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What good business leadership looks like when crisis strikes – an expert weighs in

Marvin Washington, Associate Dean of Executive Education and Professor at the Alberta School of Business, outlines some essential tenets of crisis leadership.

The path to becoming a strong business leader is long and winding but, in a crisis, it can veer into the unknown. Responsibility magnifies. Demands heighten. Employees search for direction and clarity. A crisis renders the day-to-day as anything but business as usual. The good news is that there are practical ways leaders can simultaneously maintain the strength of their business and provide effective guidance for their employees.


Plan to manage the rapid flow of information

When crisis hit in the past, information used to move slowly. Few updates were available until details were confirmed. Crisis management meant addressing known variables, making careful considerations and taking one deliberate step at a time. In today’s age of social media and short news cycles, information churns rapidly and thus requires a very different response.

“You have to move faster than the speed of information,” says Marvin Washington, Associate Dean of Executive Education and Professor of Strategic Management and Organization at the University of Alberta’s School of Business. “But leaders need to anticipate what’s ahead. They have to be composed and convey assuredness when talking to employees, who will be coping with heightened emotions.”

One of the earliest decisions that leaders must make in a crisis is their communication strategy. Inconsistent or conflicting messages from leadership may lead to rumours, uncertainty, reduced morale and lesser productivity. “As a leader, you have to be clear on what you’re communicating. What’s your communication chain? How are you sharing information? Information needs to be consolidated.”


Seek outsourced support where ability is limited

Challenges in crisis can produce emotional turmoil for leadership and, when that turmoil combines with financial stress, the team environment may suffer. While larger businesses are more likely to have tools and technology in place to support staff members, small- and medium-sized business might need to look externally. Consider outsourcing certain functions to experts, including those that specialize in workplace technology and employee mental wellness. “You might not have the skill set [for all parts of a crisis],” Marvin adds, “but these resources are crucial for helping your staff cope.”

Outsourcing digital technology can assist leaders with an element of crisis management that is especially important: visible presence. Marvin notes that it’s important for leaders to be seen and heard. When it’s not physically possible – for example, in remote work setups – online communication tools like Skype or Google Hangouts enable leadership to connect with teams in a more direct and personal way.

Even when digital tools are the only available mode, Marvin recommends that leaders work to maintain one-on-one meetings with employees to maintain trust and transparent communication. “We need more connection in times of stress,” he states, giving a nod to the sense of presence and ‘coming together’ these tools convey. “Meetings may not necessarily have a formal agenda, but they can serve as a quick check-in with casual conversation to see how everyone is doing.”


Be ready to adapt your business – and quickly

When a crisis unfolds, it can be tempting to carry on with business as usual for the sake of consistency. However, it is important that leaders move quickly to shift operations and priorities. “Organizations have to adjust from leading in normal times to leading during a crisis,” Marvin states. “The sooner you can pivot to leading in a crisis, the sooner you can pivot towards leading out of that crisis.”

When times become uncertain, leaders need to ask themselves what the new normal is — at an individual, team and business level. “You see so many great examples of businesses starting to adapt in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he says. “Clothing companies that never made hospital clothes are now starting to produce them. Why? We have the technology, and the business moved quickly.” Indeed, the quickness with which leaders move to adapt business operations may be the most critical success factor in a crisis.


Be flexible in adapting your strategies

Leaders must make quick business decisions in crisis, but they also must balance the short- and long-term impact of those decisions. “You will need flexible strategies,” Marvin says. “If I’m a business leader, I probably have a traditional business development strategy. I would stop and think if I need to employ additional tools. I would need to develop fresh strategies to find new business, because the old way of developing business might not be there when things return to normal.” He looks to companies like Airbnb and Uber who found success as economies emerged from recession. He attributes that success to how they recognized aspects of their business models that did not work, while seizing an opportunity to innovate and adjust their strategies for a new environment.

To move forward, leaders must be willing to heighten their emotional self-awareness. Marvin sees this trait as a critical factor in a leader’s effective response to employees asking for extra support or guidance. “Soft skills in leadership — calmness, integrity, honesty — is what employees need right now,” he emphasizes. “There is so much information out there, and your team may not know how to make sense of it. They’re looking to their leader to help them understand what is and is not valuable. They’re not looking for a leader who has all the answers, because no one has all the answers. But they do want to know that their leader cares about them.”