Crisis management for busy leaders

Crisis management is a phrase mostly used by senior management in billion-dollar businesses or by governments. In an age of a growing number of crises that cost more and are more frequent, learning how each of us can respond to a specific situation can be good investment in your management and leadership skills. Figuring out where to start is often the biggest hurdle: what crisis to plan for, what to do, and actually how to respond if you are in a crisis situation right now.

I recently had to make the heartbreaking decision to cancel an event for my charity due to the outbreak of COVID-19. It was an extremely difficult decision, as are all such decisions. But one thing stood out: as a charity, we were complimented on how calmly and swiftly we handled the ‘crisis’. It definitely wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows (a crisis never is), but we were able to implement a plan extremely swiftly, and crucially keep morale high in a volunteer-driven community that is entirely reliant on donations.

But it hasn’t always been this easy for me to handle crises! Previous issues created genuine panic in me, and my responses were, therefore, less calm, considered and clear to those around me. I’d end up just doing everything myself (never a good idea),  because I felt I was the only person that could be relied on. Going down this road can give you a reputation as someone who doesn’t trust their team, a poor leader or someone that appears to be in panic mode all the time.

In this post I want to share with you what I’ve learnt over the years on planning for and handling small and big crises, why it applies to every single one of us, whatever stage of your career you are at, and some simple steps you can take right now for the future.

What this isn’t, is official crisis management/planning advice! If your business is in need of a professional crisis manager, then I encourage you to invest in it! This is more about how each of us, in every aspect of our career (and indeed personal life) can anticipate, plan for and tackle crises as they occur.

Planning for a crisis is one of the best investments you can make.

Anticipation and foresight

A criticism that has been levelled at me repeatedly by well-meaning family, friends and colleagues, is that I’m a worrier! I now view myself as a ‘recovering worrier’ (a topic for another day!). But some part of that worrier is still there. But I’ve learnt to control it and now use it to my advantage

The wonderful thing I can say about being a (recovering) worrier is that I anticipate scenarios which most people view as ‘will never happen’. The difference now is that I have learnt to turn this anticipation from worry to a tool that can aid me. And when I’m able to turn the anticipation into foresight: where I can see how different scenarios may play out with different responses, I’m in an even stronger position to handle difficult situations.

Anticipation and foresight are the keys to crisis management planning. If you have thought of a bad scenario, performed a risk analysis and mitigated appropriately, you are in a stronger position than most of those around you. Risk management teaches us to look for things that might go wrong, assess them and manage them appropriately, but all too often a level of tokenism is applied to this process. Great risk management results in planning for situations such that you already have a sketched-out plan in place, that gets more detailed as the risk heightens.

Begin your new crisis management attitude with starting any new activity/project with anticipation, not just of the great results that you hope to achieve if all goes well, but some negatives as well. List out crazy scenarios if necessary. After all, very few people thought that in 2020 the world would face the COVID-19 health-crisis and be considering international travel quarantines and bans on public gatherings except for a few ‘scaremongering’ epidemiologists. And yet here we are.

We might not have thought of something as big as an international health crisis. But we can anticipate the possibility of unforeseen situations causing people to cancel activities, events or needing to work from home. 

Appropriate planning response

The key difference between my response to situations and anticipation of bad things today, compared to earlier in my career, is how appropriate my response is. The worrier in me historically treated everything as equally likely and requiring equal levels of attention (note, attention isn’t the same as response or mitigation!). And I got a reputation as a worrier. I’d bring up in meetings ‘what ifs’ and got a bit of a reputation (thankfully short-lived!) as a problem person!

I’ve now learned how to channel this anticipation and foresight into appropriate response and strategy development. How did I do that? By following these simple steps, which I use now on a nearly daily basis (mostly unconsciously!):

