IT SEEMS AS THOUGH over the past decade the business community has seen a spike in crisis-level events. Market volatility during and after 2008 financial crisis, cyber security vulnerabilities leading to massive data breaches, disruption caused by new technologies and changing consumer habits, and the variety of scandals stemming from the accelerated flow of information on social media – each of these factors has led one business leader or another to experience a unique situation – a crisis of epic proportions.
Whether the scale of the crisis is local or global, it is always instructive to take the perspective of both an insider and an outsider to consider why it arose and how it should be handled.
Paul Clayton, chief executive of Jamba Juice, said this about handling crises: “A leader’s responsibilities become infinitely more important... nothing defeats anxiety and fear like clarity and understanding.”
In fact, every business leader should make achieving clarity and understanding a top priority whenever disaster strikes. This is an essential first step, but to truly take charge, a leader has to go even further by mastering the four Cs: connect, command, compel and control.
Connecting well with stakeholders and the people affected is necessary to make them listen. It will then be possible to command the situation, get people to follow you, compel action and exert control so that everyone is prepared to move in the same direction.
Providing leadership during a crisis is never easy
The problems are often compounded by a lack of accurate information, which leads to general confusion and uncertainty. When nobody is sure of the right answers, emotions are heightened and people experience everything from shock and grief to anger and frustration. In these situations, the surest way for a leader to put the four Cs into effect is by communicating well. Here are seven steps to help get the message across in the right way.
Collect the known facts
Regardless of the situation, facts must be obtained, checked and separated from speculation or assumptions. People will accept that you won’t have all the answers when the crisis first occurs, but they will start to lose confidence if it becomes clear that you are unaware of the latest developments or not fast enough to respond.
Think about how people will react
Recognise that everyone has different priorities and that they may act very differently during a crisis. More specifically, consider how management, staff, customers, suppliers, shareholders and the government have different concerns. When thinking about various cases, it will quickly become apparent that a one-size-fits-all approach to communication rarely works. Take care to ensure that whatever you say or do addresses the needs and concerns of separate groups.
Set clear objectives
When things go wrong, too many leaders think the best approach is just to “get out there and start talking”. It is important not to waste time but decide on your objectives before you say anything. The best way is to ask yourself what you want to achieve, what people need to know, and what you will want them to do differently.
Draft the key points
Make sure there is a broad consensus among your advisers about what should be said and what to omit. At this stage, remember to keep notes for reference even if they are never used. The situation may change every hour, so keep a brief running record of what has happened. This will enable you to communicate clearly and concisely when the need arises. Concentrate on presenting the relevant facts persuasively and avoid making any comments that seem to distort facts.
Have an action plan
You should be thinking about when and how to make a statement. Consider the options and the timing, but do not procrastinate. Sometimes, mass distribution of a message via email creates the immediacy which a series of face-to-face meetings does not allow. However, always consider what is most appropriate before going ahead.
Do it right
This applies to a situation when you are actually meeting employees, talking to the press or speaking to the shareholders. Make sure you are in control of the situation and take care to dress in a way that creates the right impression. When you speak, modulate the tone of your voice to reflect the right degree of emotion and prepare adequately so that you are also ready to take questions. Don’t forget that the style of presentation can be as important as the words used.
Monitor and adjust
Managing a crisis is like trying to hit a moving target. New information comes in, the situation constantly changes and the unexpected continues to occur. However long this takes, keep monitoring your performance and listen to a trusted adviser who will tell you honestly how things are going. Be ready to adjust or completely change your approach if necessary. Remember that if people say you are doing badly, then you almost certainly are.
However quickly a crisis unfolds, it is vital to plan a strategy, even if only a few minutes are available. By doing this, you will be in a much better position to connect, command, compel and control. This will allow you to communicate effectively and show your true worth as a leader.
TIPS TO WIN
What not to do
There is no comprehensive list of things that should be avoided during a crisis but there are a few mistakes everyone can avoid. Do not hide in the corporate suite and do not rely on email to communicate either. Give people time to adjust to the new situation without trying to rush them back to a normal state. Moreover, don’t deal exclusively with the rational or emotional elements of the crisis. A balanced approach is needed. Make no assumptions about what is unknown and, even if you are scared or confused, don’t let it show. Let people see a leader who is decisive and in control.
What you can say
If it is necessary to say something without adequate time for preparation, you should still aim to command and compel. Certain phrases can be used, such as: “These are the facts as I know them”, “I can’t speak about the long term, but I can say that right now we will do the following”, and “We are a team and will face this together.”
What you should not say
Common sense dictates that in a crisis there are certain comments no leader should make. Unfortunately, not everyone avoids these pitfalls. So we still hear leaders vaguely promising that things will soon be back to normal, or claiming to know how everyone feels. They also mistakenly utter the old platitude about every crisis being an opportunity, or state that the best remedy is to ignore the crisis and concentrate on achieving this year’s numbers. A good leader should know better than to take this route.