Uncertainty is the new normal. None of us has a crystal ball, so we must learn to navigate our new reality with energy and stamina.
As business leaders, we have to deal with a diverse range of stakeholders—customers, employees, the community at large—who may be experiencing disruptions or grief in vastly different ways. What have past crises taught us about how to lead in challenging times?
First and foremost, we must approach every interaction with empathy. Avoid making assumptions about another person’s mental state. Listen carefully and let them signal how they are feeling. To the extent possible, tune your communications to their emotional wavelength. Focus on reducing their anxiety and helping them feel that your company is on their side. One-to-one human outreach will be appreciated, especially in the case of your biggest or most loyal customers.
As a leader, resist the urge to centralize control. You may be tempted to put yourself at the center of all activity, but a crisis demands precisely the opposite: collaboration. You are not going to know all the answers; no one expects you to. Marshal the resources and capabilities of your entire team. You will need to involve more people than you usually do.
Equally important, don’t sacrifice activities you view as “peripheral” for the sake of survival. During a crisis, your staff will be under intense stress and pressure, so people development and team-building are more important than ever.
Be flexible. Strong leaders quickly get comfortable with ambiguity and chaos. Emphasize experimentation and learning. Understand that you will make mistakes along the way as the situation changes and new information emerges. Pivot quickly as this happens, learning as you go.
Finally, develop your organization’s resilience. Once near-term issues such as cash management are under control, get started on broader resilience plans. You will need to make difficult “through cycle” decisions that balance economic and social sustainability. Resilience—the ability to absorb a shock—is the key to survival and long-term prosperity.
Strong leaders quickly get comfortable with ambiguity and chaos.
Focus on people: they are your most important asset and they must come first. Employees are every bit as important as shareholders. The people in your organization will be looking to you for empathy and compassion, but they also need a role and a purpose. Remind them why their work matters. Emphasize the key role played by each person involved in the operation. A crisis is an opportunity for organizations and teams to better understand their strengths, their weaknesses, and their reason for being.
Communicate clearly and relentlessly. This is the only way to prevent rumors from muddying the waters. Key decisions and priorities must be announced in an orderly manner, but you should also have rapid means of communicating with your entire organization. Silence is to be avoided at all costs, but in the absence of solid information, never speculate: simply convey what you know. And don’t forget to listen. Provide channels for employees to raise questions or concerns. As former Honeywell CEO David Cote once said, “Your job as a leader is to be right at the end of the meeting, not at the beginning of the meeting.”
Strive to be relevant to your customers. Clearly communicate your purpose and your value proposition. Collaborate with your wider ecosystem. Lead by example within the broader community, for example by modeling behaviors that are community-friendly and supportive.
Crises reveal not just vulnerabilities but opportunities to improve performance. How far can you flex your operations without sacrificing efficiency? You may need to consider various sorts of workplace innovation. Forced to do more with less, you will find better, simpler, less expensive, and faster ways to operate, while gaining a stronger sense of what makes you more resilient to shocks, more productive, and better able to deliver value.
A crisis is an opportunity for organizations and teams to better understand their strengths, their weaknesses, and their reason for being.
Leading through a crisis
Even in the midst of a crisis, leaders must remember to take care of themselves. Practice mindfulness. Take control of your brain. Find a way to disengage your mind and allow unconscious processing. Get fresh air and exercise. Limit your time on social media and choose your information sources carefully.
Even as you juggle the urgent issues directly in front of you, remember your long-term purpose and direction. If you stand by your core values, you will be better positioned to weather the storm.
At some point, the crisis will pass. Will your organization be ready? The future will be here sooner than you think, so you had best prepare for it. You will be remembered for how you managed yourself and others in moments of difficulty. How will you, your team, and your organization connect, persevere, and progress? Will you emerge from this experience collectively stronger?
In the wake of World War II came a ubiquitous question: “What did you do during the war?” Once our current crisis is behind us, similar questions will be asked—forcefully—of business leaders. How will you answer?
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