16 steps to manage a major crisis / disaster - Leadership Tools, Risks and Ethics

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“Singleness of purpose is one of the chief essentials for success in life”  John D Rockefeller 1839-1977

All large businesses get hit by crises on a regular basis - and they all affect reputation.  It is a fact of life. And the larger the organisation, the more frequently they happen.  

Every employee is an ethical risk of some kind, every product, operation, factory or supply chain can have its own set of dangers.  

Every large business unit will contain hundreds of risks. Combinations of risks are far more common than most people imagine.  

Risk management means taking steps to reduce impact of future events, contingency planning, thinking ahead, being fully prepared for major shocks which can unfold at colossal speed - faster than you can hold a board meeting or prepare a crisis plan.

A crisis provides an ideal opportunity to re-focus on what you are doing across the busines.

Here are 16 steps to take when crisis occurs:

1. Discuss with your assembled senior team – take your time and tell the whole truth to the whole team, as far as you are able: what the crisis is, why it happened, why it really does matter, and what steps are already being taken to try to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

If you want people to make a big effort then they will want to know all the reasons for the crisis.  Allow other team members to fill in the details. You need the most accurate picture possible, but you may have to take immediate action before all facts are known.

2. If mistakes have been made, talk about them, and accept your fair share of responsibility.  If you lead the organisation, it is no good pointing the finger entirely at others, when the situation has been compounded by decisions taken by people inside the organisation, or by attitudes / cultural issues in different teams or business units. People who ultimately report to you.  

Be careful not to make a knee-jerk reaction - for example you may be under pressure to point the finger of blame, and fire the very people you really need right now to help sort things out, especially in a highly specialised operation where they may have unique insights and knowledge. You may have difficult decisions to take later on about who leaves the organisation, but the worst time to sack senior people can be in the middle of a major crisis.

3. Be careful and precise: Sometimes it is hard or impossible to reveal the whole situation at the time - for example there may be legal or regulatory constraints on you doing so for various reasons.  There may be sensitive or confidential human resource issues involved.  

However, many leaders drift too far into secrecy - partly perhaps out of insecurity about how the crisis news will be understood. Maybe they fear being blamed, or are concerned about feeding discontent generally.

4. Be courageous: Leaders often reveal their true weakness or strength at such a time:  strong leaders are able to share at times of relative vulnerabilty, while weak leaders hold back.  They also reveal at such times, in how they communicate, what they really think about their own leadership teams, and may reveal their own lack of confidence in handling the situation.

5. Win trust: Bring your senior team into your thinking, so they begin to see and feel themselves what you are seeing and feeling.  Share with them personally how you view the situation, your hopes and your fears.  As you honour them with your disclosures, they will feel closer to you. 

If you keep them isolated, you may win a little time in one way, but erode their response time dangerously later on when they discover the truth - and if they feel they have been kept in the dark you may well damage their trust and respect. 

After all, when they next see you smiling and cheerful around the office, they will know that there could well be once again a dark secret that you are carrying, from which they have been excluded.  They may never trust you fully again.

6. Make yourself vulnerable: let them see how passionately you feel, how upset you are about what has happened or is happening, and how distressed you will be if the crisis continues, how determined you are to do all you can to put things right rapidly.  Explain if few resources are available to throw at the problem – help people understand why, and what the options are.

7. Make your team feel important: honour them with your affirmation, praise and confidence in their abilities.  Let them know (again) just how important they are to you and how you believe they can have a real impact, working closely together to resolve the situation.  

Too often a crisis leads to back-biting, negative comments, team conflicts - teams can only deal with a crisis by committing to work together.  Sorting out culpability can come later.

8. Ask them for ideas: If you have done the above correctly, you will very soon be rewarded with a flood of new practical ideas. Your team’s greatest initial contribution may be insight rather than action.  

This stage is critical to encourage ownership by the team as a whole.  Make sure you include speclialist advisors in this process.  Teams can be dangerously narrow in view if they have been together a long time.

9. Be clear and fast about communication to others beyong the senior team, when, and by whom.  Bad news can travel at the speed of light so do not delay communication without very good reason, or you may find your story is being told for the first time (in a distorted way) by others in social media, and you rapidly lose control.  

Far better to be risk earlier communication, than to risk playing catchup in the media and on social networks.  This is especially true if the story is likely to attract negative media attention about the company.

10. Create a crisis management team with clear terms of reference and re-allocate day to day responsibilities to allow full attention to be given - and chair every meeting, with formal minutes of decisions taken, as well as why.

11. Give strong backing to the whole senior team as they begin to shoulder their new burden:  they need to know they will have your full blessing and support for their best ideas, for team decisions taken, for risks taken to sort things out rapidly, when the flack starts flying around as it surely will once they get going.

12. Lead by example: Pull your weight in making all this happen.  Model the kinds of behaviours you need from the team as a whole.

13. Encourage each team member to mobilise as many others as possible, using a similar approach, and well-focussed step-like objectives. Large tasks happen quickly when other teams come and help.

14. Follow through with regular updates on the situation plus feedback sessions to monitor progress, review strategy and fine-tune decisions, are vital in keeping teams focussed on urgent tasks.

15. Celebrate every achievement: Most crises are solved in many small steps, in sequence or parallel.  Make sure there are “early wins”, celebrate them, honour those who had the idea, took initiative to make it happen.

16.  Learn the lessons:  And when the dust settles, take a deep, hard look at how the crisis happened, to learn the lessons and create a stronger organisation for the future.

The crisis may have been caused by events that were completely external to your team or your entire corporation, but did we respond perfectly? Could we have handled things differently.

* Adapted from Building a Better Business book by Patrick Dixon, advisor to many large multinationals on issues such as leadership, global trends and change.



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