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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.’

  • Designate a time for everyone to be off the Zoom calls, Microsoft Teams, or whatever collaborative technology you might be using. Encourage them to take a walk, get a breath of fresh air. Research encourages us to get up and move for our health and our productivity. Build practices to allow people to do this without guilt. We need this now even more than usual.

Managing the Human Experience:

The stories I have heard from my coaching clients are not only about themselves. They also include the stories of the people that work for them. What has been magnified is that different people have a wide spectrum of how they respond in a crisis – from moving their family out of their home to living in a tent in East Texas to setting up home offices in closets to everything in between. We have imagined pets as co-workers, get excited about going out and checking the mail, to absolute boredom. I have laughingly said cabin fever will be the next global pandemic.

Make sure you understand the home working conditions of your team. Some are single and feeling very alone. Others are trying to work, take care of kids, home school, while also taking care of ailing parents. That’s a lot to carry. As you look at allocating assignments, assessing performance, or doing appropriate checks and balance, take the personal situation into account.

One question I ask in my coaching is, “How are you sleeping?” I find it most insightful in how people are really doing. Some aren’t sleeping or sleep a few hours, wake up and worry for a while, and then struggle ever getting back to sleep. If they typically don’t sleep well, that’s one thing. If their sleep patterns are markedly different, that’s a problem. Let me remind you that sleep deprivation is damaging in many ways. We don’t make our best decisions, do our best work, or manage our emotional and psychological selves effectively when we are sleep deprived. I have attached some Self-Care Tips for you to consider – for yourself and for others.

On a related note, I have also found that some are thriving on an ‘adrenaline rush” during this time and not sleeping well. We all know that is not sustainable and we have to be in this for the long-term since we don’t know how long this will be our new normal (even as we develop ‘re-entry’ plans). On the flip side, people are also experiencing some depression and may want to sleep more than usual. That’s not a long-term solution either. Make sure you are using your Employee Assistance Programs as resources as well.

Don’t be punitive or judgmental based on their personal circumstances – this is a time for understanding and flexibility. Your job of allocating resources – time, people, and money – is important. Be thoughtful in your decisions. It is also another opportunity for practicing “we’re all in this together” as we support each other.

Ensuring Adequate Self-Care:

Without exception, everyone that I’ve talked to for the last several weeks is working so hard to support everyone else. So hard, in fact, that they often forget to take care of themselves. Make sure that you emphasize them taking time for themselves, reminding them that if they don’t replenish themselves, they’ll have nothing left to give others.

I encourage each of you to take time to reflect on your own crisis leadership choices. I rely on the learning agility questions I use and teach in every leadership program I deliver. At least once a week, ask yourself and ask your teams:

  • What did I do this week?

  • What did I learn this week?

  • How will what I learned help me be a better leader going forward?

Notice what you notice and get curious about what is working and not working and make adjustments accordingly. 4 And the big finish, what are the personal values and principles by which you’re going to make decisions regarding the above aspects of the business? I believe that crisis magnifies both great and poor leadership. We don’t suddenly become great leaders or poor leaders. Rather, we fall back on our foundation or our core beliefs. So here is my one thing that I hope helps you make sound decisions – that will serve your organization well in the short-term and the long-term…

Make decisions, prioritize your actions, serve your clients, manage your financials, care about your people, and take care of yourself in ways that reflect your personal values and your leadership principles.

Self-Care Tips

  1. Warm milk before bed works

  2. No blue light electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime

  3. A warm bath works

  4. Lavender oils or spray on your pillow

  5. Chamomile tea is calming

  6. No strenuous exercise at least 1 hour before bedtime

  7. Make a list of what you need to do tomorrow so that it isn’t swirling in your head

  8. Journal – capture your thoughts and feelings for the day – get it out so it doesn’t ‘work on you’ internally

  9. Get a calming app as a ritual before bedtime

  10. If you need a ‘break’ between work and sleep, read a paperback novel (rather than electronic book – see blue light note above) or do a paper crossword puzzle

  11. Reduce your alcohol consumption – it actually speeds up your heart rate

  12. Get exercise throughout the day – walk while on calls if possible, take a walk between meetings or calls – it produces positive chemicals and hormones for optimism and contentedness

  13. Contact your medical doctor if sleeplessness persists

Note: Sleep deprivation is one of the biggest challenges for women, especially working women with children. It is at night that our brains ‘file’ all that has occurred during the day. If it doesn’t have time to do this ‘filing’ it makes it hard for us to recall or retrieve information or data. People’s need for sleep varies. A minimal amount of sleep is two 3-hour REM cycles for a total of 6 hours.

Adapted from Cooper Clinic

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