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The quietest in the room

As a young manager, I was involved in a major crisis that attracted the attention of not only the company’s partners but also its CEO. I, like many of my colleagues, was nervous about the crisis, its impact on our clients, and my employment situation at the firm. There was a very old partner who was tasked by the CEO with taking responsibility for navigating the company through the crisis. It took us a year to get out of the crisis; and we all learned some valuable nuggets. I thought he was a good leader before the crisis. I now realize how naive I was in evaluating my leadership skills. That experience, while excruciatingly painful, was a turning point that set me on the path to becoming a better leader.

As a result of this and other crises I have experienced, I have learned some very valuable principles that I adhere to when I am in crisis mode, such as the following:

  • A leader may not know all the steps to get out of a crisis, but they always focus the team on the end game and what needs to be done next.

  • You are most likely in least worst alternative mode when evaluating crisis resolution alternatives. It is not about the best alternative, but about the alternative that represents the least amount of loss.

  • The leader’s behavior will permeate the team. If a leader is nervous, the team will be nervous. If a leader is calm and focused, the team will be calm and focused (or at least less nervous).

  • Regular, concise and candid communication is paramount. When there are communication gaps, team members and other stakeholders will write the script in their heads.

Time and again I have seen crises separate great leaders from average leaders. If you want to be one of those who rises to the top of the leadership heap during a crisis, take note of the following tips:

  1. Recognize the crisis and its consequences – In the heat of a crisis, there may be differing views on what the crisis is, whether or not it is a real crisis, or the consequences of not addressing the crisis. Make sure there is agreement to avoid the lingering question of what happens if the crisis is not addressed.
  2. Make sure the right people are working on the crisis – Many crisis situations involve removing people from existing work assignments to work in the crisis. There will invariably be blowback, particularly if reassigning someone means another ball may be dropped. Remember, you are working on the least unfavorable alternative, and while something else could go wrong, not addressing the crisis could be worse.
  3. Get competition on what success looks like – In the heat of a crisis, the leader must ensure that all the right stakeholders have a clear understanding of what success looks like in addressing the crisis. The greatest success in most cases may mean returning to the status quo before the crisis, or to a state with the fewest losses. Success will rarely mean an improvement on the status quo. It is important to align everyone’s expectations for success.
  4. Drive what/who/when – It is important to be very precise about what needs to be done, a designated person (not TBD or team) responsible for delivery, and a specific date (and time depending on urgency) for completion. Keep an up-to-date list of actions, marking them complete once done. It is important for the team to see progress and also highlight where some may fail on tasks.
  5. Use a calm and authoritative voice. – I have done this many times during a crisis. When others run around like headless chickens, a true leader maintains a calm and authoritative demeanor. Nervous team members will react positively to a leader who seems in control and demonstrates a clear mind. Be careful not to give the impression that he is like “Nero playing while Rome burns”. Show appropriate urgency, just do it calmly and with authority.
  6. Replace edgy with concentrate – During a particularly large crisis where I was driving resolution, an executive asked me if I was nervous. I told him, “You pay me to be focused, not nervous.” I’ve heard many leaders over the years use the phrase “I’m nervous about this” when faced with an awkward situation. The followers do not want to see you nervous; nervous people tend to do irrational things. Take the term nervous out of your vocabulary and replace it with focus.
  7. Ensure the next recall to follow up on actions – Like I said, a great leader always knows what to do next. Make sure there is a very timely follow-up where the team meets again to review actions and assess next steps. While the pace of the recall may change as the crisis is resolved, there should always be a “Let’s meet again at (date/time).”
  8. Set up a situation room – Designate a physical or virtual place where people can go to view pending action items and team members can work (if applicable). It’s also good for you as a leader to hang out in the situation room periodically to show the rest of the team that you’re in it with them.
  9. Establish a rhythm of regular, concise and sincere communication. – Depending on the generalization of the crisis, make sure there is a communication plan of who needs to be informed, what they need to know, the frequency of communication. and the medium (email, meeting, etc.).
  10. Realistically inspire the team. – In the early stages of a crisis, people need reassurance from the leader that they will get through the crisis. The important thing here is to be realistic in your peace of mind. While some carnage may remain in the aftermath of the crisis, recognize that things are going to be difficult, but the team must stick together and solve the problem. Inspire the team, but acknowledge the situation realistically.
  11. Solve the problem first, assess responsibility for the problem later – When a crisis arises, many will start pointing fingers at who they think is responsible. While it’s important to understand the root causes of a problem and put things in place to prevent it from happening later, wasting time pointing fingers while the crisis continues is not the time to do so. Get clarity on the crisis, what success looks like, and what needs to be done first. Once the flames have died down, focus on accountability and corrective actions.

Hey, crises happen. The next time one settles its ugly head, be the calmest one in the room and put these leadership actions into practice to navigate through the crisis.

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