When the going gets tough, the employees get engaged

You don't have to fear economic adversity if your culture is strong: one CEO tells his story of survival through the economic crisis.

When the going gets tough, the employees get engaged

The employee-employer dynamic changes in times of adversity and can lead to the employee becoming more engaged instead of disengaged, according to the CEO of HBOS, David Smith.

Smith said that in tough times employees become less focused on rewards and more focused on what the leader is saying, on whether they are providing clarity and direction and look for more one-on- one conversation with their managers than before.

“It’s quite remarkable to see the dynamic between employee and leader change,” said Smith. “The engagement levels go up and often employees do a much better job.”

Speaking at a breakfast hosted by Stephensen Mansell Group, Smith emphasised the importance of leadership and communication in difficult times.

“I know it sounds like 101 leadership, but it’s so important to pull all your top leaders to gether and cascade the messages down,” he said. “If the message is communicated properly it’s a powerful thing.”

Smith also believes it is in difficult times that the best relationships are often formed.

“Some of the strongest relationships I have made have been during times of adversity,” he said. “It’s because the things you achieve together during these times are way and be yond anything that you could experience in the normal course of work.”

Resilience and endurance he believes are two of the characteristics that leaders who are going through this economic period will build up.

When Smith joined HBOS in January 2009, he had what he dubbed a "baptism of fire": taking up the position in the midst of the financial crisis.

“As a leader during a crisis like this you have to take a different approach and question what is normal in leadership,” he said.

As the financial crisis spiralled out of control, particularly in the UK where HBOS’s parent company is based, Smith said the challenges he faced were huge.

“It’s quite daunting and overwhelming to be a leader amidst a global catastrophe” he said. “We were treading untrodden ground so there were no norms to fall back on.”

Colleagues and employees often expect the CEO to have all the answers, so one of the lessons Smith learned was the importance of acting quickly and also admitting that if you don’t know or have the answer. He said that it’s only the questioning of the role of the leader is only beginning and he believes that there is a whole school of argument and debate around leadership which has only just beginning.

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