Leaders Leading in Crisis

Denada Jackson • December 14, 2022

When your flight encounters turbulence, have you ever looked to see if the flight attendant appears concerned?  In turbulent times, it’s normal to look for help from people in leadership positions. They will generally have the facts and be able to cast a vision forward. To do this, leaders need to be prepared.

If you are a leader, or support a leader, be sure to pause and respond, not just react.  How do you do that?  Here are some first steps.

Get the facts. It’s easy to listen to the first account of a situation and start to plan. Don’t do it. Request information from every member of your critical response team. I have been in multiple situations where the first account of a crisis was just a slither of what actually occurred. If we had not worked to get every side of the story, our client may have felt compelled to take an unneeded action.

A Critical Response Team (CRT) is responsible for, trained and committed to working together during a crisis. Teams should have the authority and/or expertise to guide your organization through a crisis. If you don’t have a critical response team in place, establish one immediately.

Circle up with your CRT. Once you have the facts – or at least a solid understanding of the situation – swiftly assemble your crisis response team, brief them on the situation and gather their feedback.  This should take place within the first hour of the crisis. Your team will provide various points of view that will be critical in determining a path forward.  For example, human resources professionals will offer insight from an employee perspective, risk managers will seek ways to mitigate financial risk, operations will pursue ways to minimize operational impact, legal will think about liability and communication professionals will consider the brand’s reputation. Each of these perspectives is important and your job as the leader is to find the balance between the sum to determine your next actionable steps.

Determine immediate next steps. Every crisis is unique, so the immediate next steps must be determined when your CRT gathers.  For example, if you have a major accident on site, do you close down manufacturing for the rest of the day?  If a scandal is about to break in the media, do you decide to notify the board and employees to try and mitigate fears before they read the story (and hear the rumors)?

Communicating is one of the keys to weathering a corporate storm. So after you have determined immediate next steps…

Identify three key message points and a spokesperson. These key points will be the basis for your initial messaging, including items such as an email to the board, a notice to employees or a media holding statement. If you have a crisis response plan in place, your spokesperson should already be identified and trained.  Otherwise, determine who is best suited to calmly, stay on message.  His or her demeanor can say more than the actual words out of one’s mouth.

NOTE: If your crisis is a “bet-the-company” situation, the person at the top must be the spokesperson. Do not lay blame, do not lie and never say “no comment.”

In closing, like death and taxes, a crisis is coming.  The challenge is preparing in advance, long before a storm is on the horizon and your plane encounters turbulence.  As a leader in an organization, we encourage you to make crisis response preparation a priority.  Will preparing ensure a Hollywood “happy ending”? No.  But, doing nothing is a great foundation for failure.

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