How to Lead in a Crisis

As accounting professionals, we’re on the front lines helping our small business clients and our employees through this crisis in multiple ways. It’s a chance for us to display extraordinary leadership as a profession.

Here’s a tweet I just love that exemplifies the times:

Here are some reminders for all of us as we step up to lead our firms and help our clients in these times.

Tell It Like It Is

If your clients are struggling with business continuity, cash flow, and layoffs, it’s essential for you to deliver early, open and transparent communication about their status.  Show empathy, but be firm and make sure clients have the facts.  Warn clients that you think might bury their heads in the sand and end up worse off down the road.

Exceptional leaders will explain the details of what is happening to the business and offer guidance as to next steps. Showing empathy and suggesting hope to the business owner will instill confidence that they can accomplish what needs to be done.

Good leaders will also show how clients are in control of the outcome. This builds a strong sense of purpose with the client and helps to increase the level of trust between the accounting professional and the client.

Keep Your Clients Informed

New options are available almost every day.  New laws have been passed almost every week, one takes effect as early as April 2, 2020, and others require immediate changes in recordkeeping. All of this is overwhelming to small business owners.

As you build financial projections, keep them updated as close to real time as your current accounting systems will allow.

Collaborate with others to brainstorm potential solutions and be an awesome listener without judgment. Don’t forget to listen to people who disagree with you; they may get you thinking out-of-the-box.

Write up your clients’ list of options and keep it updated. Last week, we had the SBA loans that many applied for; this week we can add PPP of the CARES Act as a new option for clients. There are also many private sector and local solutions available to small businesses.

Take ownership of your recommendations and “sell” them to the client so they can make a swift decision they’ll feel good about.

Find a Balance Between Control and Cooperation

Clients, of course, have the final say in what they do with their businesses, but what about communicating with employees during this time?

Great leaders will strike the right balance between voluntary cooperation and mandated control. Firms with employees need to decide based on their culture, current leadership, and risk level exactly what will be a required and enforced rule and what will be a voluntary suggestion.

The leader’s style and level of trust with employees will determine much of what needs to be implemented. Communicating a strong narrative about the purpose of the firm will create trust and cooperation among the employees.

Reduce Uncertainty as Much as Possible

While there are plenty of unknowns and much that’s out of a small business owner’s control, focus on what you can control and do. Communicate what you’ve done and what you can do for the client. Communicate to the client what they’ve done as you understand it and what they can do moving forward. It might feel like over-communicating to many of us, but it will bring a much-needed clarity to your clients.

Communicate the part that is uncertain as well. It’s better not to sugar-coat your words; clients can take that as if you’re talking to them like you would a toddler. Assume that your client will remain calm and put in the long-term work that they’ll need to, and don’t be surprised when they do.

What a leader doesn’t say can be as important as what they say. Consistency in messaging is one of the most important qualities of crisis leadership that maintains trust with clients. If you don’t know, say you don’t know.  Doing these things will maintain and build your credibility.

Establish Perspective

Help small business owners reframe their perspective to what’s best for the business, their community, and their country, and not necessarily just themselves. Firm partners will do well to take this advice themselves right now too. It’s just not the time to be greedy.

Set Goals

Help your clients set goals for the short-term, the recovery period, and the long-term. Here you can also help clients set priorities to determine what’s most important for them.

Exercise Self-Control

Anxiety and disorganization are not our friends.  Dig deep and practice high emotional intelligence in front of your employees and clients. Be compassionate, but don’t let your emotions overtake you. Maintain a sense of urgency while remaining steady.

Self-awareness and social awareness are critical right now for us to excel in. This means understanding how you’re coming across to others and making sure you’re projecting your best self.

Praise Often

Recognize the efforts of your employees and your clients, frequently and often, but also maintain sincerity. With so much negativity, we really need to bring more positive interactions into our daily experiences. Great leaders will do just that.


Forgive yourself for any mistakes you make. These are extraordinary times, after all. Also forgive your employees. Stressed employees make more mistakes, so you’ll want to increase quality control while helping your employees manage massive changes in their work and their lives.

Rahm Emanuel said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

Let’s all do our part to practice extraordinary leadership now and in the future.