Written by: Gregory C. Scott
Partner, Executive Coach & Leadership Strategist
InVista Associates, Inc.
The Scott Group
AABLI alumnus, Class #4
On my first day as a new CEO, I was excited and hopeful, ready to start a new journey in my career. To my delight, a welcoming committee greeted me with smiles and good wishes.
But a big question was hiding behind the smiles: “Does this man know what he’s walking into?”
In short order, I discovered why the question was in the air. Once I was ushered into my new office, an onslaught of challenges pushed their way in the door, crowding me out of my comfort zone. Some were legal, some financial, some involved internal operations, others were external public relations issues. I had to quickly get my arms around all of them. After all, one of my duties as leader was to combat and minimize potential damage. It wasn’t easy, but I prevailed. I’d like to share with you what I learned in the process.
“Crisis management is not an event but has a life cycle.”
First, acknowledge the problem: Sound obvious? Perhaps, but denial has caused more than one CEO to waste precious time. So when the facts are known, quickly acknowledge the problem and conduct a 360-degree analysis of the situation. To develop an effective crisis communication strategy, you need to know all the facts, the players, and the landscape in which you are operating.
Once, the landscape would have simply meant the internal management and executive staff. Today, with nonstop information and social media, there are more layers to the landscape, such as the board of directors and other pertinent stakeholders. A crisis seldom happens suddenly; it evolves slowly until it reaches a tipping point. All the layers were present during the evolution of the crisis, so all should be present in handling it.
Determine how bad it is. Any great crisis can involve the media, investors, donors, clients and volunteers. It’s your job to manage the level of probing and the range of opinions from many with different agendas. Not communicating to the right groups and/or communicating to the wrong groups will bring unwanted attention, especially in a complex setting, and can give rise to out of context statements that can negatively impact the brand.
Determining the scale of the problem will determine your response. You need a small, trusted inner circle with whom you can discuss your options and size up the dimensions of the crisis. This circle can provide you with candor, clear thinking and perspective. It also can keep you from becoming emotionally caught up in the maelstrom.
Frame the crisis: In a crisis, the flow of new information and analysis is constant. Keep your ears open to new intelligence. Make sure the facts are the facts. If new ‘intel’ points to a revision of your original plan, don’t hesitate. Revise.
To be effective, you’ll need to stay on top of all the pertinent information, communicate the latest information and narrate your new plan moving forward. As the crisis unfolds, constantly analyze your direction and share it–with your inner circle and all significant others–every day or every couple of days. While you’re at it, try to be sensitive to those who are in the trenches with you. What you consider unimportant may seem monumental to other stakeholders. What may seem trivial today may be critical tomorrow.
“In crisis management, be quick with the facts, slow with the blame.”
– Leonard Saffir
Be decisive about who does what: The CEO is the chief problem solver, but he or she may not always be the best choice to lead a crisis response. Dealing with emergencies can distract the CEO’s attention from the essential, day-to-day business that keeps an organization on its feet. When I faced a crisis in my own career, for example, I became so laser focused on handling the problem that it dominated my entire life. Inevitably, other parts of my business and personal life took a hit.
Know when to share the load. Other executives can step forward and provide leadership or lend support when a CEO is shouldering too much weight. Don’t take this out of context: the buck does stop with the CEO. He or she must be seen as the individual who knows the facts and embraces responsibility for strategies and direct decision making. But effective turnarounds do not come from micro-incrementalism. They are forged by bold and decisive acts.
Even in crisis management, mistakes can and will happen. That’s why you, as the leader, should be flexible, change course when needed and make necessary adjustments. That may mean inviting others to serve on the front line with you and, when necessary, allowing them to take the lead.
Control the narrative: During a crisis, it’s important to constantly communicate up, down, across, and outside, if necessary. Control the message by being the crisis manager or by designating a crisis manager as the sole spokesperson and as the source of honest, transparent and consistent information. Keep a record of the facts that you know at each point of the process. This will help when you must respond to potential questions (even stupid questions) or to potential lawsuits. It is extremely important to answer questions before they are asked.
Be ready for changed behaviors: Under extreme pressure, individuals may go into survival mode, behaving in unexpected ways. Walls may go up. To counteract that, deal with the crisis openly, honestly and without emotion. Assess how the crisis could change the culture and plan for changed circumstances, including changed roles. Everyone, for that matter, should have a role, even if it’s a different one.
Insist on actionable intelligence: Beware of misinformation! In a crisis, confusing data and intelligence storm the gates. What you thought was true may not be. So cast a wide net for qualified, objective and accurate information from diverse viewpoints and sources, including employees, clients, customers and others.
It’s tough duty, but try to stay in front of the problem. Like a good basketball player, you should read the court constantly and stay ready to pounce. Proper analysis, readiness and follow up will help head off potential threats, stop the bleeding and allow your team to start breathing the sweet air of recovery.
“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
– Peter Drucker
This blog is not written by aabli.org or The African American Board Leadership Institute. The author is solely responsible for the content.