How to lead in the age of coronavirus

Register now

In a recent conversation with Gretchen Pisano, leadership consultant and CEO of pLink Leadership, my social media followers got the opportunity to hear her tell us — as humans first and CPAs second — what leadership our clients need from us in these trying times.

Pisano provides an amazing perspective because in addition to being a leadership guru, she also has a master’s degree in applied human psychology. She has an understanding of how people handle moments of seismic shift, which is key to guiding them (and yourself).

Let’s begin with the scariest and most obvious advice: How to find your Zen as a leader.

Gretchen stressed that it is important for all of us to accept that we are in an unprecedented situation. When people are faced with change, the first thing they do is look for a historical or personal map, but we do not have a map right now.

As a result, people feel very uncomfortable.

In these map-less moments, people respond in one of two ways:

1. They face reality and start to wrap their minds and emotions around that reality and deal with the risk by offloading it. Then they move toward opportunities. This is the best-case scenario.

2. They ramp up delusions. And what Gretchen means by delusions is people make up stories about what they are dealing with. And those stories either drop them into total fear and paralysis — not the most productive space — or into a mindset of denial, where they are making decisions based on information they’re cherry-picking from the environment to fit their impromptu, irrational map of what's going on in the world.

Take a moment to reflect on how you are handling this. Gretchen asks that you notice if you are ramping up your delusions and/or telling yourself a bunch of stories about what you think should be happening. Everyone, leaders included, has to ground themselves in the reality of what is happening. That’s when you give thought to how you want to “show up.” Practically speaking, this means doing your best to understand the larger environmental issues and then identifying what is in your control and what is not. Then you must mentally and emotionally show up. You have to understand the difference between what you can own and what you can't, as well as what is rational thought versus a fear-based thought, bolstered by a potentially false narrative you are constructing to explain this all away.

So, how does this translate to reassuring your clients? It basically starts with reassuring yourself that you know what you are doing! You want to know how to handle your freaked-out clients? Look at their financial statements and ask them the same questions you would ask any new client and yourself to:

  • Learn about their business;
  • Understand where the business is now;
  • Uncover their concerns;
  • Identify what’s keeping them up at night;
  • Determine how you can help them; and
  • Find where you can add value.

Ask big open-ended questions and be prepared to listen. Some things never change.

Before you get on the line with a client or get on that video conference, take a moment and ground yourself in the knowledge that your ability to advise and analyze situations is a fact! So, do what you need to do: freak out, scream, meditate, stand on your head — whatever! But know that when you get on that call, your professional expertise is grounded in a history of professional know-how. Lean into your job as both a sympathetic ear and a well-seasoned CPA and accountant.

And here is the magic: Your value is not in your ability to give them the absolute best advice or the “right answer” because, right now, there is no right answer. In a world where everything keeps shifting according to a rapid-fire news cycle, there is no right! Your value is your knowledge of your field and your ability to ask them great questions.

As a CPA, it is your responsibility to understand your client’s tolerance for risk. This is informed by their situation, how much overhead are they carrying, how old are they, where their retirement fund is at and much more. Your clients will feel valued and safe if you create space for them that is not about any kind of judgment.

It’s not about you being the smartest person in the room; it’s about you showing compassion and empathy, and allowing clients to be afraid and nervous. Your role is not to tell them that you can fix it, because you can't. However, you can be there with them and help them find their way through this. You just have to do what they have always done, but place less emphasis on being the expert and more on being an excellent financial coach and listener.

CPAs must now be therapists (which, let’s face it, we’ve always been). But now we are therapists who have to really pay attention and do our homework on what is happening fiscally on the international level. We have to pay attention, read international news, keep an eye out for what’s trending, and understand what's happening in China and other countries that have gone before us.

Now is the time when, instead of needing to show up as the expert in the room with all the answers, CPAs need to show up as the trusted advisor with good judgment, steady energy and a great, empathetic connection with their clients, and all the fears and feelings they bring to the table.

Good luck, get out there, listen, and trust that you have the skill set to handle your clients’ needs and the emotional bandwidth to hear and comfort them.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
Coronavirus Practice management Client relations Client retention