Crisis leadership: How to steer the ship through fog (video)
The current Covid-19 pandemic has hit the business world, and its survival may be predicated on one thing: crisis leadership. In a crisis, leaders are the ones who can make the difference between a business staying afloat and it closing its doors. Crisis management starts with taking a step back and assessing the crisis, making swift decisions and then communication, communication, communication. And those difficult decisions? It’s not just about the decision itself, it also matters what you do next. Here are some key takeaways from our conversation with Lisa Molloy – CEO at the IACP – and Seamus Smith – business leader, ex-CEO Sage Pay and ex-MD at PayPoint:
- The speed of the decisions you need to make is key.
- Positivity and purpose are needed.
- The leadership ticket includes stress and anxiety, but you cannot let these become the dominant feelings. Seek out positivity.
- Principles and processes are vital.
- Bring stability.
- Be honest if you need to have difficult conversations with your team.
- Bring everyone along with you. This is not the time for solo runs, no one is a superhero.
- Link difficult decisions to clear priorities.
- Lead by example.
A crisis was in no one’s risk matrix. How do you quickly adapt to the concept of “crisis leadership”?
Lisa Molloy: We are all students; we are trying to educate ourselves in these times. Educate yourself as a leader, immerse yourself in the research and be as informed as possible. You need to have the ability to be flexible, to adapt where possible.
Communication is absolutely key. You cannot communicate enough internally and externally and this goes back to learning. You learn a lot from your team and from external sources, from the experts managing this situation. Communicate, communicate and then communicate some more.
Honesty is another aspect of leadership. Everyone reacts differently in crisis circumstances but as a leader, your team is looking to you to be calm and collected. Continue to be yourself, your team likes you, maintain your usual self and don’t change overnight.
As a leader, you need to try and bring stability in these difficult, unstable times. Be honest if you need to have difficult conversations with your team.
Seamus Smith: Problems are significant and endless, but having reflected on the question there are four key things that I would recommend to all leaders in all sectors. Before sharing them, I want to also share a metaphor that I have used in the past and that helps me.
All of us leaders are navigating through our leadership career and if you imagine you are at sea then most of us have been able to navigate with sight of the shoreline. There is a degree of referencing points even if we are navigating and setting our own course. But now the fog has set it. We don’t have those certainties and referencing points any more. You have to trust your compass. You have to let your previous experience as a leader, your values and your knowledge inform your compass.
A brilliant quote from 1933 from Franklin D. Roosevelt when he was the leader. “At the end of the day we have nothing to fear but fear itself” and “In every dark hour a leadership of frankness and vigour has been met with support.”
Here are the four pieces of advice:
- Step back and reappraise the situation. If you are doing more ‘doing’ rather than more ‘planning’ and ‘thinking’ then it’s not good. Leaders need to step back. You have to also accept that you cannot do what you were going to do pre-crisis, you need to change plans.
- Reframe objectives. Change your plans according to this new reality. You can’t do what you were thinking you would do a couple of months ago.
- Involve the team. Discuss the situation with them. It’s okay not to have all the answers. Empower people, people who feel empowered tend to want to get things done. So, communicate as crazy. Can you imagine the stress in the absence of daily briefs from the government in this situation?
- The level of pastoral care you offer should be greater now more than ever. Look after your team’s wellbeing. People will always remember how you made them feel during the crisis. Did you make people feel supported and cared for? People will remember that.
Some leaders have survived previous crises. Having witnessed or managed other crises how prepared are you as a leader to adapt for the next problem/crisis?
Seamus Smith: I would say in my career I have managed 3 significant crisis events. I was a manager at American Express in the 2008 crisis. I would go back to the points I shared earlier. They are genuinely the points that I use.
Think broadly and widely, you cannot go straight into ‘do’ mode without thinking. The principles around reappraising, involving a core of people and communicating are important. Be positive and visible to people who are geographically far away from you and communicating with them.
Leaders will have to think again after the crisis because there will be a situation where companies are coming out of a crisis. Mentally and physically we need to be prepared.
Principles and a framework are key to me. We can’t legislate or practice all of those crisis scenarios but you can have these principles enshrined. The military is a good example, in the British military the principle is that as a leader you should serve. Principles and processes are vital.
Lisa Molloy: I fully agree with Seamus. I agree with reappraisal. Learning lessons from the past. Many of us have had some sort of crisis in your organisation and the same principles apply. Maintain your principles and values.
This pandemic is unprecedented, but dealing with a crisis is not unprecedented. Remember that. We do try to mitigate against risks. A lot of organisations are working in crisis mode and getting more resilient. Work with what you have. A lot of organisations are resilient and they have had to fire-fight, they have had to react. From the perspective of my own organisation, it’s amazing how much you accomplish when you stop and reappraise. You can react and pivot and innovate. Look at what you already have in terms of risk management and use that. Acknowledge that you can do it but it will take time, change of focus, innovation. We have all been pushed toward innovation. You do have the tools. Your most important asset is your staff, draw on the strength of your team.
Part of crisis leadership is making difficult decisions: what are some that one would have to make right now and what is your thought process for such decisions?
Lisa Molloy: You need to make informed decisions, yet you also need to make these decisions fast. You need to respond but you need to strike that balance between taking a step back and making an informed decision. I think we will need to make difficult decisions. And we have made these decisions already.
