The Q&A on Communicating and Leading in a Crisis

With Silicon Valley Bank’s Michelle Draper Michelle Draper

Q: Nothing prepared any of us for a global pandemic followed by all the social unrest. But what have you found to be some of the most effective communication strategies in this crisis?

We’re a human business and we have to communicate in a human way. SVB has five corporate values, and we start with empathy for others. It doesn’t stop there: We must turn empathy into meaningful action. During the pandemic and in the wake of the tragedy in Minneapolis that again exposed systemic racism, we are following three guiding principles:

  • Stay visible: It’s in time like these that people are going to remember you for your actions, not your words.
  • Be helpful, clear, relevant: We need to find immediate solutions for the short term but our employees, customers and the larger community also need to know we care about them for the long term.
  • Act and speak with integrity: This is the time to put a laser focus on corporate values, and live by them. It represents an opportunity to reaffirm with clients, employees, shareholders and our neighbors and communities what we believe in. Not only is it the right thing to do, these stakeholders are demanding it.

We need innovation in ideas to solve these crises. SVB had already planned to present with Valence, a community to connect black professionals, a series of virtual events this summer to provide access to Black leaders in the innovation economy. The focus of the inaugural event in June focused on solutions to unite communities to combat racism and expand opportunity.

Q: Effective communication and leadership, of course, go hand-in-hand. But what would you say are some of the most important leadership skills in a time like this?

Authenticity in your purpose and bias for action to do things differently when the times demand it.  I’m proud of how SVB leadership is putting the health, safety and wellbeing of our employees at the top of the priority list during the pandemic. We are also prioritizing transparency in communications and offering new benefits to help them cope. Our clients and partners rely on our experience and guidance, and we quickly ramped up government loan programs and payment deferral relief for thousands of clients – programs we’ve never done before. We are here when it counts.

Last but not least, innovation thrives in community. To address the immense needs during the pandemic, we have vastly expanded corporate and employee-match giving in the 15 states and 9 countries in which we operate. We have adjusted our brand advertising and joined Founder’s Pledge to launch the COVID-19 Global Impact & Innovation Fund around the theme “Community Banks Here” — encouraging innovation companies and investors around the globe to contribute.

Q: Some people have suggested that women’s leadership styles are particularly effective now. Do you think that is true—and if so, what are some of the advantages to how women communicate and lead?

What’s most effective is when women and men of different backgrounds, with different ideas and talents, and different life experiences collaborate. We are not one-dimensional, and no single person or gender or ethnic/racial background has a lock on good ideas or effective leadership skills. My colleague Ashraf Hebela, Head of SVB Startup Banking, whose father immigrated from Egypt, says don’t be shy, own your story with confidence and it will be your grounding and guiding light.

On exercising leadership, if you believe in inclusivity, it doesn’t stop at hiring people with diverse backgrounds and different ideas. People and their ideas need to be valued and promoted and shared. I find the healthiest workplaces are when diverse ideas take flight. If they don’t, then you’ve missed the point. It is easy to get discouraged in complex times.  Don’t be. It’s imperative as a leader to encourage people to open up and share ideas in ways they haven’t in the past — and take time to listen. Power and influence should not be accorded based on the loudest voice or longest resume.

Q: Who or what has most helped you navigate this challenging time—and keep you inspired?

I know we are not alone in our efforts and collectively we can change lives by broadening career opportunities for people in the largest job-creating sector of our economy that is full of potential. Maybe you have your own program for finding emerging or diverse talent, new ideas for training, hiring and promoting individuals who don’t have the typical resume. Or maybe you have benefitted from the help of mentors and sponsors and want to give back.  It’s time to set aside the talk and take action on what’s working and find new ways. I believe the outcomes will positively impact people’s lives. That’s what matters.

Michelle Draper is a marketing and strategy leader with nearly 30 years of experience developing and inspiring teams that grow market share, reinforce brand leadership, build customer loyalty and cross-sell products and services. At Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), she integrates the corporate strategy, marketing, R&D and client experience capabilities to best serve its clients and create real business results.


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