How should you respond to a major crisis in your business?
As part of its leadership series, Business Leader looks at how those running scale-up and high-growth companies can best respond to an internal or external crisis.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GOOD AND BAD LEADERSHIP IN A CRISIS?
Dr Jeremy Snape: “Good leaders are resilient: they find a way to win from the most challenging of positions. Despite the uncertainty, their intent is clear and they stay calm and consistent around their goals which inspires people to follow them. Bad leaders can’t take the pressure. They either react overly emotionally or they don’t react at all. Great leaders trust others to build the solution; bad leaders don’t even trust themselves.”
Chris Atkinson: “The most important difference is whether the leader’s behaviour increases or decreases the sense of panic. Most employees will quickly recognise there is a crisis and the last thing they need is the additional intensity that comes when a leader also emphasises the crisis.
“A good leader will also provide a point of stability, focus and security in crisis. For example, creative thinking would be an important skill to get out of many crisis situations, but it is one of the first abilities to suffer under the pressure of a crisis.
“There are several long-perpetuated myths around leadership at times of crisis. For example, leaders need to ‘take control’ at a time of crisis; this is only partially true and is often misinterpreted. Leaders need to be in control and be seen to provide a steady influence but taking control by shouting orders is only appropriate in a narrow range of emergency scenarios.”
Will Harvey: “Effective leadership requires sensitivity to the context and necessitates a conciliatory approach to engaging with multiple stakeholders. The communication approach should be consistent through multiple media channels. This management of the crisis should be a team endeavour but led and owned by the Chief Executive. Ineffective leadership during a crisis will see the Chief Executive adopting a defensive or silent approach to questioning. An inconsistent narrative or a leader perceived as isolated will not inspire confidence internally and externally in the management of the crisis.”
WHAT TRAITS DO YOU NEED TO PROVIDE STRONG LEADERSHIP THROUGHOUT A CRISIS?
Dr Jeremy Snape: “Great leaders have the courage to make the big call in high-pressure situations based on performance and results, not on comfort and convenience. They are selfless, doing the right thing for their teams when the pressure forces everyone else to look after themselves. They are passionate and driven to win but also have a solid ethical foundation.
“They have the ability to execute under pressure in the short-term but also to think long term. Great leaders are focused under pressure and can make clear decisions which are communicated in a way that their followers understand. They have an inner strength that allows them to prove their critics wrong and achieve the impossible.”
Chris Atkinson: “Clarity of outcome – very often at a time of crisis people get stuck in thinking about ‘how’ to solve the problem. One of the most useful behaviours of a leader is to articulate very clearly the outcome that is needed. This allows the people around the leader to consider all options and creative ideas.
“Trust the team – considerable research has proven that one individual can never match the problem-solving ability of a group, no matter how talented the one individual!
“Give space – this is the hardest behaviour in a time of crisis. Our instinctive behaviours ramp up the pressure and often creates a highly pressurised environment that damages performance. One of the most difficult steps needed as a leader is to ‘shield’ the team so that they can focus on finding the solution.
“Be consistent and visible – you don’t have to be calm the whole time (you are human after all) but you do need to be consistent in your mood or behaviours and you definitely need to be visible.”
CAN YOU GIVE AN EXAMPLE OF GOOD LEADERSHIP DURING A CRISIS?
Dr Jeremy Snape: “The best example of leadership this year was Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister who within a few hours of the horrific terrorist attack in Christchurch mosque was in the community, visible, sharing the grief of the community, wearing their cultural dress and showing great empathy for their loss. Within a few days, the gun laws were changed to prevent the same thing happening again.
“Kasper Schmeichel also showed incredible leadership when the Leicester City Chairman’s helicopter crashed in front of his eyes.
“He selflessly tried to save the passengers before the flames engulfed the cockpit but then showed great character in the way he became the spokesman for the Club as the world watched in shock. Kasper’s compassion and ability to galvanise the team in adversity was a powerful display of leadership.”
Chris Atkinson: “A brilliant example is Microsoft’s Satya Nadella. It is said by many that he inherited an organisation in crisis from Steve Ballmer. Industry experts were asking if he could ‘save’ the company, it was so serious. Nadella has since taken an approach that mirrors many elements of best practice in a crisis.
“One of his first actions was to make a clear declaration of the outcome or focus. He said: “The world is about cloud first, this gave all managers a clear strategic direction and prioritisation. Secondly, I wonder if you could have named Microsoft’s CEO before you read this? He has largely stayed out of the spotlight; he has allowed others to lead and innovate.
“His presence is more visible inside the company than outside and it is having a real impact on the culture. Microsoft has generally become a more friendly partner and less of a feared adversary. Five years into his tenure as CEO, he has proven that you can lead through a crisis with humility and clarity.”