Threats that arise unexpectedly, whether natural or man-made, seem to occur more frequently these days. They can take the form of accidents in plants, the unexpected passing of key employees, defections of key customers, computer outages, lawsuits and countless other things. So, what are the keys for handling ourselves effectively when these moments strike?
From my experience running eight turnarounds and counseling over one hundred other CEOs through crises of their own, I’ve seen that, generally, leaders react to crisis in two phases.
The first phase is fear, which is typically followed by a moment self-doubt. This, unless checked, can drive us into hasty actions to contain the damage to the business.
The second phase is discovery, when you concentrate on understanding the event rather than solving it. The best solutions arise from taking even a moment of time to understand the situation, to have a hypothesis about what led to its emergence and to consider the best solution for both the immediate and longer term. The best results come when leaders quickly moved beyond the first phase to the second.
While the second phase may seem like a long process for handling a situation of high chaos, it isn’t. There are ways to accelerate that transition. Fighter pilots and other solo combatants are aggressively counseled to continually ask themselves what-if questions, in advance of crisis moments, and to imagine living through their responses.
People in positions of authority in businesses are no different. Those of us regularly imagine crises and responses to them, who continually ask “what if” questions, can more quickly move to the fast, logical thinking that is required when something goes gravely wrong.
So what's the best way to handle a crisis when it hits?
In addition to asking what-if questions, here are tips for becoming the kind of leader who effectively drives their companies through crises.
- The foundation that allows you to move quickly from fear to discovery is trusting yourself. Don't trust yourself to the point of hubris, but to the point that you are prepared, you'll perform at your best and you'll be proud of how you handled things no matter what occurs. This simple “affirmation” will prevent you from moving into an emotional knee-jerk reaction.
- View crises as opportunities to shine, not as moments of shame. Your own mindset in these situations is transposed indelibly onto those around you, whom you need to be thinking of.
- Take signals of your effectiveness from those around you. If they are matter-of-fact and determined to make the best of the circumstance, you’re doing fine. If they are rattled, consider the example you are setting.
- Avoid all temptations to assign blame or responsibility. They’re not relevant now. You’ve got more important work to do.
- Once your diagnosis and course of action take form, invite those closest around you to comment and contribute their refinements. Lead your team to forge and commit to the post-crisis path.
- When the dust settles, address your constituents (employees, investors, your banker, customers and suppliers, etc.) to explain what happened and how you are going to handle the aftermath.
Do you have stories of triumph during times of crisis?
OPEN Cardmember Dick Cross is a partner in Alston Capital Partners, originator of the Mid-Tier Presidents Course Harvard GSD's Executive Program and the author of Just Run It!
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