<img src="https://ws.zoominfo.com/pixel/pIUYSip8PKsGpxhxzC1V" width="1" height="1" style="display: none;">

How to Lead During a Pandemic: A Conversation with Marcia (“Marci”) Malzahn

5 min read
Apr 20, 2020

Marci Malzahn has seen catastrophe before.

Growing up in Nicaragua, by the time she was 13 she had survived an earthquake that killed 10,000 of her countrymen and lived through war when the Sandinistas overthrew the country’s dictator. Malzahn stopped and started school, staying at home with the sound of bullets, bombings, and helicopters in the background. The government would often turn off water or electricity which created additional challenges.

Four months after fleeing to the Dominican Republic as a refugee with her family, Hurricane David hit the island, leaving them without water and electricity for three months. But her family survived, again.

Malzahn’s life changed when she immigrated to the U.S. at age 19, moving to Minnesota by herself. Today she’s a successful entrepreneur, community bank founder, and author of several books, including her latest: Bring YOUR Shoes: A Fresh Perspective for Leaders with Big Shoes to Fill.

Malzahn’s book delivers an important lesson and fresh perspective in leadership: Discover and maximize your own talents and the talents of those you lead so you can then lead by maximizing everyone’s talents.

Below is an edited excerpt from my conversation with Malzahn.

What do you mean by “Bring YOUR Shoes”?

When we talk about bringing your shoes, I compare it to when you get a new job or promotion and someone says, “You have big shoes to fill.” I chose that title because I want to encourage people to bring their own shoes. They need to bring all their talents, personality, experience, and life events so they can lead others through that perspective.

How do you lead through disruption like the COVID-19 pandemic we are seeing now?

Leaders need to be risk-aware, but not live in fear. During this time, the true leaders will rise up and be calm. They will be decisive, making decisions based on the data and information they have in the moment. Followers will respect you more for having made a decision and will give you grace.

You also need to understand there is a difference between leadership and management. Leadership is a gift, and not everyone has it. Leaders provide the vision. Managers execute the vision. The challenge in the U.S. is that managers have to lead and leaders have to manage. The good news is that both leadership talent and management skills can be improved.


Related: What is Business Continuity Management?


What should leaders be doing right now?

Be resilient. Not everyone is resilient. Set an example. Some people will freeze and need to be told what to do. Don’t live in fear. Be flexible and accept that change will continue to happen quickly as we navigate this storm. Lead your team and encourage them to drive results because business must go on or everyone will lose their job.

Be extremely strategic. We can see strategy unfolding in the U.S. now as we talk about how to reopen the U.S. little by little very strategically to save lives and the economy at the same time. As a leader within a company, division, or department, you should do the same. Some will see a huge obstacle they can’t overcome, while others will see an amazing opportunity with obstacles to get over, across, or through. Those are the businesses that will survive.

Listen to your team. We need to be balanced leaders when it comes to strategy and what we can realistically do. Listen to your team and the people you surround yourself with. You hired them to be experts in different areas. The best leaders don’t make decisions on their own. They listen to their own experts before making final decisions. They trust their employees and listen to the board of directors.

Be compassionate. As leaders we need to get business done, but we also need to have compassion and give people time to grieve. Everyone is grieving something, and they all grieve differently. Some people cry, think, and pick themselves up. Some act like they don’t care to cope. Others fall apart the whole time.

Acknowledge them and their grief and encourage them to pick themselves up. Tell them that if they need to take time during the day, take it, but then come back. We can’t lose focus. Show them they are a piece of the puzzle and important to the rest of the team. Tell them their contribution matters. Constant communication is a must.

Be aware and be a planner. Going forward, we need to make sure that business continuity management (BCM) isn’t put on the shelf. It should be on your desk and continually updated. The BCP is a dynamic document and it’s going to be a way of life.

How do you improve as a leader?

Leadership is a natural talent that needs to be developed.

Leaders should have a mentor or executive coach to get through the crises. People think all great leaders have it together, that they are a pillar, but the truth is that leaders also need help.

Leaders need to know themselves, including self-awareness of triggers, why they feel them, and how they respond to them. They need to manage their own emotions and increase their social awareness. Mentors and coaches provide tools to help them through this situation and make them better leaders afterward.

What role should risk managers be playing right now?

The pandemic activated every single risk. Right now, bankers are dealing with credit, liquidity, interest rate, earnings, capital, human resources, and potential legal risks, compliance risk, and regulatory action if they don’t do things right. Additionally, there’s the operational and technology risk of people working from home that financial institutions must address.

Whenever I teach my ERM classes, I tell the risk officers, regardless of title, “You are the risk leader.” You need a general knowledge of all the risks, but you also need to know you can never do it alone. You need to lead ERM with a team.

This is a great opportunity for risk leaders to lead ERM initiatives. I would recommend meeting individually with other leaders of the rest of the organization. Have a meeting with the CFO to understand their biggest issues (capital ratios, liquidity ratios, etc.) and the chief credit officer to understand the increased credit risk.

Then conduct an ERM risk assessment with the entire ERM team and lead the discussion. At some point, either during or after the pandemic, they are going to have to redo their entire ERM risk assessment and go through it one risk category at a time. Risk managers need to lead the process and ensure everyone knows how the pandemic activated every single risk and how they are interrelated. And, most importantly, how to manage all the risks going forward as they enter the “new normal.”

Where should leaders be focusing resources right now?

A lot of financial institutions are instituting spending freezes, putting holds on new initiatives, and even laying off employees. Leadership doesn’t mean contracting everything out. Instead, leaders need to focus on strategic growth.

One thing leaders should avoid is cutting the training budget. This is an opportunity for people to attend webinars and virtual trainings. It also helps you discover the talents of the people you lead. If you don’t know your employees’ talents, you don’t know the assets you have available in your organization. Conducting a talent assessment can help you lead your team from a fresh perspective—leading by maximizing talent—which I address in my book, Bring YOUR Shoes.

It’s tough to lead through these times. We need to maintain a positive attitude, but still make people accountable. It’s a delicate balancing act between accountability, results, and having a compassionate side. Leaders of the future must “bring their shoes” to lead successfully into the new normal.

Malzahn’s new book, Bring YOUR Shoes: A Fresh Perspective for Leaders with Big Shoes to Fill, is available to order online at Amazon.com.                                                                                                                                        

Subscribe to the Nsight Blog