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It Takes a Team to Manage a Crisis

When hiring a CEO or senior leaders for a company, one of the components that certainly should be factored into the decision should be the candidate’s leadership skills, which might include experience in successfully managing a major crisis. Unfortunately, it may be that candidates for the position never acquired that experience. Sure, they might have gone through a difficult product dilemma, or dealt with a significant employee issue. But, it is possible that a major event that threatens the life of an organization is one area where the seasoned executive has not “checked that box”. Should that preclude a candidate from the top job? Not necessarily. A recent Washington Post opinion piece applied the same consideration to the 2016 US presidential election. The thought is that when potential candidates take the stage for a debate, the canned and well-practiced answers might not tell us what we need to know: can the candidate handle and lead in a crisis? Throwing a crisis simulation at the candidates to test their mettle might be a good idea. Although the idea has merit, we understand the realities that drive such an exercise might preclude such an entertaining wrestling match. The same would hold true when a company hires a CEO or other senior leaders. Among candidates, there could be a corporate executive who has demonstrated leadership and managed an organization during a high profile case. The selection committee could hire that person, but they most likely have other important criteria at the top of their list. After all, crises are rare events. The financial bottom line and delivering strong performance, for example, might trump crisis leadership when hiring for the job. We understand that employees, including senior leaders, can’t be all things to all people. And, we know that high-performing teams are the way to optimize organizational performance. Recognizing that ill-prepared executives might need to lead the team during a crisis, their ability to make critical decisions under pressure will be crucial to surviving the crisis. The best crisis teams are made on the basis of suitability and not functionality alone. Thus, the CEO or team leader will need to assemble the best-prepared team to handle the crisis. The CEO/Leader will need to provide the crucial capability he was hired for: leadership. However, organizational leadership is not the same as crisis leadership. Crisis leadership competencies such as remaining calm under pressure, situation analysis, sense-making and time-sensitive decision-making, to name a few, will be critical. Simply put, all team members will need to possess and exhibit the same characteristics if they are to steer their organization through a crisis and protect reputation.

An example that springs to mind is one I was involved with at Boeing. During the 787 battery crisis in 2013, when the global 787 fleet was grounded and urgent efforts were underway to return the fleet to service for our airline customers like All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines and others, our communications and marketing team worked tirelessly for months to help bolster the reputation of Boeing.

As a leader during that effort, I saw an opportunity to pull in Communications and Marketing teammates well beyond those with an active role. They were given a chance to benefit from the experience and to be proximate to the challenge of managing the crisis. The rationale made sense given that the team was sure to experience some burnout, and we needed fresh people with energy and good ideas. Furthermore, we needed them to get the experience because the skills developed would serve them, and the company, well in the future. However, one may not always have the luxury of bringing in less experienced people onto the team during an actual crisis. Therefore, regular crisis simulation exercises are a powerful tool for management teams to enhance their leadership skills. It is very clear that management teams should not be “rookies” in handling a crisis. Business experience and expertise does not by default make for inspirational leaders or competent crisis managers. Developing a sound methodology for building practice into the business to ensure the right mind-set and reflexes, at the top as well as throughout the organization, is the key to successful execution and survival during an organizational disaster. Get in touch if you would like to find out how CS&A can enhance your team’s crisis leadership capabilities.

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