who will have to reduce their workforce in the coming weeks and months. Now that seems a very, very difficult situation, how do they square that circle?

Louise Durkan: It’s incredibly difficult and are we really all in it together or are some of us not going to be in it together any longer? It is trust but its honesty as well. Be honest with yourself. I keep saying to people that I’m speaking to in this situation day in, day out, and I keep having to remind everybody that businesses in many cases don’t find themselves in this situation because of something specific that they’ve done, this has been an external event for some and therefore they are in unchartered waters and they really are struggling with some of the decisions that they have to make but this is not a personal failure. This is a situation that everybody does recognise and understand, and being honest with your people is a very important thing as a leader to accept that you have to tell them – I don’t have all the answers. It’s going to be difficult and maybe there needs to be some change, and you do need to talk about this. I’ve been in situations where people are facing having to make workforce changes and reductions and they’re absolutely terrified of the reaction that people are going to have, but the reality is, those people in the workforce, those people on the shop floor – they know it’s coming. They’ve seen it, they’ve seen the problem themselves. They’re almost relieved when the conversation is finally held because they have been waiting for it and many of them are prepared for it already and it’s actually the leader or the owner of the business that hasn’t accepted the situation.

James Ashton: I see, so the workforce are ahead of where the boss is?

Louse Durkan: In every situation I have ever found myself in, if you walk around the business, listen to people talking, they know there’s a problem, they see a problem with supplies, they see a problem with payroll maybe not being made on time, they see activity levels are reduced, they see all of that that’s going on. They’re very aware of it.

Rachel Cutler: And they want to see that reflected in the leadership and I think just being honest and truthful is a fair way of carrying on because that’s exactly what you’re saying. They don’t want to hear something else, some sort of cover and they don’t want to hear silence. They want to be communicated with about something, like you say, they already know.

James Ashton: And Rachel, I’m interested in your perspective – if you’re someone who is in one of those workforces, say middle management – how should they operate because I guess if you know the change and cuts are coming, you can look across the office and see that your colleague is actually your competitor for that one job that’s remaining?

Rachel Cutler: I think it comes down to trusting yourself there and having the capacity to work in good times and bad times and I think you have to accept the truth of the situation and be honest. Yes you are, in a way, in competition but you have to follow through on what’s good for the business and that can be a difficult and painful decision.

Louise Durkan: But are you even in competition? You see that’s the question because you don’t necessarily know what the other individual’s agenda is and maybe, and I have see it happen before, particularly in a sales team, where they think they’re in competition with one another but actually the person that they think is their target to get in front of – they actually want something completely different.

Rachel Cutler: And that’s where the culture makes a difference. If your leadership has created a culture of honesty and truthfulness without consequences, then they would know that. They would know where each other stands.

James Ashton: Rachel, Louise, thank you.

Louise Durkan: Thank you.

Rachel Cutler: Thank you.