Real Leaders

5 Ways Real Leaders Act When a Crisis Hits

SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 24: Mark Cuban attends the 2019 NBA Awards at Barker Hangar on June 24, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)

“How companies respond will define their brand for decades.” — Mark Cuban

Whether responding to an international, national, local, or company-specific crisis, positive influence role models are a powerful force for showing us how to do things “the right way.” They provide an example from which we can learn how to be successful. 

You may choose to emulate a person you admire closely; however, you can also benefit by extracting certain traits and integrating them with your unique style. To be a positive influence role model, follow these five actions

1. Be Open and Authentic

At the outset of a crisis, you don’t want either your customers or your employees to worry, and there may be a tendency to minimize or sugarcoat the truth. It’s also possible that you don’t have complete information. However, the worse thing you can do is deny, deceive or deflect — this opens the door for rumors and distractions.  

Be honest and say something like, “this is what we know as of this moment, but the situation is fluid, and things may change. However, as soon as I know, you will know.”  

The textbook case of how to handle a corporate crisis is the 1982 Tylenol tampering episode in which seven people died in Illinois after taking the pain-killer. Johnson & Johnson, the maker of Tylenol, relied on their corporate credo that clearly states, “our first responsibility is to our patients, doctors, and nurses, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.” 

As a result, they quickly took responsibility by withdrawing the product from the market, halting further production, and offering to refund or exchange the capsules for solid tablets. Later it was found that some of the product was poisoned after it reached Chicago and then sold to unsuspecting customers. In the end, J&J, and specifically CEO James Burke, was applauded for their quick and candid response to the crisis. As a result, Tylenol ultimately regained most of its previous market share.

Transparency builds trust and loyalty. Trust is the cornerstone of authenticity, a hallmark of the decisive influence role model leader. People — both employees and customers — will follow you if they see you as the real deal.

2. Be Clear and Specific   

In the current corona crisis, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has become familiar to millions of Americans and is universally seen as a calm and constant voice of reason. Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), has been involved in every epidemic in the past 40 years, including HIV/AIDS and Ebola. However, he can clearly explain complex scientific and arcane medical issues and make them easily understood by the general public that has made him a great example of a positive influence role model leader.  

Colleagues and employees are listening carefully to what you say and how you say it. Avoid minimizing a situation or being overly optimistic. Speak your truth clearly and precisely. As Mark Twain once said, “tell the truth, and you never have to remember anything.”

3. Listen, Ask Questions, Listen Some More, and Respond

In a crisis (and during regular times, as well) positive influence role models are open and accessible to their team — and they listen. They listen to people’s concerns, both technical and emotional.  

Companies are holding regular all-hands videoconference meetings where employees can ask questions and discuss their concerns about how to balance work-family issues during the crisis. A few organizations are also ending the week with a virtual happy hour where team members can share lighthearted stories about their work-at-home experiences.  

Who listens also learn ideas from employees on how to work smarter and create work processes that increase efficiency and effectiveness. When leaders are open, and accessible employees eagerly provide insights into both the degree and elements of customer satisfaction. 

Most effective positive influence role models not only listen, but they respond with plans to implement these ideas. As a result, companies with a culture of positive influence role models typically emerge from a crisis in a much stronger position.   

4. Walk the Talk  

Models or, more specifically, the most successful positive influence role models are well aware that people are watching. In this context, it is axiomatic that if, for example, you want members of your team to provide extraordinary customer service during a crisis (and beyond), then all of your customer interactions must meet or exceed that same elevated standard. 

At the top of the house can set the standard by being a role model who walks the talk. Such was the more recent case of Kevin Johnson, Starbucks CEO when he found the company in the eye of a negative storm because two African American men were arrested in one of their shops in Philadelphia for no apparent reason. Relying on the company’s top corporate value of “creating a culture of warmth and belonging where everyone is welcome,” Johnson quickly apologized to the men and the nation. Within a week, Starbucks announced that it would close all its 8,000 stores for an afternoon to provide staff training on implicit bias and ways of ensuring that everyone feels safe and welcome in their stores. 

Statements look good framed and hung in corporate conference rooms, but they only come alive when customers and employees see you “live those values” through your actions. In other words — when you walk the talk.  

5. Conduct an After-Action Review

When the crisis is over, there is a strong tendency to quickly get back to business as usual or the way things were before the crisis. However, the most effective positive influence leaders take some time to review and learn from the experience. You can call it an evaluation session, an assessment, or a more formal after-action review. The simple facts are:

  • There may be another crisis in the future, and you’d like to learn how to handle it better.
  • It’s entirely possible that things have changed as a result of the crisis, and it is not possible to return to business as usual. For example, some customers are no longer able or willing to buy a product or service.

You may have done some new things during the crisis that you now want to integrate into regular business operations going forward. For example, you find that video conferencing works well for many meetings and, therefore, you will reduce or eliminate a large number of face-to-face meetings. You may use a different language, but most project reviews focus on:

  • What was our goal(s)?
  • What happened/What did we do?
  • What worked? Why?
  • What didn’t work? Why?
  • What should we do differently next time?

In times of crisis, the decisive role model leader can be a powerful force that encourages you to think outside of the box and not limit your options to the conventional ways of doing things. During this period, they are open, honest, transparent, and specific. They do not sugarcoat the harsh realities of the situation, but they also create a participatory process that includes lots of questions and an equal amount of listening. 

Perhaps most important, they “walk the talk” and thus ensure their actions are always consistent with their words.

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