Face it; we are in a time of crisis, and leaders earn their pay when the proverbial “solids hit the air conditioning.”
While many in the Administration, including the President, claimed that no one could have forecast Covid-19 and when it would hit, many people, including the Administration, had produced papers and done “war games” on a pandemic hitting the world. Unfortunately, those at the top had not read them or did want to hear the bad news. That is failed leadership as leaders get the big bucks to deal with ambiguity, and during crises, uncertainty becomes exponential. Know what is coming helps that and denial of what you don’t want to hear is not leadership.
Research has shown that three of the four qualities of a great business leader are:
- Sets vision and strategy;
- Drives growth;
- Displays financial acumen.
- Crisis management. This skill is underappreciated, overlooked, and often not even one of the top requirements — until a crisis hits.
So, where does the leader start in times like this? Start with Maslow’s Hierarchy. In a crisis, people are scared, and before they are willing to consider the position of the company, they need to know their most basic needs are met, and they feel safe. If they cannot buy hand sanitizer, a significant other is lost their job, or a loved one is sick, you are unlikely to get much attention on the corporate strategy. Blaming others will not help.
Once you have addressed their essential needs, then the panic moves towards the organization, and people turn to the leader for definitive answers. However, as the situation is fluid, sometimes the answer is, “I don’t know right now.” While that is the answer, it doesn’t satisfy the people. Thus leaders have to quickly follow such a reply with, “but we are going to do X.” Having a response to ambiguity is essential and comfort for your employees. When dealing with a crisis like we are today, leaders need more than a plan; they need Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D as well. As Bain Consulting put it in a recent document, whatever you imagine the worst-case scenario to be, it will be worse.
What will become obvious during a crisis is the culture of the organization. If the culture is bad, there is little a leader can do to save it. Culture is key from the beginning. However, Korn Ferry has identified six steps for leaders to plan and comfort their people.
- Anticipate. Predict what lies ahead
- Navigate. Course correcting in real-time
- Communicate. Continually and honestly
- Listen. To what you don’t want to hear
- Learn. Learn from the experience and apply in the future
- Lead. Improve yourself to elevate others
I believe the key is communication.
How to communicate. Often!
But in what method? Looking at two great crisis leaders, many will think of Roosevelt and Churchill. Many CEOs are not able to write speeches like Churchill, nor should they try. Instead, Roosevelt’s fireside talks are a better model. In crisis communication, the style is as critical as much as having the right message.
The CEO has to communicate a message to two audiences: the workforce and the customers. The message needs to demonstrate that the company has a plan to deal with the crisis. In the case of Covid-19, this may involve Work From Home or Supply Chain adjustments to ensure production. Staff and customers need reassuring that the company has sufficient financial resources to survive the economic downturn.
Be Honest. Shawn Engbrecht, a former US Army ranger, says in his book, “Invisible Leadership,” “As a leader, you can promise everything to the many until you are unable to deliver even a little to the few.” In the end, “Failure to tell the truth rapidly erodes trust and confidence in higher command.”
Face the Bad News. As Jim Collins says in “Good to Great,” “Who tells you the bad news?” Further, as Ben Horowitz in the “Hard Thing About Hard Things” notes that your employees know there is a crisis, trying to hide it from them and pretend all is well is not reassuring, but by doing so, you fail them and the organization. Tell the bad news, or as Mr. Engbrecht advocates, “embracing the suck.” You need to accept where you are at a given moment: “Wishing, hoping, and praying the problem away does not work, so don’t waste your time with coulda, shoulda, or woulda.” In short, no sugarcoating.
To anticipate the “unknown” of the current crisis against the “known” of previous ones, leaders gain perspective, identify patterns, connect the dots, and determine appropriate and timely responses. Too often, people don’t consider all the possibilities. It is critical to be out in front with a planned cascade of possible actions based on which scenarios unfold, likely more aggressive than your team can imagine right now. Anticipation becomes a Monte Carlo simulation in action. At times like this, move to think in ranges using probabilistic analysis rather than certainty, the latter is bound to be wrong. As most project management looks to Critical Path, probabilistic analysis shows Critical Bottlenecks. A good quick read is “Why Can’t You Just Give Me the Number?”
At each stage, what are the implications for employees, customers, and investors? A strategy is making a bet, and the skill of anticipating improves one’s odds. For the broader strategy, take a look at the National Defence University (NDU) ‘s “Weathering the Storm: Leading Your Organisation Through a Pandemic.” Produced in 2006, it is a useful and prescient document. Leaders need to analyze the tasks required for the organization to continue operating and prioritize them. Ensure the performance of essential functions, and employees are trained across different disciplines. Have succession plans throughout the organization, so your employees know who will cover for each other if someone is sick.
As you manage through the crisis, plans may no longer be viable or workable. You need to change quickly and pivot to a new strategy. Darwin did not say, “It is survival of the fittest,” as many have claimed, but those that are the quickest to adapt to the changing environment survive. Daily briefings, updating everyone with the latest information to determine if the plans are still viable and, if not, what changes are required.
Many leaders’ natural inclination in a crisis is to go into a command-and-control mode. That’s not leadership. As David Marquet noted in “Turn the Ship Around,” move the decision making to where the information is. You, as the leader, cannot make all the decisions, too much information is coming in, and there are too many decisions during a crisis. Thus, leadership is creating a “bottom-up” culture to accurately perceive today to predict tomorrow. Also, create a fully dedicated crisis “war room” team to help through this; you cannot do it alone.
Urgent vs. Important. The constant battle in our lives! The urgent emails and claims on our time, take us away from what is essential. We have all become Pavlov’s dogs, responding to the urgent, that we don’t see what is critical. During a crisis, everything blurs as events and their implications continuously change. What’s important often becomes urgent, and what’s urgent becomes critical. However, leaders must delegate the urgent by empowering others to lead around a common purpose.
Leave No One Behind. In a crisis, effective leaders must connect with, motivate, and inspire others, and show genuine compassion. As I have said before, leadership is hard, and it is not about you, but about those you lead. Military leaders who put the safety and well-being of others before themselves best reflect this leadership. Those military leaders who say, “I’ve never lost a soldier” reveal a deep mindset of humility and accountability, rather than hubris and bravado.
Know What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do. In a crisis, learning either accelerates or you fail. The agility to learning to the “Nth” degree, applying past lessons to new and unfamiliar situations, is now essential. You need to know what to do when you don’t know what to do, but be willing to pivot at a moment’s notice if new information requires it.
A good leader must listen to staff concerns and answer their questions. During a crisis, that may require some patience as dismissing their concerns reveals a lack of empathy, destroying trust. However, as Mr. Engbrecht’s notes, “the quieter you become, the more you can hear.” Given where we are with Covid-19, online town-hall gatherings are great. My Vistage groups are having weekly Zoom meetings to check-in, support each other, and share best practices.
So, have a clear message, keep calm and honest. Do not sugarcoat things, blame others, and remember who this about. Share the pain, i.e. take a larger pay cut than the employees. Good leaders show they face at least some of the same dangers as their troops.
I wish you all the best, and may you all survive!
Copyright (c) 2020, Marc A. Borrelli