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Crisis Leadership: Current and Prepared Agility

Crises are primed to enhance leaders’ capabilities and the strengthen the core strategy of the organization - here's how

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Leadership agility is critical, especially in a crisis. 2020 is the year we’ll remember well because of all that’s happened. Some believe making it through is the best objective. However, this is also a time of opportunity. I’m not speaking about market share, although that can happen; I’m speaking about leaders’ capabilities and the strengthening of the core strategy of the organization.

Three areas leadership needs to consistently focus on – communication, short-term and long-term goals, and objectives. Communication and short-term goals are at the fore in a crisis. However, prepared agility is key to long term agility and success.  Let’s look at each component.

Communication

In a crisis, communication from the CEO and executive team to employees needs to be direct, honest, empathic, frequent, and a two-way street.

Silence from the top breeds fear. Employees will begin to speculate on what’s happening. They may obsess or ruminate in their own head, or do it out loud, resulting in increased fear and anxiety for many. Frequent communication calms these fears. People don’t always get the message the first time. They need to hear it a few times for it to sink in, especially if they’re anxious. In addition, if information changes, which frequently happens in a crisis, employees need to be informed. Honesty is always best. Remaining positive is important but it doesn’t edge-out honesty. If the company is having layoffs, then early communication of this matter is vital to give employees a chance to plan. Keeping employees in the loop by providing them with timely information, and by soliciting feedback, promotes trust.

Leaders will also learn a great deal from employees as they too will be thinking about how to maintain productivity. Employees may know more intimately what they or their division needs. Providing a safe environment for suggestions or feedback without fear of retribution is paramount. It’s not just about leaders speaking to employees – it’s collaboration. The message is: We’re all in this together and we want to succeed. Leaders need to listen – they may get the best idea from an unlikely source who’s thinking from a perspective they had not considered.

Short-Term Focus

Seeing from the employees’ perspective is a good segue in the short-term focus of leadership. Leaders need to give front line staff the flexibility to maneuver or pivot. In the COVID-19 world, creating the conditions for employees to work safely whether that is providing the tools for them to effectively work from home or researching and implementing safety protocols to follow in the work environment –is paramount.

Front line staff have a better understanding of the tasks they do each day. For example, in a factory, the employee building the piece has far better knowledge of how the assembly happens – the touch points all along the building process. To create safety, leaders need to listen to that employee(s) to establish a safe environment. Another example, front line sales staff has their finger on the pulse of the customers. They have those critical relationships. If the customers pivot, the sales staff needs to pivot with them. This is important in pandemic times, but also in general. Collaboration is key.

This is where bureaucratic organizations tend to fall short in a crisis and, at times, with innovation. The agility is lacking because there are layers to get through before a pivot can happen. Even with the correct information in hand, we’ve seen large companies stumble because they couldn’t, or didn’t, pivot. Being from Rochester, NY, Kodak and Xerox, come to mind. That doesn’t mean large companies can’t pivot. It means the leadership in those organizations need to value agility and give the ability to maneuver and/or innovate to mid-level division or team leaders.

Long-Term Focus

As I mentioned above, prepared agility is a key to long term success. The decisions made in our current COVID-19 world may have long term ramifications. This is where Strategic Foresight with the key ingredient being scenario planning comes in.[i] This isn’t a new concept. It’s been around for decades and well used by many organizations. For example, during the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, Shell fared better than other companies; and in 2001, the US Coast Guard was ready for the aftermath of 9/11, both because of strategic foresight.[ii] These are two quite different organizations, employing the same concept, resulting in positive outcomes in crisis laden environments.

One thing we know for sure is that the future is uncertain. Strategic foresight is imperative to consider several different futures and plan for them. The point of scenario planning is to realistically imagine the future – not just one scenario but several. Brainstorming these scenarios with staff from all levels and experiences in the organizations, is crucial. Recall the significance of front-line staff and mid-level leaders – their input is invaluable in the process. Of course, numerous scenarios can be imagined but only a handful can be given time and effort. The CEO and executive team need to carefully consider, and achieve consensus, on which differing futures are plausible to prepare strategies for.

Once the scenarios are decided, teams are developed to strategize for that future. More specifically – what needs to be done now to be successful in that future. When the teams finish developing their individual scenario strategies, the teams’ strategies are compared. Are there strategies in common for the different scenarios? If yes, those strategies are developed and implemented. The goal is to find strategies that will be effective in differing futures. That is prepared agility – the strategies implemented will prepare the organization for differing futures.

Strategic foresight isn’t a one-time exercise. It takes commitment and needs to be an integral component of a company’s leadership and culture. The scenarios and strategies must be reviewed and updated as the environment changes. Tweaks or minimal pivots may be in order.

Right now, communication and short-term focus may be what organizations believe they have time and energy for. However, 2020 teaches us that strategic foresight should be part of any organization. This isn’t the last time such a year will happen (recall 2008). Prepared agility will give organizations an edge, and leaders their legacy.


[i] Learning from the Future: How to Make Robust Strategy in Times of Deep Uncertainty. Scoblic, J. Peter. Harvard Business Review, July-August 2020.

[ii] Ibid.

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