Let’s imagine that you have agreed, as an interim appointment, to assume control of a company. The CEO has unexpectedly been removed due to death, infirmity, or board action. There remain, in the executive suite, two senior VPs with opposing agendas, and four VPs — one of whom is the CEO’s daughter. You’ve agreed to help the company ride out the transition of leadership to an as-yet unnamed successor.
What’s your first step?
During a former disaster management career path — (1) as director of an emergency disaster services response unit; (2) while working as a police crisis interventionist; and (3) as supervisor of a child protection intake unit — I’ve helped manage numerous true life-or-death crisis situations. This is what I know, from those experiences and from owning and managing businesses as well: Strong crisis leadership means providing capable servant leadership in the role of “change agent”.
Your first challenge is crisis response, followed by collateral damage control. Help others get past the immediate situation by illuminating a path to more secure ground. It need not be the final destination – think of it as a “safe zone” where you can reconnoiter. Help bystanders (i.e., those lacking CEO authority to lead) to get beyond their own initial fight/flight response, mobilizing them instead to move in concert with you toward an immediate, definable goal.
As Churchill wisely noted, when you’re going through hell, it’s best to keep on going. During times of crisis, people will mirror the behavior of other people most obviously “in charge”. In a domestic terror situation like in Boston, it meant mimicking the actions of people wearing uniforms, military gear, medical insignias and/or race official badges. We witnessed heroic leadership: well-trained professionals set aside their own horror and fear to quickly and calmly respond to victims. Bystanders immediately followed that lead and moved toward the epicenter of the disaster as well, where they were nimbly directed in helping to quickly clear the scene. Even news broadcasters commented on the amazing lack of hysteria.
Your hypothetical situation is not as dire or as clearly defined as a “disaster”. In a corporate setting, it isn’t apparel, but rather title that identifies assigned leaders. But do you have your own fight/flight impulses pushed down? Are you up to the task of leading those bystanders out of the epicenter and toward the best outcome? Crisis management resembles coaching. There is one coach, aided by assistant coaches with specialized and clearly delineated areas of responsibility. Or, if you prefer, liken your role to military leadership with a clear chain of command. In this scenario, you are the field general.
Here are the qualities of a great coach or field general:
1. Compose yourself. Set aside apprehension. Believe you can do this.
2. Think triage. Followers need a clear vision of what the next step(s) should be.
3. Leadership ≠ Arrogance. Remain open to information channels, establish advisory groups, and delegate.
4. Don’t get caught up in analysis paralysis. Give clear instructions for who will do what, and when.
5. Communicate collateral compassion for every stakeholder. Authentic empathy will help establish you as a leader that others are willing to follow.
In the scenario put to you, who is closest to the crisis epicenter? Triage your VPs first. Listen to their fears, frustrations and hopes for the new order, and then explain how they can advise and/or assist you during the interim period where (state this aloud to each one): “I was hired to set direction and facilitate leadership transfer.” You must claim (and they must acknowledge) your purpose and authority.
Then, you need to fully understand and ratify or change all previous assignments. Will the status quo be maintained, based on the best interest of the company at this juncture, or will there be infrastructure changes? Take advantage of their insights; they are your authentic advisors, as are your board of directors, line staff and customer base.
Once you have an understanding of the company and its complexities, mission, and sacred cows, you can begin delegating responsibilities and working as a team to realize a shared vision.
Join us next week when we’ll tackle another business challenge. Meanwhile, do you have a topic you’d like to discuss? Submit your suggestion now!