The following excerpt from The Dow Report was published March, 2nd 2020.
During 9/11, I was CEO of a NYC based SaaS company. Our HQ was located on 17th Street about 30 blocks from ground zero. Given the current Covid-19 crisis, I thought I’d share what I learned about crisis leadership then and since. I hope you find it useful.
Everybody focuses on how to lead through a crisis. I hear this all the time, “If we can just get through this and get things back to normal, we’ll be okay.” That’s a false premise. It’s false because “normal” will no longer hack it!
Strategies for leading through crisis are important, but they’re no more important than strategies for leading out of crisis. Leadership strategies during and after crisis are equally important and should be closely coordinated.
A common, reassuring message to employees goes something like this – “We’ll get things back to normal and pick up right where we left off.” Then what?
Post crisis, companies are forced to manage their financial recovery. This often means revising forecasts, adjusting financial targets, delaying projects, rethinking hiring plans and reducing headcount.
Post crisis, leaders have more challenges than during a crisis.
During a crisis, employees have something to blame. While dealing with 9/11 we had terrorists to blame. Today we have the Covid-19 virus to blame.
During a crisis, companies help people cope by reassuring them and making accommodations. Most companies do a nice job of being flexible, empathetic and communicative. Some even recapture good will with employees that had been lost over time.
Post crisis, when we begin to manage the financial recovery, things change. Blame and anger shift to the messengers. The supervisors, managers and executives that are implementing financial recovery plans become the new targets of anger, frustration and blame.
People crave a return to normal. When they figure out things aren’t going to be normal, they feel misled. The good will is washed away.
Post crisis recovery plans accelerate the pace of change. New change barriers and forms of resistance arise just as the pace of change speeds up.
Okay, so that’s the bad news. The good news?
Companies that develop and execute post crisis leadership plans can gain a significant competitive advantage.
Competitors in business are like cars in a NASCAR race. Before a crash, race cars have a standing in the race, just like business competitors have their market share.
Once the crash is cleaned up, the race restarts. All pre-crash momentum is lost. Each car restarts at the same speed.
The race standings change because some teams restart faster. They regain momentum faster. Some teams actually benefit from the crash and restart. That’s the goal of any post crisis leadership plan. Get back to top speed faster than the competition.
Post crisis leadership opportunities
- Attention – under normal business conditions it can be hard to get people’s attention. Now you have their attention, what are you going to do with it?
- Disruption – change initiatives were likely in process before the crisis occurred, but old habits are hard to break. The disruption creates an opportunity to hack bad habits that have been broken during the crisis.
- Communication – during crisis, sr. mgmt. opens up lines of communication with employees that can continue being leveraged post crisis.
- Reset – companies are either trying to reinforce or shift cultural guideposts. In either case, the attention, disruption and communication lines offer opportunity to amplify vision/mission/values.
Post crisis leadership best practices
- Plan now – don’t wait to put together your post-crisis leadership strategy. Start now and ensure linkage with your current crisis leadership plan.
- Set the stage – instead of “once things get back to normal…” use “once we get the ‘all clear’, we’ll adjust and adapt ASAP”
- Narrow focus – once the disruptions subside, people will feel overwhelmed playing catch up. Distractions are everywhere and people will need clear messaging around priorities.
- Set milestones – use short term objectives vs. refocusing on longer term goals. When you create quick wins, you help employee confidence will grow.
- Positive expectations – with a narrowed focus and achievable milestones, share your positive expectations for future performance. This will help build confidence and motivation.
Building a post crisis leadership strategy is the ultimate best practice. It demonstrates confidence, optimism and resiliency to your leaders at a time when they’re looking to you for guidance. It’s also therapeutic, for them and for you.
We’ll get through this challenge. It’s not a matter of “if” but “when”. But when we do, things will be different. Things won’t be normal for Management or Employees.
My best advice – start planning for your restart now. The faster we regain racing speed the better.