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How are financial planning leaders adapting to the extraordinary changes we’re seeing in our work, lifestyle and finances in 2020? Miriam DeLacy talks to Jenny Brown CFP®, Ben Hatcher CFP® and Leadership Educator Heidi Dening about the leadership skills and behaviours that matter most in these uncertain times.
For any leader at the helm during the COVID-19 crisis, change has arrived with a pace and impact that few have experienced before. The effects have been so widespread across different sectors and regions, families and businesses that comparisons to the world wars of the 20th Century do seem appropriate. This is particularly the case when we still don’t know how long existing impacts may last or how much our lives could still change.
As founders of their own respective practices, Ben Hatcher CFP® and Jenny Brown CFP®, have been leading a team and steering a business towards success for decades. Ben and the Tailor-Made Financial Services team are spread across several locations in NSW, including Milton, Wollongong and Canberra. Until recently, Jenny and her JBS Financial Strategists team were headquartered together in their South Melbourne office. But since early March, both have needed to change how they operate at lightning speed in reaction to this extraordinary crisis.
Acting with calm resolve
Ben and family had recently relocated to Canberra from Milton, the original HQ for the business. So he had already been practicing a remote-working scenario that was about to become standard for much of his team. “We’d already set up the systems we needed to hold virtual meetings and easily share files across our different locations,” he says. “In spite of this there were still decisions I needed to make and act on really quickly. My leadership style is usually to get consensus from the team before things start to happen. But with such sudden changes, in our working practices and also financial markets and our clients’ assets, I had no choice but to get on with things. And that quickfire approach has stuck. We’ve recently started a webinar series and that’s something that would have involved six months of planning. With the way we’re working now, it’s taken just a few weeks to get it up and running.”
Early in March 2020, Jenny and her team also swung into action as they became aware of how severe the crisis was becoming. “On Monday 9 March, I had a meeting with our leadership team about what it would take to close the office and keep everyone working,” she says. “By Friday 13 we’d made our decision and from Monday 16 everyone was working from home. It was no small achievement to get everyone up and running, with the right IT and all OH&S issues addressed for their personal work space. But with so many of our team using public transport to come to work, the health risks for our staff and clients were just too great. We knew it was the right thing to do.”
Adapting to people and situations
With larger office spaces and most employees able to drive to work, many of Ben’s team have continued to work from the office during the COVID-19 crisis. “It’s been a case of everyone doing what works best for them,” he says. “Some are much more productive in the office environment,” he says. “They really need that boundary between their home and work life. Others love having the flexibility to start and finish work when it suits them and having the flexibility they needed to fit in home schooling.”
Ben is very clear that there was no stigma associated with the choices his team were making. “It was all about personal preference,” he adds. “It has served the business well for everyone to work in a way they’re comfortable with, whether that’s from the office or from home.”
According to leadership expert Heidi Dening, this personal approach to managing team members is one of the most important competencies for leaders to demonstrate in a crisis. “Some people will perform better when they’re given less direction and more freedom, whereas others will be looking for more guidance.,” she says. “What was working for people in the office environment may not hold true when they’re at home.
“Leaders are at their most effective when they know how their team members thrive and can adjust their style accordingly,” she adds. “Having said that, individualising your leadership is a diffifcult challenge. And you can only grow as a leader and practice this skill if you’re open to getting feedback from people on how your ‘natural’ style is working for them. So it starts with having an awareness of how you instinctively lead and putting the work in to try something new with different people and situations.”
Communication is key
Ben agrees that open communication has always been valued in his team environment. He says how important it is that people have permission to ‘put in their two cents worth’ for most situations. For Jenny, stepping up the frequency of communication and the range of tools was absolutely essential to making sure her team felt heard and involved while working from home.
“We’ve continued with all the routine communications and still have our Monday WIP team meeting and our daily huddles at 9.30am,” says Jenny. “What we’ve added to that is a 2.30pm huddle Monday to Thursday and then a 4.30 get together on a Friday afternoon to talk about what we’ve worked on that week, any road blocks and just how people are feeling. Then we wrap up the week by playing a game together online.”
As well as these group forums for keeping communication flowing, both Jenny and her business partner Warren Hanna have made a point of having more regular ‘coffee catch-ups’ with each person in the team. “We did them together at first, to make it very clear that people could come to either of us to talk about anything that’s on their mind,” she says. “We used to have these face-to-face at a local café. Now they’re shorter but happen more often, every three to four weeks instead of every two months.”
Of course none of this would be happening without access to technologies like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. “We’ve been using Teams for a while for video meetings but now we’re finding the chat function is really supporting our communication too,” says Jenny. “We use it to quickly check if someone is free for a video chat, but it also brings in a more personal side to our team communication. We have a Dad Jokes thread and use it to share our home office photos so we feel connected on things other than work.”
These are some of the small, informal ways to create the kind of communication that fosters a sense of connection and openness. “This crisis has really heightened my sense of how people are feeling,” says Jenny. “We’ve had a business coach working with the leadership team every month, but now we’re catching up for two hours every two weeks. Off the back of those meetings we’ve brought a conversation into our weekly Friday rituals with the team, asking people to reflect on how empowered and positive they’re feeling or whether they’re feeling more like a victim of how things are moving forward, both with their work and the wider world.”
