At Scotiabank in El Salvador

At Scotiabank in El Salvador

On a visit to El Salvador during my recent tour with Harvard Business Review in Latin America, had a conference stop in the capital city of San Salvador, where I also did a private talk for Scotiabank.  The bank invited me to an employee-client breakfast, and they asked me to prepare a one-hour speech about “Leadership in times of crisis”.

The topic of leadership and crisis caused me to reflect, as it is a general theme that I approach with some caution, and with mixed emotions.  On the one hand, I have seen over the years that outstanding leaders and companies do not change much in what they do, whether in times of great opportunity or times of crisis.  In any environment, they tend to stay grounded in who they are and in their core principles and behaviors.  So, in my remarks, I did not want to give the impression that I advocate sweeping changes in behavior when facing a crisis.

On the other hand, I believe that there are some simple things that leaders and managers would do well to think about in a crisis environment.  In times of uncertainty and stress, top managers should make a bit more effort to exhibit behavior that reassures the employees.  Here are two examples of behavior I recommend at all times, but particularly in times of stress and crisis.

Among the easiest things managers can do is make an effort to be visible to their troops.  People crave leadership, and in a time of crisis it is reassuring to see that the people in charge are indeed present and working on solutions.  Simply by finding a way to “touch” more people on the way to one’s office or during the day, we can make a difference in the way they feel.  So, park the car far from the entrance to your building, or take an elevator on the other side of your corridor rather than the one closest to your office.  These small efforts will allow you to shake more hands and have the small conversation that can give people confidence.

A second behavior we can all implement is taking some time to remind employees of what the company stands for.  Tell our stories of identity, of who we are and where we come from, and of our enduring values.  Then, make sure we embody the stories we tell in our daily activities.

One CEO who brings his company’s message to his people during any crisis is Bill Marriott, who reminds everyone of the hotel chain’s long-established values: closeness to our customers and attention to every small detail.  And, he truly embodies his story.  Marriott has a reputation for stopping by hotels unannounced and chatting with everyone he sees.  He shows up in kitchens at daybreak to make sure the pancakes are cooked properly.  Now, that is attention to detail!

As I mentioned above, these behaviors should be even more accentuated in times of crisis and uncertainty, in order to give people a sense of security.

Naturally, in light of the current world economic situation, many people and companies have crisis on their minds.  Somewhat paradoxically, though, Scotiabank seems to be doing very well in Latin America, during what must be considered an extremely turbulent time for the banking industry.  Chatting with the bank’s CEO and a few other key employees during breakfast confirmed my image of this enterprise as a bank that stays close to its conservative Canadian roots.  They operate prudently and never overextend themselves, both in times of chaos and in times of stability and economic expansion.

In his opening remarks, the bank’s president encouraged employees to remember “who we are and where we come from”.  We have always been good listeners, he said, accompanying our local customers through good times and bad.  In essence, a central part of this bank’s identity lies in its close relationships with its clients, and its ability to provide quality personal service and guidance in any economy.

Listening to the president’s short speech made me think of the book excerpt I had been reading only hours earlier, as my flight was landing in San Salvador.  In the October 17 issue of Fortune, there are a few pages from the new book by Jim Collins and Morten C. Hansen, Great by Choice.  One of the book’s central concepts is that great companies often get there through slow and steady growth.

The book’s authors call them “20-Mile March” companies.  In essence, these are companies that experienced tremendous growth and profit over an extended period, each one beating its industry index by more than 10 times.  And, they accomplished this not so much by taking huge risk but rather by maintaining a growth pace sustainable both in boom times and in times of crisis.  The outstanding companies in the study tended neither to panic in times of stress, nor to overextend themselves in moments of great opportunity.  They continued their disciplined march month after month, year after year.

In my short experience with Scotiabank, I would say that they are a company that exhibits some of these admirable characteristics.  They have grown surely and steadily, through good times and bad, by listening and staying close to their clients.  As such, they seem to be avoiding much of the panic of today’s banking crisis.

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