Your network is hugely important and there are so many leaders out there who are going through the same thing.
You have to have a collaborative approach; all of your stakeholders are important. All of your staff’s health and wellbeing and their family’s wellbeing are a priority. But needs of your stakeholders are also important.
The speed of the decisions you need to make is key.
Bring everyone along with you. This is not the time for solo runs, no one is a superhero. You can’t be one. You have to come together and manage the situation as fast as possible. You are the leader but you are not alone in having to face those hard decisions.
Seamus Smith: A lot of difficult decision are being made, have been made, and will be made. Everyone enters this situation at various stages, everyone starts at a different place.
The compass should point to you as a leader establishing objectives beforehand of what your priorities are. Once you have made and considered informed and clear objectives of how to deal with challenges, the hard decisions become less hard. If you say something is a priority and you make a difficult decision that is not linked to that people will get confused. Link difficult decisions to clear priorities.
Lead by example. Whatever those decisions whether it is cutting people off, limiting cash, if people are being asked to accept a cut to their salary then leaders also have to have a cut. Even a larger cut. You cannot have several running highways for how you lead. You have to have solidarity in difficult times. It’s imperative.
How do you get people on board once you make difficult decisions such as after cutting salaries, putting people on furlough?
Seamus Smith: It comes down to communication. You can be extremely honest and factual about the situations. We are taking actions to preserve the enterprise and you can be honest about the situation and about the facts. You cannot expect people to be delighted about the decisions. You have to deliver these messages clearly, frequently, and with conviction.
You have colleagues around you. Empower people and you will witness unprecedented action. If you said to me that a financial organisation I work with will have 70% of their workforce to work from home in three weeks, it would have been unthinkable. I was talking to someone in Hong Kong via a secure call a couple of days ago. Internally, it has also helped us understand that things can happen when people come together. Empowering people to do that and rallying around that. Positivity and purpose are needed.
Lisa Molloy: How you communicate and what you communicate is more important than the frequency with which you do it. It needs to be seen as real and not just a token activity. Honesty and frankness are crucial. The staff need to be informed, you are not only informing yourself. This is not the time for sugar-coating. You will garner respect from that and your team will understand and once they feel they have been involved in the decision-making process they will surprise you with fantastic ideas.
There is a lot of positivity among all the negativity. People in my team are shining. They say how can we fix this how can we work creatively. It’s been phenomenal to see the growth.
Your team needs to think ‘We are part of the solution, not part of the problem’. Having that cultural shift is hugely important. Communication is important and how you genuinely and authentically engage with that. You need to be authentic and honest and you need to allow your staff to be honest, you need to provide this safe space. Staff will not want to have honest conversations about how they are doing and you need to draw that out of them sometimes.
Who supports the leaders? Who cares for the caretakers? They do say it’s lonely at the top. How do you ensure your wellbeing in the process? You have to be able to lead in the long-term. Any tips and tricks?
Lisa Molloy: I had a really interesting conversation with a member of my management team. I have been expressing the need to keep boundaries. The lines have become blurred as we work from home and we need to keep those boundaries between work and home life. When the crisis hit, I was in crisis mode. They said: we need you to take care of yourself because we need you. It is important to lead by example and to practice what we preach. I can’t be saying that and not doing that myself. It’s important to switch off and to put those boundaries in place. You are connected all the time. And there is a great facility on your phone where you can switch off your email notifications. Switch off. Protect your time. You need to be able to recharge and switch off. I am trying my best. All joking aside, self-care is hugely important. Representing counselling and psychotherapists, this is what I hear all the time.
This is like being on the plane and the oxygen-mask comes down and you have to put it on yourself first to help others. Take that time off.
Seamus Smith: The leadership ticket includes stress and anxiety. Those are the by-products during normal times but those feelings cannot become the working mode. You have to accept those feelings but you cannot let them become the dominant ones, they will cloud your judgement. Seek out positivity.
Eating well, getting some form of exercise. If your bedrock and your foundation is built on looking after yourself physically it is a good start. I run, it’s something that I do to look after myself physically.
You cannot let your stress and anxieties stay in your head. You have to talk to someone. Whether that is a partner or someone in your team. You have to get these thoughts out and my experience is that if you don’t get them out, they stay there and they will be there when your head hits the pillow at night. There are ways to communicate, especially now and you have to be proactive as a leader in this.
How do you build a strategy right now and should you look at pivoting?
Lisa Molloy: We have to adapt; you won’t throw all of your plans out the window but you have to adapt. Planning is very difficult. It is very difficult without a point of reference. You shouldn’t lose focus of your long-term objectives. You are managing within a particular circumstance now, but always bring it back to your objectives.
Smaller pivots, innovations, flexing, adapting certain aspects. You may not be pivoting your whole business model but you may pivot a certain part of your business such as the delivery, or changing demands. You need to assess in your planning where the demands are. You have to have the conversation with your stakeholder so you can adapt your business objectives according to that. It doesn’t mean your organisation has to change you just think ‘Ok what do we need to change now and where are the pressure points?’ What do we need to do to address them? Don’t lose focus of your long-term plans.
Seamus Smith: This is a test of how you have planned your strategy. How well did you do your homework in terms of strategy? Strategy for me becomes weeks and months. Strategy is those short-term things you can do now, not in the years to come. Refreshing and refocusing objectives but avoiding completely erasing strategies.