  1. List out the possible problems privately. If they are rattling around your head, get them down on paper/in a document. You don’t need to share this with anyone, but get them out of your head as this allows you to focus.
  2. Class the issues into three levels:
    • Which scenarios do you have zero control over both the event AND the outcome? Cross these off your list. If you have the type of brain that goes to ‘well the sun might not come up’, don’t beat yourself up (hey I’ve been there!), but instead recognise you have zero control and quite frankly the human race will have bigger issues that day!
    • Which scenarios do you have no control over happening (e.g. a worldwide pandemic, or a key team member breaking a leg and being out of work for 6 weeks) but you can control your teams/companies/products response? Mark these as scenarios to mitigate only.
    • Which scenarios do you have almost complete control over (e.g. delivering on SLA’s, finishing a product on time – yes you do have complete control, it’s just that curveballs come our way!). Mark these as areas to put in place mitigation, monitoring and adaptation.
  3. Identify actions that you could put in place with little/zero overhead that would help with handling possible negative scenarios. For example:
    • Do you need a decision making framework/committee? One of the things that made deciding to postpone my event easier was that we already had a framework for decision making, when things should be escalated to the board, such as financial implications, and how decisions were made including definitions of quorum and whether a simple majority of quorum was sufficient or more stringent criteria.
    • Limit liability. When appropriate be risk-averse. In general, never take on financial risks that you couldn’t get out of. This doesn’t always work, but whenever possible this is a great option. For example with an event, cancelling/postponement is expensive but make sure you have money in the bank to cover it, even if that will hurt. Take out insurance if appropriate.
    • Put in place monitoring. What can you do to identify that a scenario’s probability of occurrence has increased? For example, missing a product release deadline, that would impact customers, should become more obvious in the week’s leading up to the deadline if you are watching out for it. But all too often in organisations with poor communication and/or poor management, crises occur because the relevant groups weren’t aware of an increased risk in delivery failure. In a different scenario, what actions are you taking as something increases in probability to limit liability? Do you need to cut-costs somewhere? Do you need to postpone another activity to improve your team or business’ resilience should the worst-case scenario occur?
    • Create knowledge redundancy. All too often crises occur or are made worse because one person is too crucial to success. If you have a staff member who everyone else relies on for access, knowledge or something else, this is bad for business. Ask yourself: could we cope if this person got hit by a bus? It’s a horrible thing to ask, but prudent planning. Put in place processes to train up additional staff in all business-critical knowledge and activities. Document processes, even sensitive ones and make sure relevant groups know how to access these processes. Something as simple as ‘how to post on social media’ can make a huge difference in something as simple as what to do if your social media manager goes on long-term sick leave. But there are a large number of organisations, teams and groups who do not have such documentation in place.
    • Have knowledge and action escalation processes. Many companies have processes in place for escalating decision-making, but what about escalating actions and knowledge of processes? For example, if you an entrepreneur, if you were rushed into hospital (hopefully not!), who would be able to keep your clients happy and communicate with them? Do you have plans for refunds in case you are unable to deliver your commitments? Does someone other than you have the ability to find out who your clients are and issue those refunds, and do they have clear guidance they can look at for how to handle this? If you are team-leader does someone else know the full plan of action that your team is following? Would they know all the people in your calendar and how to handle those conversations/postpone them?

Handling the crisis

However, much mitigation you put in place, sometimes bad things just happen. How you handle such situations is the difference between a company, team and manager that has respect and sails through apparently only minimally impacted and those that are considered a liability and wouldn’t work with again. Good mitigation methods should already have limited the impact of the crisis and made it easier to adjust. But what can you do when the crisis hits?

  1. Be the voice of calm and reason. The number one thing I have learnt is to portray calm to those around me in a difficult and evolving situation. I sometimes will feel awful inside, even sick, but as far as the team knows I’m calm and everything is under control. This takes practice and self-control. I also personally need some sort of outlet which is typically a very close friend or family member unconnected with the unfolding events – but be careful of confidentiality, particularly to anything sensitive or subject to NDAs. If in doubt, pause. Unless the world will actually end, take 5-10 minutes or even a day to compose yourself before talking to your team. The improved calm in all of those around you will generate better decisions actions and outcomes that will be worth those extra minutes.
  2. As the situation develops, have a plan stashed away. Sometimes it may seem an overreaction to be planning for something that still seems unlikely. But as the likelihood of a bad scenario playing out increases, so should your planning activities. If this is going to cause issues with those around you, unless it is important to push for full-scale planning (go back to your risk assessment), then you might want to keep this private. This has proved beneficial to me many more times than I can count. I often enter crisis mode before others (partly because I see how the situation is really unfolding, and not everyone else does or has all the details) and previously I would have been accused of wasting time on planning for something that would never happen (and that would be conveniently forgotten when it did occur). But now, a very small amount of thinking over an issue can mean that when the crisis really hits I have a fully formed plan that I just need to tidy up. People are handled in the correct order, groups are notified and not missed, sensitive areas are prioritised and not forgotten, and generally, the crisis becomes a lot less serious. 
  3. During the crisis make handling and monitoring of the evolving situation your number one priority. This may hurt: you have to make up the loss of attention on other aspects of your work and make sure other things are not impacted, but with an evolving crisis you need to make sure you are responding to the most recent information. This might mean convening meetings with the relevant parties once or twice a day, writing reports to a board, and adjusting your recommendations. But don’t drop the ball until the crisis is fully handled, not just contained.
  4. Communication is key. We’ve all seen splashed across the news big crisis management failures from bad communication in big companies and governments. If you are at that level, you should probably be employing a crisis management professional! But on a small scale, communication is key. That doesn’t mean tell everyone everything, as much as I am a fan of transparency for building trust. But it does mean being open and honest whenever possible, and being prudent. Crisis management should always include a communication plan, whether that is informing customers, prioritising certain groups or just the agreed-upon language. If everyone involved knows they need to refer to the situation in a specific way you are less likely to have someone accidentally go off-script. Equally a communication plan should set out when certain announcements will be made. Remember that however loyal your team is, the information will get out! So if it is important to inform a key customer of a decision before others, have a strategy in your communication plan for keeping things under wraps until you are ready to have that conversation.  

Learning from a crisis

Once the crisis is over, great leaders learn. Hindsight really is a wonderful thing and makes us better leaders every day. So after the crisis assess what you could you have done differently to anticipate the crisis, have better foresight, have a better plan or handle it better next time? Is there a change you could implement right now? And finally, what do you need to do to bring your team along and believe in that change? 

In general, most crises can always be handled better with anticipation, foresight, realistic planning and calm. So stay calm, plan and then reflect.

If you want to hear more about being a leader in a crisis situation, join me for some Free Training over in the Leading Women in Tech Facebook Group.

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