This is a moment in time that you will be remembered for. How you lead and how you treat people will be talked about for years to come. All of us have at least a dozen stories of leaders we have served under or even stories of leading teams ourselves during challenging times…those days (like now!) when you feel as if the plane is being built in the air. To illustrate some of the concepts of this blog, I wanted to share just a few of my stories from over the years:
Sitting at my desk on an early morning conference call a number popped up on my phone. It was a good friend of mine who was a VP of HR at one of our longest-standing clients. I remember feeling something must be wrong so I switched over to the incoming call. “Cristina, one of our leadership team members passed away unexpectedly last night and we need some support for our employees who are traumatized by the situation.” At that moment, we developed a go-forward strategy that stayed true to their core values and led in a way that embedded the parameters of care and concern that truly was part of their employee proposition.
Looking across the boardroom I had the PowerPoint up and ready to go. I knew the data I was about to present to the leadership team was going to be devastating. This was a hospitality group that had gone from one small “mom and pop” to 12 top-notch locations across the Eastern Seaboard. However, their culture was in shatters and I was about to deliver that news that no team wants to hear. When the analytics were laid out, the CEO proceeded to act out in a way no one expected. After his outburst, we retired for the evening and upon reconvening the next morning he stood up and said “This is a make or break moment in this company. We have to take responsibility as a leadership team and if we are going to make it we have to come together as one and be intentional in every action we take to right this culture back to its original intent.” Inspiring!
While on a family ski vacation to Beaver Creek the reports of a virus swept the nation. I began getting calls from my team, emails from clients, and texts from our colleagues in Australia indicating that things were changing swiftly. After clicking on the news and essentially seeing our federal government declare a state of emergency the evidence was clear that a crisis was upon us. I called an emergency internal (virtual) meeting for the next day to manage expectations and give clear direction on the next steps and keeping everyone safe. There was room to discuss personal fears, but also collaboration about how we would support our clients in the dark days ahead. It really was a moment that will live in the Steople lore!
One night in Vegas (many great stories start that way, right?), a good friend of mine, who also happens to be a consultant colleague, was relaying a harrowing story to me about a crucial turning point in her company history. It had been a cold night in Chicago years ago when the company CEO was on his way from the airport to the hotel for a keynote speaking event. During that Uber ride, he was involved in a car wreck that came close to ending his life. While he was in surgery, my friend spoke emotionally about how the team came together in the hotel room and how she quietly broke the news to them. She was committed to remaining calm, being the driving force in staying hopeful and consult with the team on how they would handle the situation both internally and externally. Inspiring!
All of these stories are real…some of the details were altered for confidentiality, but they all have a common thread. What really stands out to me is calm, decisive leadership that emerged during that time of crisis. In each of these scenarios, leaders were… Ensuring that their people were taken care of. Maintaining that big picture that leaders are known for. Not being dissuaded by obstacles. Collaborating to make sure whatever actions were taken were in the best interest of all stakeholders.
Companies in Crisis
The truth is that no company is immune from crisis and chaos…we all know that from the last several months – from the pandemic to the economy to the social justice movement…whether it is a natural disaster or a man-made problem, how a business responds when things go wrong can mean the difference between a swift resolution and making the problem a whole lot worse.
We all inherently realize that it’s far easier to “do the right thing” when the chips are up. When the ship’s sinking, though, things can get ugly. That raises some important questions: What is the right way to handle a company crisis? Of course, situations differ, but surely there are some guidelines on what businesses should do when things do not go as planned, right? According to research, these are 5 actions that leadership should take in order to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to a crisis:
1. Continue to Convey Strategic Intent.
In the field of management and organizational development, strategic intent is defined as a compelling statement about where an organization is going that succinctly conveys a sense of what that organization wants to achieve in the long term. Key to that is the core purpose, core values, and the envisioned future of the company. If employees know your strategic intent prior to a crisis and have an “owners” mentality, initial reactions and decision-making become that much easier. Kudos to you if you have been doing that…if not, now is the time to start and continue to convey strategic intent. During times of crisis being able to “get back to the basics” provides much-needed stability to your team and organization.
2. Provide Perspective To All Stakeholders During The Crisis.
As much as we like to see senior leaders pitch in and help with the heavy lifting, there is a limit. If he or she is engaged too much in front line responsibility, then who is setting the direction? Many leaders still enjoy doing that hands-on work; they like the rush of adrenaline that comes from direct action. That is not their job anymore. Leaders have another important role during a crisis and that is to provide perspective. Remember, you will feel as if you are over-communicating this perspective at times…however, just know that is not possible during times of crisis – most people need to hear it at least 7 times before it is embedded in their memory.
3. Manage Expectations Both Internally And Externally.
When trouble strikes, people want it to be over right now — but seldom is a quick resolution possible. It falls to the leader in charge to address the size and scope of the crisis. You don’t want to alarm people, yet do not be afraid to speak to the magnitude of the situation. One of the best examples of managing expectations is the “Miracle on the Hudson”. Sully, a pilot for US Air, upon learning his engines were compromised by a flight of geese, and understanding his limited options, alerted both air traffic control and the passengers that they would be landing on the Hudson River. He was calmly decisive and determined…setting the expectation that there would be a limited loss. The airline’s care of Flight 1549’s passenger truly become a model for crisis management.
4. Keep Loose And Creative In The Moment.
Not only does this apply to personal demeanor — a leader can rarely afford to lose composure — it applies to the leader’s ability to adapt rapidly. A hallmark of a crisis is its ability to change quickly; your first response may not be your final response. In these situations, a leader cannot be married to a single strategy. He or she must continue to take in new information, listen carefully, and consult with the front line experts who know what’s happening. Interestingly enough, the kind of work we do in organizations gives us an opportunity to not only work pretty closely with leadership teams, but, at times, even be able to get a peek into those natural leadership traits that individuals might have. We utilize the Hogan Assessment for both selection and development. One Scale entitled “Adjustment” is especially good at measuring the stress-tolerance, resilience, optimism, and composure of an individual. This is key – people prefer being led by someone who is calm under pressure.
5. Be Accountable For Your Losses And Celebrate The Victories.
Good leaders own up to when they make mistakes. After all, we are human, and someone who is too proud to admit their own mistake is not likely to be someone that others will follow. Taking responsibility for any actions that you have taken that could have contributed to the crisis will be a good way to prompt your employees into working on the situation with you wholeheartedly, instead of just because they have to. On the flip side of that being able to celebrate a win with the team after conquering pretty big obstacles is the hallmark of well-developed leadership and a great morale boost for the employees.
We all expected the downturn in the economy…the trend with recessions has a pattern. We all kept saying it not IF, but WHEN. Who would have guessed (besides Bill Gates) that we would have a pandemic on our hands? We keep hearing from you the uncertainty of the situation is most troubling. Agreed. We are hoping that keeping the above in mind will help. Simple messages based on the above five principles should help you navigate these rough waters. Hang in there and know we are here as a sounding board if you need counsel – no strings attached!