Effective crisis management requires skills and knowledge that leaders are seldom called on to use. The best way to learn is from other leaders who have proven themselves more than capable of doing the right thing when emotions are high and lives are often at stake.
- Michael McCain, Maple Leaf Foods (listeria crisis)
- David Neeleman, JetBlue (1000 flights cancelled
- Calgary Mayor, Naheed Nenshi (summer of 2013 flooding)
- James E. Burke, Johnson and Johnson (tylenol crisis)
Here are the traits that every leader needs for effective crisis management.
- Learn the power of an apology. Leaders who manage a crisis well when everything is on the line, including perhaps their own careers, are heroes. They are values driven and trust the people around them to make decisions that are in the best interests of everyone. Last year, General Motors’ CEO Mary Barra did something courageous. When the company found out that 1.7 million GM cars had a defect that was responsible for more than a dozen deaths she issued an apology. In a filmed statement, in front of millions of viewers, Barra personally apologized, admitting, “Something went very wrong…and terrible things happened.” This may appear to be a small gesture, but apologies have power. Research shows when physicians apologize for medical errors, the dollars paid out in lawsuits are less or they’re dropped entirely.
- Get out there and communicate, communicate and then communicate more. An obvious one, but even so, why is it not always done well? Today, how quickly and effectively leaders communicate can make or break a crisis. The Market Basket supermarket chain with 74 stores along the U.S. eastern seaboard engaged in a horrific family feud last year that almost ended the company’s 98-year reign. Throughout, the CEO refused to engage with the public and explain to his employees or people who bought the products how they were working to resolve things. See how the CEO reacted (he went by the name “Arthur S.”) during his only media interview. “Would you please excuse me so I can go to work?” he said to reporter Byron Barnett before a meeting of the chain’s board. When Barnett asked whether Arthur S. wanted to deliver a message to employees and customers worried about the future of the company, he snapped. “I’m not gonna answer any questions,” he said. “You can ask as many as you want. I’m not gonna comment.”
- Be visible and physically present. A crisis is all about the people affected, whether that’s employees, neighbours, the larger community… Egos have no place in a crisis. For many leaders this means moving outside their comfort zones and engaging with people on a far more human level. Yes, there are some who already show up this way, but the reality is too many are still insulated from the day-to-day. Wise leaders rely on the people around them to give feedback, monitor the mood of how they’re showing up and then get out there.
- Let go of the leader and show the person. If there’s any trait that leaders forget in the heat of a crisis, it’s this one. Leaders who engage in effective crisis management understand one size does not fit all; to be a great leader you must assess each situation on its own merits and decide how you’ll adapt and respond. That doesn’t mean you come across as less than authentic — no, your values remain intact — but it does mean you are sensitive to your surroundings and what’s needed at that moment. A little humility helps and a lot goes a long way in mending relationships and starting the conversations needed to heal.
Leaders who are good at crisis management are willing to take calculated risks and act not for their own personal gain but because it’s the right thing to do for the company and their organization. They understand and accept the risk to their reputation of one wrong step or word. Once a crisis happens, one of the first risks is getting out information to interested parties before you have all the details. I cannot recall one crisis I have taken part in where all the information was neatly packaged and ready to go within the first hours of a crisis.
Sometimes it requires a leap of faith on the part of leaders to get only part of the story out there since the bigger risk is letting others fill the information vacuum.