Crisis leadership: Clear and thoughtful communication is key
Leaders League spoke to Citi Private Bank’s global head for investment finance legal Françoise Plusquellec about the main elements of crisis leadership and the steps Citi has taken to assist its employees, clients and the wider community during the coronavirus pandemic
What is the key to effective Leadership in a Crisis?
There are various factors that contribute to effective leadership in a crisis. With any crisis comes uncertainty, which creates anxiousness, so giving employees clear guidelines, setting realistic goals, providing strong oversight – despite the distance that separates team members – is key to maintaining balance, purpose and focus.
One of the most significant challenges brought on by the crisis from a work perspective, has been the strain that having to work from home has placed on people. Having to homeschool kids, caring for elderly parents, worrying about sick relatives and friends who you cannot visit, facing technological issues with everyone logging in from their homes, isolation, or on the contrary just finding a quiet corner of your home from which to not only get through your typical work day but frankly, for many, a much more intense and longer working day than ever before, are only a few of the challenges people deal with daily.
In this environment, I think that focusing on communication, that is providing clear, thoughtful, regular, consistent and effective communication, is key. This means not only communication between managers and their teams but also promoting and fostering positive communication between team members. Maintaining regular communication with the members of your team, be it through one-on-one calls to check in on employees, or organizing group calls to continue to foster a team spirit approach to problem solving is critical. It is equally important to maintain that effort consistently over time. The risk as this crisis continues in time is that with it, some of the efforts and engagement that everyone demonstrated early on could erode. Communication needs to continue to be a priority over time and promoted. For example, within the Citi Private Bank, several initiatives have been strongly supported by management such as the peer buddy system to encourage employees to share their outlook and different perspectives with a peer buddy assigned to them. I think these types of initiatives create a great additional layer of connection and are very effective against isolation.
Clear communication by management to employees is also critical to success. Uncertainty fuels a great deal of anxiety so to the extent possible, sharing as much information as possible with your team will help alleviate a lot of that anxiety. Finally, not all communication needs to be about work or Covid19. Continuing to celebrate and give people a shout out on the joys and successes life continues to bring despite the crisis is important: births, birthdays, accomplishments, anniversaries, awards, all those happy moments should continue to be highlighted and actively celebrated. Just this morning, a group of us were invited to an urgent call… so we could all surprise one of our colleagues by singing her happy birthday. I think people really walk away from those much-needed breaks very energized.
What measures has Citi taken to ensure the wellness and safety of its employees?
Citi started crisis planning and implementing business continuity measures very early on. From early March, the bank was one of the first institutions to implement a split strategy in many offices and quickly moved to an almost entire remote working model to protect the safety and well-being of its employees. At the early stages of the crisis, under the split strategy, different groups of employees were asked to work from different locations as Citi ramped up its remote accessibility for its employees and this has been very successful. This required countless hours of undivided attention and unlimited efforts from the bank’s IT teams to provide the technological support for such a large workforce to quickly move to remote working globally. This support was provided not only by setting up the technological solutions needed by Citi employees to ensure continuity of business, but also by providing the hardware and software needed.
Citi has also taken many measures to provide mental wellness tools to its employees from inviting guest speakers on topics such as mindfulness or sharing regular advice on well-being. Several support programs have been launched such as, for example, the Employee Assistance Program Benefit which provides employees with immediate professional and confidential assistance for work, health or life events - from everyday matters to the more serious wellbeing challenges such as, abuse, loss issues, health & lifestyle, addictive behaviors, mental illness or legal issues, just to name a few.
What measures has Citi taken to help its clients?
Citi has supported its clients through many relief measures across the globe to ease the financial impact of Covid-19. To give a few examples, the measures have included the bank taking various measures to relieve credit card and loan clients on their loans and bills, providing financing, and supporting clients to raise international capital to support their operations and using digital solutions to support impacted clients.
What measures has Citi taken to help the community generally?
Citi is consistently an active member of its local communities and has been more present than ever in its efforts to provide responses to Covid-19. In addition to the support the Bank has provided to its clients and the relief it has offered to its consumers, the bank has just announced that it has committed over $65 million to relief efforts around the world through contributions from Citi and the Citi Foundation. These philanthropic contributions include: a $10 million commitment in the US to make financial counseling and technical assistance available for small business owners and families experiencing financial hardship; a $10 million commitment in India to aid a number of relief and recovery measures, including food provisions for low-income families across the country; and a pledge of $4.4 million by Citibanamex to support local communities in Mexico. In Spain alone, the Citi Foundation just approved a $75,000 donation to the ONCE Foundation to support persons with disabilities through the crisis.
Citi is also very supportive of allowing its employees to contribute and volunteer in any way they can in different relief efforts. On March 20, Citi announced its “Double the Good” program, under which it is launching a ‘matching’ campaign. For every US$1 employees donate in support of an organization of their choice that is supporting COVID-19 relief efforts, Citi will donate US$1 to one of four organizations selected by each region to address unique challenges: United Nations Development Programme (APAC), International Rescue Committee (EMEA), the International Organization for Migration (LATAM) and Direct Relief (NAM). In total, Citi will be donating up to $500,000 to each selected entity based on employee contributions in the corresponding region. If Citi meets its goal in each region, that would lead to another $4 million in donations from Citi and its employees.
What advice would you give other leaders regarding handling Covid-19 cases?
The main advice I would give is to encourage teams to come together as one, through a common purpose of getting the job done as a team while being there for each other. Encourage people to be kind and understanding with each other. In these difficult times everyone is dealt a different set of cards, and faces a very wide spectrum of challenges so it is important to support each other by being particularly mindful and considerate. A little humor and some poetic input is also very helpful along the way. The private bank legal team has been exchanging stories and pictures of their daily lives, experiences across the globe, and just anecdotes from cooking habits to toddler tantrums to delegating homework to grandparents over skype, which has brought some much needed laughter along the way. We also have a chat group in which people exchange jokes, games, riddles and where we all come together for a virtual good laugh at the end of the business day. In some ways, I think I have gotten to know some of my colleagues better than before the crisis and if there is anything to be grateful for in this environment, it is the confirmation that as a team, together, we can navigate successfully and united through the worst of times.
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