A couple of months ago, on a pleasant February morning, I was in my office planning the roll-out and subsequent first year of operations of my start-up. Nothing could stop us… 2020 was our year and we were going to make it big!! However, though we anticipated that COVID19 could be a threat, we did not foresee its scale and we certainly didn’t anticipate that within weeks entire countries around world would be brought to a standstill.
In what felt like seconds, I had to switch from planning my company’s future, to protecting its immediate present and securing its short-term survival.
In my case, this was not the first time that I was facing a crisis with deep economic and social impacts. Over the last 10 years alone, I had witnessed first-hand the disruptive impact of the volcanic eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland or the devastation unleashed by a Category 5 Cyclone in the Fiji Islands.
Pandemics and other natural disasters are (thankfully) a rare occurrence, but they are not the only events in our planet that pose a threat to companies. We are now living in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) where we must acknowledge the threat of swift political change such as the one brought-on by theArab Spring or Brexit.
All these types of crises have the potential to bring a company to its knees and, while some of them are foreseeable or provide you with some level of warning before they happen, many can happen almost instantly and they often demand a swift, coordinated response from your team.
Knowing how to manage change and adapt to the new circumstances is of the utmost importance to any company wishing to thrive in this age. In my experience it is no longer enough to have the hard skills (technical degrees, academic education, etc.), you also need to be well-versed in soft skills such as emotional self-control, creativity and empathy to name a few.
While managing a crisis, those soft skills translate to 3 steps that you must get right if you want to maximize your chances of coming out of the crisis at 100% strength:
1- Anticipate: Communicate with your stakeholders:
Crises have a way of making you take your eye off the ball. There are just too many details requiring your attention and it is incredibly easy to get lost in the whirlwind of urgent matters and forget that your investors, team, clients, etc., need regular updates.
An information vacuum breeds uncertainty, which in turn breeds fear. You must anticipate this and prevent your stakeholder’s minds from using that fear to formulate their own theories and beliefs on the subject. Ideas are very resilient to change, so if you approach them after they have created a negative image of the matter in their minds, you will need to waste additional resources fighting it.
Remember, they are going to get the information they need one way or another. They will either learn it through your emails, meetings and calls or they will do it through the rumor mill and other secondhand sources. Therefore, you need to get ahead of it and control the narrative.
Make sure you are putting out information regularly. For example, it is not enough for you to work hard; your team needs to know exactly how you are doing it and why: How is the company doing financially? What steps are you taking each day/week? Do you have any industry information that could provide them with context?
You may be concerned about overwhelming stakeholders with information, but keep in mind that in a real crisis they already are being bombarded with data from every possible source. The only question is: do they know your side of the story? It is easier to accomplish task when you know what you are working for and why.
2- Small Gestures:
I remember vividly the first crisis I lived through as a manager. In 2010, while I was a Front of House Manager in a small hotel in Glasgow, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted and forced the cancellation of many flights in Europe which resulted in major disruptions to the travel plans of most of our guests.
In such a scenario you must react quickly to the developing facts on the ground. You must act as if there was no backup and it is up to you to use the tools at your disposal to “soften the blow” as they say.
Specific actions will change depending on the type of crisis you are dealing with and the resources available to you, but they will all benefit from a strong culture of empowerment within your company.
The middle of a crises is a bad time to find out exactly how confident your team is “going the extra mile”. Here is a small selection of impactful gestures that would be almost impossible to pull off without a confident workforce:
· Add flexibility your policies. A crisis will stretch them to their breaking point if your team do not know where to bend them.
· Get the management to pick up the phone and call a random selection of team members each day to check on them. They will appreciate your gesture and you may even discover they are facing an issue that you can help them with! Then cascade the initiative by getting your team to do the same with customers.
· Reach out to community leaders and proactively offer whatever support you may be able to give.
To sum up, never underestimate the power of a small act of kindness during a time of crisis. They will place you a cut above the rest when the dust settles and they can be applied not only to your relationship with your workforce, but to your clients and the community you operate in.
3- Post-crisis planning:
Congratulations, you survived the crisis. First item on the docket should of course be to show your team your genuine appreciation for their efforts and to reward their support during the crisis. Once that is done, it is finally time to get proactive about analyzing how your team and your company behaved during the storm so you can improve your response during the next one.
What did you do right? What could have been improved? Is there anything you could have done to prepare better? Questions like these will flood your mind in the aftermath of the crisis and you need to give them a structured answer.
You will know which format fits best your organization. In my experience, nothing beats an interdepartmental taskforce with representatives of different levels. Could you get it done with Management alone? Yes, but why would you? The different perspectives and experiences that your team just went through are worth their weight in gold, make the most of them!
As the world comes out of the COVID19 crisis, the companies that survive and the new ones that are born will both be looking for ways to minimize the impact of future events. Leading a company through a crisis in the VUCA world will require agility and creativity. You will need strong listening and information gathering skills so that others can contribute (any perspective is of interest), the humility to recognize that this new era is based on collective values, not on individualistic ones and great communication skills.
Great leaders will evolve and thrive in this network of diverse, multifaceted and connected individuals where everyone brings experience and essence. And they will be the most effective defence during the crises of the future.