Leading Through Crisis
In times of crisis, you have to both meet people where they are and at the same time point them towards the future. Only by understanding the first can you accomplish the second.
However strong your crisis plan, nothing prepares you for being CEO at a time of unprecedented uncertainty and fear. How do we manage the anxieties of our staff, boards and ourselves at the same time we’re trying to manage our businesses? Where should CEOs focus their limited time and attention?
In a crisis, a natural tendency is to go back to what we know. Most of us CEOs moved up the ranks in part because of our skills at taking on tough, unexpected challenges. It’s easy to want to take charge of every detail. But we have to step back and trust our leaders. Be the steady hand without micro-managing.
Our best and highest uses lie elsewhere. Our first job is to be attuned to and communicating with our employees. They are frightened, uncertain and craving leadership. Their immediate question, spoken or not, is whether they will have a job.
It’s essential to share your best guess as to what the new normal will look like for your company. Putting a stake in the ground and describing that vision will best ensure that your teams are engaged and pointed towards a reinvigorated future. That picture of the future will almost certainly not be fully in focus. But whatever that road looks like, give it to your team straight. Their BS meters will be finely tuned right now, so don’t sugarcoat or deflect. Plus, if we don’t talk to them, they will make up their own stories – and they won’t be good. A CEO who can speak to employees’ concerns with empathy and honesty will best ensure that they will leap to the challenges of wherever you lead.
Even as we’re managing the concerns of our teams, as CEOs we also likely have to manage our boards. Board/management boundaries are always tough to balance. But when things are uncertain, those boundaries can quickly erode. Like you, your board members have likely run businesses, and their first instinct will be to try to assert more control. They feel a heightened sense of fiduciary duty and their worst fear is that the company will fail under their watch. In addition, most will be peppered incessantly by articles and advice about heightened board engagement during a crisis. So don’t wait for them to ask you: tell them. I’m updating my board weekly on our crisis response, internal and external communications, projected business impacts, and all the ways we are identifying and responding to key risks.
Finally, we can’t neglect ourselves and our families. We’re dealing with the same stresses at home as our teams, yet must portray the calm under pressure we all want from leaders at times like these. Not only do we have to take care of ourselves and recharge (advice I know we’ve all heard from many quarters); we also have to allow ourselves to be cared for. Take the time to turn off the computer, put down the phone and nurture your family and in turn, let them nurture you. Do that and you will be in the best position to lead your company through this crisis and beyond.