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5 Ways Successful Leaders Can Be "Clutch" During Moments of Crisis

Posted by Cristina Filippo on 09/12/2017

During a vacation to Disney World several years ago a number popped up on my phone that happened to be good friend of mine in an HR VP role at a bank that was one of our longest standing clients.  I remember ducking into a little alcove as I stepped off of the Expedition Everest ride.  As soon as Gloria spoke I knew something was wrong.  “Cristina, the bank was robbed at gunpoint and we have some traumatized employees here.”  The look on my face stopped my son, Jake, in his tracks.  I sat down on a bench to find out what happened and how I could support them. 

Typically, in a situation like this they would call in an FBI agent to do a critical incident threat debriefing, however, no agent was available to do that for a couple of weeks.  “The president is asking that you come in and debrief the team as soon as possible and he is very determined to get this done this week.”  As it turned out, we were flying back the next day, I had training in this area and, so of course, I made it happen.  But what really stood out to me about that stressful situation was the bank president’s calm, decisive leadership that emerged during that time of crisis.  Ensuring that his people were taken care of.  Not being dissuaded by obstacles.  Making sure whatever actions were taken were in the best interest for all his stakeholders.

Companies in Crisis
The truth is that no company is immune from crisis and chaos. From Uber (a rogue CEO) to Chipotle (integrity of food supply) to Google (diversity and inclusion issues)...even the recent hurricanes in Houston and Florida...whether it is a natural disaster or a man-made one, 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. Proactively Convey Strategic Intent Prior To The Crisis.
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 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.

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 any more.  Leaders have another important role during a crisis and that is to provide perspective.

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 frontline 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 all 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.

Of course, we hope that there is no crisis headed your way, but as history tells us, it is probably not IF, but WHEN.  Having a game plan established with your team prior to a significant event is key to successfully navigating through these treacherous waters. Let us know if you have any best practices that you utilize in your company and we may highlight you in an upcoming newsletter.  Have a great week!

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