How to lead well under pressure

Four tips for keeping a cool head when the heat is on.

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 05 Sep 2019
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Growing Business

The principles of good management are well enough known - push but don’t shove; be decisive but listen; make people feel safe but not complacent; give people autonomy but keep them pushing in the same direction; be authentic but challenge your biases.

Yet so often leadership collapses when the pressure mounts - which it inevitably will. The ability to keep a cool head when problems arise is therefore key to being a great leader. Here, five bosses share their tips for steering your organisation through rough waters.

Never give up

Anne Boden is the founder of banking disruptor Starling. She says that the best advice she’s had during her career is to carry on, even when everything seems to be falling to pieces. "When things are really tough, it is sometimes easier to carry on than stop," she explains. "Just one day later, you may get the big break. Success comes to those that don't give up.

"There were many times in the early days of Starling when most people thought my vision was too ambitious," she continues. "I wanted a real banking licence, technology built from scratch, and a new, fair proposition for customers."

Just when she thought no one would believe in her vision, Boden got a call from an investor, who invited her onto his yacht to pitch for funding. She secured nearly £50m. "He made the dream a possibility, and Starling has been named Best British Bank for two years running."

Support your team

Jess Ratty is a serial entrepreneur and founder of Halo PR. There are often fires to fight when working in the fast-paced world of corporate communications, she says. During one campaign, a miscommunication led to a problem getting the right message out to the public.

"Blame was being thrown around left, right and centre and two of my team were left feeling personally responsible," she says. "But when things don’t go to plan, the worst thing you can do is cast blame. People mess up, that’s a fact of life. I calmed them down, discussed the situation, and ensured they knew I valued them, their time, passion and commitment to Halo."

When your team is under pressure, it’s important to quickly move the focus onto solving the issue, recommends Ratty. By taking a step back, and looking at the big picture, she managed to turn the mistake into an opportunity: "I changed the slant of the message, which was brilliant for the campaign," she says.

Lean on your board

By having a strong management team and a board of directors, you can share the load when crisis hits. "We had an instance where one of our staff was ‘manipulating’ their expenses and effectively trying to steal from the company," says Alan Day, boss of supplier management firm State of Flux.

"Our board director helped identify it, provided advice on how to deal with it, spoke to the employee - all things that I would have had to do myself previously. In this instance, they also stepped in to ensure the business continued to run smoothly and no client's service was impacted. Board directors are worth their weight in gold."

Look after your mind and body

"When we were about to sell my first business, which was the most stressful time of my life, I regularly woke at 5:45am to go to a spin class," says Jackie Fast, former The Apprentice contestant and founder of ice wine brand REBEL Pi.

"I needed the high intensity workout and loud music to blow off steam. It got my head into the right mindset for the day."

"For entrepreneurs like myself, work is at the centre of our lives so any problems can feel as though they are threatening not just your livelihood but your identity too," adds Rupert Rixon, the 24 year-old founder of Perspective Pictures, who's been creating businesses since the age of 12.

"Plus, colleagues, friends and family are always keen to find out how things are going. There are a lot of people you find yourself eager to please. The best solution is to build a network that isn’t involved with the business. For some people this might be joining a club, or hitting the gym. Have an escape: somewhere you can have an identity away from your business."

Image credit: Pixabay/Pexels

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