Every business leader expects to encounter one or more crises eventually. The challenge for each of you is to get it handled quickly and effectively, without losing the trust of constituents, as well as customers. In my role as business advisor, I see leaders who handle it well instinctively, and others who fall apart under the stress, or let their emotions and biases lead them astray.
In my experience, there are only a few basics to remember and practice. I saw these summarized clearly in a new book, “BUILD,” by a well-known entrepreneur and technologist from Silicon Valley, Tony Fadell. He assures us that these apply to an external crisis that you have no control over, or an internal screwup, or just the kinds of growing pains that hit every company:
Keep your focus on how to fix the problem. Forget about assigning blame until later, since that will only complicate matters and make it an emotional battle. What is needed first is your strong leadership, or even a leadership team, to build a plan, assign the right people, and monitor the steps to resolution. Provide tools and resources as required.
Especially when distractions and emotions are high, it will help your focus to break down large challenges and crises into smaller elements to get things started and give you a sense of progress along the way. Map out some dedicated time for every serious issue.
Don’t hesitate to micro-manage initially in a crisis. Your people need to know who to follow, what to do, and how to do it. However, very quickly after everyone has their assignment as is actively working, you need to let them do their jobs without questioning every step. Micro-management at a later stage only increases stress and slows progress.
I have found that micro-management can be especially productive if you are working with a first-time or unique situation, or working with a new team with little experience. The challenge for many bosses is to recognize when their team should be coaching them.
Get advice before jumping to conclusions. Don’t try to solve the problem or build a plan alone, especially if you have no relevant experience. Look for a mentor, or expert in this area, and ask their advice. You need to understand potential misconceptions, and ferret out any rumors which complicate the situation and lead to the wrong conclusion.
Primarily for these reasons, I always recommend that new entrepreneurs and startups assemble a qualified Advisory Board or Board of Directors early in their lifecycle. The passion of a new CEO, in conjunction with crisis inexperience, often leads them astray.
Over-communicate and really listen to feedback. When you sense a crisis, you need to communicate and listen carefully with urgency, transparency, and empathy. A tone of urgency encourages people to mitigate impact, and transparency builds trust in you as a leader. Showing empathy fosters resilience in facing the challenges directly and acting.
A key challenge with communication in a crisis is to get ahead of the issue. Don't wait until a media inquiry or a government agency puts you on the defensive, and makes all of your efforts look like too little, too late. Daily updates on a crisis are often appropriate.
Always be prepared to accept responsibility. It doesn’t matter if the impending crisis was caused by your mistake, or your team, or was a fluke accident, you win trust by accepting responsibility for how it has affected customers and apologize. Conversely, the quickest and surest way to lose all trust is by blaming others entirely for the situation.
Some business leaders I know have used their "original intent" as a way of defending themselves, shying away from accountability or admitting fault. Unfortunately, good intentions won’t get you very far in a crisis where people may have been wronged.
If you as a business leader can weather one or two crises, using these recommendations, you will find your brand image and personal image rising, as well as your satisfaction with the role increasing. Prepare now to make your next crisis a leadership event, rather than a loss of trust event, for all to see.
*** First published on Inc.com on 5/22/2022 ***