The COVID-19 pandemic won’t last forever, but the lessons that we learned during this time will stay with us. As the CFO of Suvoda, the experience has taught me that being an empathetic and strategic communicator is a critical skill for finance leaders.

As the executive closest to the numbers, I made sure I could explain them to our staff in a way that was relevant, relatable and reassuring.

For most CFOs, messaging and communication aren’t at the top of the priority list. We are numbers people, not storytellers. But when COVID struck, the rules changed, and many of us discovered that, as the financial repercussions began to impact our organizations, we needed to step into a new and unfamiliar role. We needed to find ways to help our employees, many of whom were at their most vulnerable, to understand how the company’s financial position would affect their livelihoods and their lives.

Suvoda was fortunate to be in a sector that was not hit as hard as some (we provide a SaaS tool that supports clinical trials), but in March 2020, it was definitely not business as usual. To stay viable, we needed to make some big changes, including instituting a hiring freeze and salary freeze and pressing pause on a much-anticipated move to a new office space.

These are the principles I learned in real-time for strategically communicating with our employees—many of whom are still early in their careers—to allay their fears and ensure that they felt heard and supported throughout this difficult year.

Far from scaring them, this kind of radical candor made employees feel like part of the process and improved confidence levels.

As a strategic communicator, prioritize honesty and transparency

When a business goes through a period of uncertainty and change, the worst thing you can do is keep people in the dark, even if you don’t have all the answers—or you don’t have the answers people are hoping to hear.

From the beginning, we made the decision to be forthright about what could happen. When we had to make changes, we communicated them to the entire staff and explained why we were making them and how long they would last. We even shared worst-case scenarios, letting people know that if we had to, we would look at salary cuts (starting with the executives) and other measures to protect our runway for the next year. Far from scaring them, this kind of radical candor made employees feel like part of the process and improved confidence levels.

We also shared the big picture with them, explaining the time horizon it took us to land new business as a way of showing them why we needed to think in terms of the next six months, not the next two weeks. We trusted them to understand that big picture and in return they gave us their trust.

Margins, percentages and EBITDA won’t mean anything to most of the people in your organization, and what people don’t understand scares them.

Use simple, relatable metaphors

Honesty is critical, but so is clarity. When you have finance in your DNA, it’s easy to slip into talking about margins, percentages and EBITDA. But these aren’t terms that mean anything to most of the people in the organization, and what people don’t understand scares them. Switching to the mindset of a strategic communicator, I found that using simple, visual metaphors helped me to focus the message on what mattered and tell it in a way that resonated with our employees.

Early on, I landed on the analogy of a house to describe what was happening at Suvoda and how we were protecting the company. I used to test these analogies on my teenage children to make sure the point was clear. To explain why we couldn’t hire or give raises, I told our staff that we had spent years building a strong foundation that would protect the house, but we still needed to shut the windows and doors and wait for the storm to pass. To explain why we couldn’t tap into the investment cash we had in the bank, I told them that we had borrowed some money to build an extension on our house. That meant we couldn’t use the money for emergency supplies but for its intended purpose.  We took the metaphor further and said that, while we were weathering the storm, we would focus on innovation within our four walls. After the storm cleared, we would be in a stronger position.

Establish smaller teams for questions and sharing

Receiving clear and honest communications from the person responsible for the financial health of the company goes a long way towards reassuring employees, but it’s important to provide venues where employees can communicate among themselves, too.

Even when we don’t mean to be, executives can be intimidating, and many employees will feel uncomfortable asking questions in front of the entire company. To create a two-way conversation, we established cohorts that split employees into cross-functional teams headed by an executive who acted as the group’s mentor. The cohort structure provided an opportunity to bring up anything that was confusing or concerning to them in smaller, more informal groups. At the end of each session, the mentor would ask, “Should this stay within the four walls, or should it be shared with the executive team?” We encouraged people to share, but ultimately put that decision in their hands.

These cohorts have proved to be invaluable, not just as a way to give people a place to be heard, but to break down the disconnection and silos formed during the transition to remote work and establish a back channel to find out how news was landing, how people were feeling and what we could be doing better.

Despite some very difficult conversations, people stuck with Suvoda, and that’s a big win.

Always be visible, confident and approachable

The presence a CFO cultivates has a direct impact on employees. If you shut yourself away in your office, it encourages people to speculate and fear the worst. Conversely, if you make yourself visible and available, it sends the signal that you are engaged and actively contributing to the company’s financial health.

When company operations go remote, “visibility” looks a little different, but I made sure it came through in small ways, such as:

  • Always keeping my camera on during conference calls
  • Paying close attention to the tone of my voice and my body language
  • Sharing updates frequently and delivering messages with confidence and positivity
  • Focusing on what the company was doing to make things better rather than dwelling on how bad things were
  • Soliciting and answering employee questions
  • Making sure everyone had my contact information and knew that they could reach out any time

I saw my role as cheerleader and optimist, someone who was there to keep our company stable and our people safe, and this approach to communication made a measurable difference.

Explaining the numbers to people and giving them deeper insight into the business mechanisms that drive them made everyone feel as though they had more control over what was happening. Employee surveys came back with high marks for confidence, optimism and trust. Feedback from the mentor program showed that our employees were supportive of the management team and prepared for what lay ahead. And despite the need to make tough decisions about hiring and raises at a time when our people had to work harder than ever, we maintained record retention rates. Despite some very difficult conversations, people stuck with Suvoda, and that’s a big win.

Here’s the bottom line.

The pandemic showed us how important it is to communicate clearly and honestly with our employees, especially when times are tough. As the executive closest to the numbers, I made sure I could explain them to our staff in a way that was relevant, relatable and reassuring. Prioritizing being a strategic communicator over number-crunching helped me keep our company culture strong, minimize disruption and ensure that we are in a great position to grow as the economy recovers.