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Crisis Leadership

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

Based on over 150 coaching calls in the last several weeks, one question continues to surface: “How do I show up as an effective crisis leader?” I’ve talked to people from a wide variety of functions, companies, industries, and geographies. There are common themes with some very interesting stories. I am sharing information in this paper that I’ve come to believe is a bit of a framework for navigating today’s global pandemic reality. I hope you find it useful.



Crisis leadership doesn’t come with a surefire playbook. It’s scary, daunting, and challenging. It requires clarity when there are typically more questions than answers. I interpret our current state as one of not being able to rely on tried and true methods to help us assess the effectiveness of our decision-making. We typically have some sort of playbook that we can follow and that playbook may not fit today’s needs. This is the time when those leadership retreats where you brainstormed, argued about, and finally agreed upon that short list of values comes in handy. Were they just words on a page? Do you believe them with all your heart? Now is the time to find out.


Setting Priorities:

All those long meetings setting annual goals and objectives are not as useful right now. You can’t ‘lose’ your workforce and your clients for several months and think it is still business as usual.


I offer a two-part view of priorities: 1) Short-Term for the next 30-, 60-, and 90 days, and 2) Long-Term for the remainder of 2020.


In the Short-Term, I offer a very simple prioritization approach – what are the:

  • Must Do’s – The things we need to do to manage clients, prospects, suppliers, staff, money, and market expectations right now.

  • Should Do’s – if we have any extra capacity, it would be great to get these items done or make good progress on getting them done.


These priorities likely don’t match the big ticket items you identified as 2020 Goals & Objectives. They also may not align perfectly with how the work is currently distributed. For example, does one person on your team have all the Must Do items assigned to them or their team? As a leader, one of your most important responsibilities is allocating resources, and the three most impactful resources you have available are time, people, and money. Do you need to extend or accelerate some timelines, or reassign resources to accomplish these Must Do responsibilities? How do I consider the personal conditions under which people are working in this work from home environment? Do they have small children that don’t understand the concept of work from home? (I have one coaching client who has set up her office in her master closet because her two young children think when Mommy is home, she is here to take care of me.) Are they also responsible for helping younger children with home school projects? Are they checking on elderly parents that are particularly susceptible and need help with the basics at this time? How does that help me to allocate resources effectively to ensure we get the Must Do items completed?


In the Long-Term, how do you need to adjust expectations around 2020 Goals and Objectives – operational, financial, client, market, technical, etc.? I have had several discussions with clients that are worried about how they will be evaluated at their annual performance review because they aren’t able to work on and make progress against those original goals and objectives. These clients are high achievers and responsible leaders. They want to make sure they’re doing all the things they need to do and, for many, they feel like they have to do it all. Taking some time to adjust or recalibrate expectations around goals and objectives would be a meaningful conversation to relieve a little stress. It also gives the executives some think time and some lead time to manage expectations 2 externally as well. It doesn’t mean that the changes are set in concrete. We don’t know everything that will happen between now and December 2020. I encourage you to continuously challenge your assumptions, making sure that you are considering as much of the current information as possible, and ensuring that you and your leadership team are aligned on your decisions as you move forward. If you give it this kind of attention, you will at least know what the trade-offs are for the decisions you will continuously need to make.


Managing Financials:

This is an area of vital importance, even survival. The variables are so varied, and there is no one answer that serves all. Are you privately held or publicly traded? Have you been identified as an essential business or are you ‘closed’? I have one client company that is manufacturing and white labeling a whole new line of products that are in high demand right now and for the foreseeable future. They will still suffer financially, AND they have been creative in finding a way to minimize the losses and serve their client needs. I don’t doubt that every organization is spending lots of time in this area.


Serving Clients:

This one seems so obvious – how are you taking care of your clients? Are you communicating with them regarding your changes in how you are delivering your products and services? Are you reflecting the sense of partnership or the spirit of “we’re all in this together.”? Are you taking the long-term view into account? Have you considered that there are some customers you want to call personally, send a ‘customized’ message to versus general communication? Organizations are unique in what they offer to their clients so there is no one way to handle this. As time goes on, what is your plan to stay connected (and hopeful) and committed to serving your customers? Don’t assume or take them for granted. They are your future!


Ensuring Effective Communications:

A reminder – during times of change, it is so important to communicate more, not less. I know you are in non-stop meetings trying to make plans, manage risks, and worrying about oh so many things. Here is my encouragement.

  • Build a real-time communication plan that reflects more communication, not less. Make it as predictable as possible.

  • Make sure you have one-on-one meetings at least once a week. You can go over status updates, AND make sure you ask the person how they’re doing. There’s a human side to all this. Show that you care!

  • Have weekly team meetings to keep the team connected. Even introverts are craving a little people time. Acknowledge the challenges and give them reason to also acknowledge achievements. You can also have some fun with this – e.g., Virtual Happy Hours on Friday, Hat Day meeting, virtual tours of home offices, funniest thing that happened this week, bring your child or pet to work day, or biggest learning this week. Be focused and bring a little fun to a tedious time.


I’m hearing from some of my clients that since we’re now weeks into this new working and living reality, what do we talk about? We feel like we’ve told them everything we know and don’t want to just be repeating ourselves. I encourage you to continue some sort of communication – maybe shorter – to just let them know nothing has changed. A few general thoughts:

  • Be as transparent as you can. People are nervous and we are likely to make up stories and, in this environment, the stories can be the worst possible scenario. Be transparent. Be sincere.

  • Don’t make things up and don’t try to pretend everything is rosy. People can see through that. There is a fine balance between realistic and hopeful. Your teams will believe you if they feel your authenticity. It’s okay for you to say you’re concerned – who wouldn’t be. At the same time, let them know you’re working hard to face the challenges, solve the problems, and come out of this as healthy as possible – humanly and organizationally.

  • Find ways to tie back to the organization’s values and principles. Reinforce that those values even more important in the hard times and encourage them to think about these same values and principles as they 3 make decisions every day – with their teams, customers, peers, providers, neighbors, the people at the grocery store, etc. You are in the spotlight and being scrutinized for ‘walking your talk.’