Leadership in a crisis: putting your arm around your people

Louise Lu is a Consultant at EY and a member of the SFE Young Professionals Committee 

I had the pleasure of attending the first of the SFE Young Professionals’ virtual Leadership Series events, hosted by SFE YP Committee Co-Chair Milly Dent on Monday 27 July. In this informative and thought-provoking session, Malcolm Buchanan, Chairman, Scotland for the Royal Bank of Scotland, and the bank’s Managing Director for Corporate & Commercial Banking, shared his thoughts on the Financial Services (FS) industry’s response to COVID-19, alongside a first-hand account of the ways in which he’s had to adapt his personal leadership style. Below are a few of my key takeaways from the session.

Giving customers reassurance from a human perspective was paramount in guiding the FS industry’s response to COVID-19. FS firms have collaborated proactively from the outset of the pandemic to put customers and the wider communities that they serve at the forefront of their priorities. A clear example of this is the coordinated response from retail banks to ensure their branch networks remain accessible for their most vulnerable customers. Another standout anecdote is the conversion of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Edinburgh headquarters at Gogarburn into a foodbank distribution centre. The human-led approach taken by the FS industry helps to dispel the misleading and unhelpful parallels between this public health crisis and the financial crisis of 2008; the industry is not a cause of the crisis in this instance - rather, it is part of the recovery story

The operational challenges resulting from COVID-19 and the new government-backed lending schemes have been enormous and often under-recognised. Practically overnight, entire workforces moved to remote working while simultaneously trying to manage huge increases in transactions volumes. Beyond the personal trials and tribulations of home working - i.e. Malcolm having to share his new home barber and hair clippers with his terrier - the headline statistics he highlighted shed light on the enormity of the operational challenge.

Table 1. Summary of Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS), Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) and Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme CLBILS statistics as of 26 July 2020 (HM Treasury)


Cumulative value of approved facilities

Cumulative number of approved facilities

Cumulative number of applications













Adaptive leadership: How do you put your arm around a group of people who feel discombobulated by this level of change? ‘Deliberate overcommunication.’ This phrase from Malcolm’s presentation really stood out to me because I personally see this approach echoed by leadership figures both within my firm and externally. It is important to emphasize that it is not simply the quantity and frequency of communication that matters, but the quality and tone. Malcolm openly admits that he has had to make a conscious effort to adjust his tone of communication to display levels of empathy that he is not necessarily accustomed to. This move from an empirical and data-driven leadership style (a ‘numbers guy’) to an empathetic leadership style, focusing on his people’s individual needs and wellbeing, has allowed him to become a source of comfort and reassurance for his employees in this time of mass uncertainty.

What’s next? There is no room for complacency following the emergency response phase. There is no shortage of fear and anxiety about the future, particularly when we consider the looming economy-wide cash flow hits from the upcoming expiration of furlough schemes, capital repayment holidays and tax payment delays. While it is easy to feel hopeless under these circumstances, Malcolm’s advisory role in his capacity as an SFE Board Member on the Scotland Tourism Recovery Task Force reiterates the importance of being proactive and focusing on ‘controlling the controllables’ when it comes to helping customers and various business sectors deal with the difficult times ahead. Moreover, Malcolm notes that we cannot lose sight of all of the other issues we face from a more holistic point of view: Brexit, diversity and inclusion, climate change, and the workforce of the future will continue to form a big part of the SFE agenda moving forward.

I thoroughly enjoyed this session, especially the anecdotes interspersed throughout Malcolm’s presentation that brought his talking points to life.  A final key takeaway – one of the main benefits of the shift to remote working that Malcolm pinpointed is the wealth of thought leadership content and virtual events that are now available to wider audiences as a result. I look forward to making the most of these opportunities to hear from other inspiring thought leaders at the next event in our SFE YP Leadership Series on August 11th with Barry Connolly, MD of Everyday Banking at NatWest Group. Further details and registration here.

Published 31 July 2020