Productive Leaders

Ph.D., CSP, CDR, US Navy Ret.,
CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame

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Business superheroes facing storm

Leading Through a Crisis

I spoke at the Colorado Business Protection Summit last Friday which focused on helping businesses create contingency plans in case of a sudden evacuation or other emergency.

As with other parts of the country, fires, floods, and natural disasters have emphasized the necessity for people to analyze what they need to do in crisis situations.

During any difficult situation, whether caused by Mother Nature or a hostile business takeover or a company reorganization, the need for strong leadership is critical. A lack of leadership during a crisis that is glaringly evident.

How can we best lead through a crisis?

First, acknowledge the problem. Make sure that you, as the person in charge, understand the real issues and the true nature of the crisis.

Second, articulate the possible courses of action and potential outcomes so everyone understands what is at stake. Ask the “what if?” questions and get factual answers.

Third, calmly figure out your strategy with your team. Ask for input. Map out what you need to do. Look at your policies. Have you already planned for this situation? Has someone else already worked through what needs to happen?

Fourth, keep your family and team informed. Provide information as soon as it is available. People crave information during times of uncertainty. They want to know that you, their leader, know what is going on and that you have a plan to handle whatever happens. You have to support and protect your employees and that means giving them good information when you know it.

Fifth, implement your crisis communication action plan. Have a plan to provide communication updates when normal channels maybe disrupted. Have backups. During 9/11 and the Colorado and California fires, cell phone coverage went down, and people worried for hours without news.

The time to create a business communication plan is before the crisis, not during. The time to learn to use Twitter is not when you are trying to figure out if your house is in an evacuation area. Communication methods are only effective if they are already in place and people know where to go to learn more.

Do you have a way to get information quickly to everyone in your organization? The military uses recall rosters and telephone trees. You can use a Twitter hashtag, Facebook notifications, or an email macro, but whatever you decide to use, it has to be a method that reaches your people. You can also hold briefings, whether in person or online, such as a Google Hangout, Skype, or a teleconference. Have a way for people to ask questions and get reliable answers.

When communicating to your employees or to external audiences, be specific, stick to the facts, be honest, and be timely. We just saw this happen with Virgin Galactic’s accident. Sir Richard Branson, the face of the company, acknowledged the loss when he said, “We are grieving.” He said they did not know what happened (he appeared honest) and he promised to investigate the problem. He gave people his message and he did it right away. If you are not in control of your message, who is?

Leaders respond to crises right away. Providing information, such as “your neighborhood is in an evacuation area” a few hours too late renders it useless. Being timely and proactive enhances trust.

Leaders know that people need them the most during a crisis. Great leaders step up to control the reactions, reduce uncertainty, and solve problems.


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