Employees then answer a weekly survey giving themselves a rating of one to 10 on their current level of motivation and feeling in control . “Including their name is optional, but everyone does,” says Jenny. “This gives us an opportunity to check in and offer to help people who give themselves a four or five and aren’t going so well. Bringing in extra tools like this has really kept communication top of mind for us at all times.”
Fostering client relationships
Of course it isn’t just communication with teams that financial planning leaders need to work on during this crisis. “When we closed our office, we communicated to our entire database of clients via email, but we also sent personal emails and followed up with phone calls,” says Jenny. “We were very honest, saying this isn’t going to be business as usual. But they’ve actually been hearing from us far more often than before. Each Zoom meeting has been shorter than our face-to-face meetings would have been but they’ve been far more frequent.”
Ben agrees that clients have been keen to talk more often. “We’ve been having more in-depth conversations with clients and not just about the financial aspects of their lives,” he says. “We got to know more about them and their families from hearing about what they’ve all been going through, with adult children losing their jobs and facing financial struggles that have come out of nowhere.”
These insights from both Ben and Jenny speak to an aspect of relationship-building that Heidi recommends for financial planning professionals during this time of crisis. “Now more than ever you need to be in the service of your clients,” she says. “Find ways to just show up and say ‘how can I help you, what do you need from me right now?’ Being in service is of such value in building a deeper relationship.”
Having the courage to connect
Since closing the Melbourne office in mid-March, JBS Financial Strategists haven’t opened their doors again. Jenny had told the team they would reassess the situation after Easter, but with the return to lockdown for metropolitan Melbourne in July, she is now certain the office won’t open until September at the earliest.
While it’s been hard for her not to have all the answers the team is looking for, Heidi Dening says that showing yourself to be a fallible leader makes it far more likely your team will see you as vulnerable and be able to connect with you as a result.
“It’s completely OK to not have all the answers and say that out loud,” says Heidi. “It’s also OK for you to say that the decision I make today may be wrong next week, but based on what I have right now I’m making the best decision I can. This honesty creates a trusting environment and opens up a new type of conversation between leaders and employees. It also gives other people permission to tap into their own courage by stepping up to offer help.”
“You’ve got to show that you’re vulnerable,” agrees Jenny. “The team needs to understand that you’re a human being and you have your bad days too. I’ll always acknowledge how I’m feeling and – thanks to our business coach – I’ll also be open about why I feel negative and how I could overcome it either by reaching inside or asking for help.”
For Ben, it’s taken courage to call clients and tell them he doesn’t have all the answers right now. “It’s so important to be proactive and let clients know you’re there for them,” he says. “Checking in and acknowledging the stress they’re going through is vital to the relationship. And when you think about what people in Europe and the US have been going through, losing family members, you feel less worried about having those conversations. You’re telling them they’ve lost a small percentage of their wealth, which is nothing compared with sharing news that they’ve lost a Mum or a Dad, a sister or brother. ”
A positive outlook
Having a sense of gratitude for his COVID-19 situation compared with much of the world has helped Ben maintain his own positive mindset at a challenging time. “I’ve also made more time for exercise, which has been important for keeping me focussed and motivated with so much going on,” he says. Jenny agrees that having time to exercise and disconnect from work has become a priority for her routine. “In the past I walked the dogs listening to music or podcasts,” she says. “But now I prefer to be out in the fresh air to just clear my mind and connect nature.”
In spite of having a lot of change to work through, Ben has also found that he’s moved into a more strategic mindset in looking at what the business is doing. “When you become so much more aware of what is and isn’t important, it prompts you to take a helicopter view of your business and reinvigorate your strategy,” he says. “On that basis, we’re now moving into a new world of financial planning and taking steps to change how we invest, deliver services and our fee structure. We were always going to get there but this crisis has triggered a faster change agenda.”
Start and end your day with self-leadership
“You must be prepared to lead yourself before you can expect anyone to walk with you” says leadership expert Heidi Dening. “During this crisis, one of the things you have some control over is starting and ending each day in a way that is going to help you show up ready to focus and make good decisions as things keep changing around you.”
To start the day
Make time for stillness, followed by some movement, whether that’s a stretch in the lounge room or a short walk outside. Follow this up with some good nourishment so you have energy and your cognitive function is primed for whatever the day brings.
To finish the day
Blurring the boundaries between work and life has been on the rise for years. During social isolation it’s even harder to separate the two. Create a buffer between your working and resting life by immersing yourself in something away from your laptop screen or phone. Choose some music or a podcast or sit down and read a whole chapter of a book.
When things are changing all the time it can be hard to feel like you’re succeeding. So it’s also important to have a daily ritual where you scan your day for something that’s gone well. This can build that resilience ‘muscle’ so it becomes used to acknowlegding the good things that have occurred, and brings you the courage to be creative, adaptable and have influence.
Join Leadership Educator, Author and Speaker Heidi Dening on 12 October 2020 at our Virtual Congress Session Tough times don’t last. Resilient financial planners do.