Quick Tips for Successfully Leading Through a Crisis

It's difficult enough to lead in good times, but it's even more challenging to lead in a time of crisis. While most companies have some sort of crisis plan in place, many are inadequate and untested, and contingency mitigation techniques and risk management programs can easily become overwhelmed. Whether it's plummeting share prices or a major brand image problem, it's up to the C-suite to own the situation and lead through the choppy waters.

Here are 4 tips to help CEOs successfully lead through a crisis.

1. Accept reality. Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and author of Seven Lessons for Leading in Crisis, told The Wall Street Journal that leaders must accept reality and share the whole truth with the C-suite. Many tend to underestimate problems in crisis, he said, and wind up taking a series of small steps, none of which is powerful enough to correct the downward spiral.

“Great turnarounds and great crisis leadership are not built in micro-incrementalism. They are built on bold and decisive acts, and on the courage of leaders to recognize mistakes and make adjustments accordingly.”

Similarly, CEOs also should be open and honest with shareholders and the public. Rob Weinhold, CEO at the Fallston Group and author of The Art of Crisis Leadership, wrote in his blog that while there can be an “immense pressure to make the organization look good,” executives shouldn’t lie, distort the truth, or leave out vital facts. “Once lost, you will never fully restore your integrity,” says Weinhold.

2. Lead decisively. William Snyder, Deloitte Advisory principal and corporate restructuring group leader, said in a report that leaders must drive toward actionable intelligence and lead decisively. They must often navigate confusing intelligence and should “cast a wide net, as crucial information can come from a range of sources, including customers and employees.”

Snyder says while it’s critical to lead decisively, leaders will also make mistakes in a time of crisis. They must be willing to back up, change course, and go forward again. He says great turnarounds and great crisis leadership are not built in micro-incrementalism. “They are built on bold and decisive acts, and on the courage of leaders to recognize mistakes and make adjustments accordingly,” says Snyder.

3. Train and delegate. Gisli Olafsson, one of the world’s leading experts on disaster response, said in his book, The Crisis Leader, that leadership is about focusing on the future vision instead of the past. He said crisis leadership takes traditional leadership to a “higher level” and that humility is one of the most important must-have characteristics. It’s critical for leaders not to be overwhelmed by the fact that everyone is looking to them for answers and “knowing that you are not indispensable and that you need to have others who can take over,” he says.

CEOs need a solid plan and framework for responding to crises. Olaffson says the best way is through exercises that can train leaders to make better decisions under pressure. “The better you prepare yourself and your organization for dealing with crisis, the more resilient you and your team will become,” said Olafsson.

4. Be flexible. Blackberry CEO John Chen, who was noted for turning around Sybase in 2010 and then selling it to SAP, is now facing dwindling phone sales at the company, steep revenue declines, and tumbling share prices. Chen took the helm at Blackberry in 2013 and started shifting the company more toward software. Blackberry is also now reducing the number of product launches and focusing on a more mid-range market device with two cheaper smartphones coming out in 2016.

It remains to be seen if Chen will save Blackberry, but he has been credited as a “turnaround artist” noted for his flexibility to change direction. Chen said in an interview with Canadian Business that “every time I’ve done a turnaround, the first thing has been to spend time with customers” to learn where the market is and how the company can adapt.



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