The Calmest One in the Room

As a young manager, I was involved in a significant crisis which had the attention of not only the partners in the firm but also its CEO. I, like many of my cohorts, was nervous about the crisis, its impact on our clients, and my employment status at the firm. There was a very senior partner who was tasked by the CEO to assume responsibility for navigating the firm through the crisis. It took us a year to work our way out of the crisis; and we all learned some valuable nuggets. I thought I was a good leader before the crisis. Now I realize how naïve I was in my assessing my leadership skills. That experience, while excruciatingly painful, was an inflection point in putting me on the path to becoming a better leader.

As a result of this and other crises I’ve experienced, I’ve learned a number of very valuable tenets that I adhere to when in crisis mode, as follows:

  • A leader may not know all the steps to get out of a crisis, but he/she always focuses the team on the end game and what needs to be done next.
  • You’re most likely in least-worst alternative mode when evaluating crisis resolution alternatives. It’s not about the best alternative, but the alternative that represents the least amount of loss.
  • The leader’s demeanor will permeate the team. If a leader is nervous, the team will be nervous. If a leader is calm and focused, the team will be calm and focused (or at least less nervous).
  • Regular, concise, candid communication is paramount. When there are gaps in communication, team members and other stakeholders will write the script in their heads.

Time and time again I’ve seen crises separate great leaders from merely average leaders. If you want to be one who rises to the top of the leadership heap during a crisis, take note of the following tips:

  1. Acknowledge the crisis and its consequences – In the heat of a crisis there may be differing views on what the crisis is, whether or not it’s a true crisis, or the consequences of not addressing the crisis. Ensure there’s agreement to avoid the lingering question of what happens if the crisis isn’t addressed.
  2. Make sure the right people are working the crisis – Many crisis situations involve pulling people off existing work assignments to work the crisis. There will invariably be pushback, particularly if reassigning someone means another ball might be dropped. Remember, you’re working to the least-worst alternative, and while something else might slip, not addressing the crisis might be worse.
  3. Get concurrence on what success looks like – In the heat of a crisis the leader needs to ensure all the right stakeholders have a crisp understanding of what success looks like in addressing the crisis. The greatest success in most cases may mean returning to the status quo prior to the crisis, or to a state with the least amount of loss. Rarely will success mean an improvement to the status quo. It’s important to align everyone’s expectations of success.
  4. Drive what/who/when – It’s important to be very precise about what needs to be done, a named person (not TBD or team) accountable for delivery, and a specific date (and time depending on urgency) for completion. Keep a running list of actions, marking them as complete once done. It’s important for the team to see progress and also to highlight where some may be falling down on tasks.
  5. Use a calm, authoritative voice – I’ve done this many times during a crisis. When others are running around like headless chickens, a true leader maintains a calm, authoritative demeanor. Nervous team members will react positively to a leader who looks in control and demonstrates clear-headed thinking. Be cautious not to give the impression that you’re like “Nero fiddling while Rome burns.” Demonstrate appropriate urgency, just do it calmly and authoritatively.
  6. Replace nervous with focused – During a particularly large crisis where I was driving resolution, I had an executive ask me if I was nervous. I told him, “You pay me to be focused, not nervous.” I’ve heard many leaders through the years use the phrase, “I’m nervous about this” when faced with an uncomfortable situation. Followers don’t want to see you nervous; nervous people tend to do irrational things. Take the term nervous out of your vocabulary and replace it with focused.
  7. Secure the next reconvene to follow up on actions – As I said, a great leader always knows what to do next. Ensure there is a very timely follow-up where the team reconvenes to review actions and assess next steps. While the reconvene rhythm may change as the crisis is worked, there should always be a “Let’s meet up again at (date/time).”
  8. Set up a situation room – Designate a place either physically or virtually where people can go to see outstanding action items and team members can work (if appropriate). It’s also good for you as a leader to hang out in the situation room periodically to demonstrate to the rest of the team that you’re in it with them.
  9. Establish a regular, concise and candid communication rhythm – Depending on the pervasiveness of the crisis, ensure there is a communication plan of who needs to be informed, what they need to know, the frequency of communication. and the medium (email, meeting, etc.).
  10. Realistically inspire the team – In the early stages of a crisis, people need reassurance from the leader that they’ll get through the crisis. What’s important here is to be realistic in your reassurance. While there may be some carnage left in the crisis’ wake, acknowledge that things are going to be tough, but the team needs to stick together and work the problem. Inspire the team, but realistically acknowledge the situation.
  11. Solve the problem first, assess accountability for the problem later – When a crisis emerges, many will start finger-pointing at who they think is responsible. While it’s important to understand root causes of a problem and put things in place to avoid it happening later, wasting time pointing fingers while the crisis rages on is not the time to do it. Get clarity on the crisis, what success looks like, and what needs to be done first. Once the flames have subsided, focus on accountability and corrective actions.

Hey crises happen. Next time one rears its ugly head be the calmest one in the room and put these leadership actions in place to navigate through the crisis.