1st May, 2020

Crisis leadership through the uncertainty of COVID-19

The crisis leadership strategies to implement right now in order to enhance your business’s future.

COVID-19 is unlike any health crisis the modern world has experienced. For many it means a bleak outlook and an uncertain future.

During a crisis like this, the first thing employees look for is a leader, someone who can offer stability and reassurance, lighting the way through the uncertainty even if the destination is anything but certain.

2020, the year of crisis leadership

“During a crisis, your goal is to reduce loss and keep things operating as normally as possible.”Gene Klann, author, Crisis Leadership.

You should be both leading and managing, addressing the urgent needs of the present, and allocating resources for future planning. Decisions need to be made fast and the pace is unrelenting.

So, is there a silver lining? Yes. As many leaders are tested – and fail – those who successfully navigate the storm will come out the other side with fewer competitors, a stronger team culture and a significant lead.

The things you do now will have lasting implications for your people and your business. Here’s how to get it right.

Effective crisis leadership strategies

Build trust with honest, authentic communication

When communicating with your people during a crisis, paint an honest and accurate picture of reality and be as clear as possible about what you need them to do, while delivering hope and inspiration.

Harvard Business Review suggests that the success of New Zealand’s four-level alert system can be put down, in part, to how the system was communicated.

Amid what was an ambiguous threat, the messages were explicit in instruction, but honest and compassionate in delivery.

“I understand that all of this rapid change creates anxiety and uncertainty, especially when it means changing how we live. That’s why today I am going to set out for you, as clearly as possible, what you can expect as we continue to fight the virus together.” – Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister, New Zealand.

On top of her press-room clarity and use of metaphor – as to when she asked people to stay in their ‘bubbles’ – Ardern also added a feeling of transparency and comradery with public question and answer sessions, streamed live on social media. H

er openness and an at-home personality that so closely matched the heavily scripted daily briefings brought authenticity to all communications from her camp.

Forget traditional business hierarchy

COVID-19 will mean you’re faced with making big decisions about unfamiliar problems. It can be hard – or impossible – for a small executive team to respond quickly and effectively. That might not be as big an issue as you think.

According to Forbes, many business leaders wrongly believe that in times of crises it’s their decision-making that creates change. McKinsey & Company adds that it’s actually a network of response teams that will ensure the business keeps ticking over. A leader’s role is to set clear goals and then model the behaviour that will achieve them.

So, use your people. Set clear response priorities, create teams with expertise from different areas, and empower them to create and implement solutions. Lead by example, encourage collaboration, and share information that will help teams make decisions faster.

Plan for the worst, hope for the best

While the priority for most is keeping the books out of the red and people in jobs, you must also think beyond the current emergency. What’s the plan for when this all comes to an end?

Chief executive and advisor, Michael Ilczynski, writes that, although businesses of all types and sizes have had very little time to react strategically, scenario planning will go a long way towards survival. 

“Given the massive variation in potential outcomes, the only way for leaders to navigate is to create and debate multiple, detailed scenarios. You must create multiple scenarios and not necessarily “pick one” to follow, but rather manage as much as you can for “all of them” until time passes, and certain scenarios either become more likely or fall away…”

Similarly, Harvard Business Review suggests that sustained scenario practice can make leaders more comfortable with ambiguity, helping them to prepare for futures that might happen, rather than just for the future they would like to create.

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Use technology to your advantage

At a time when working from home and physical distancing are the new norms, technology provides a much-needed lifeline for businesses. It enables productivity and connectivity and will be an important part of executing any crisis leadership strategy.

You can use tech to bring teams together, spot issues, create solutions and innovations, and extend your antennae of influence across the organisation.

Leverage technology to:

  • Boost trust, transparency, and authenticity. Use technology to convey messages through multiple channels – a single email won’t be enough. Get up to speed with new tools and platforms and set clear protocols for their use to support regular communication. Create engaging content to put where your workforce is – on social media platforms, not just in their inboxes. This is especially important for your younger workers, who have never before experienced an economic downturn of this magnitude.
  • Change your hierarchy. Cross-functional teams need access to real-time data if they’re to make agile and informed decisions. Technology enables that.
  • Increase efficiency. Create clear guidelines about what information is shared where, and how people can access it.
  • Aid scenario planning. Use scenario planning to drive IT strategy, focusing on the technologies and applications that will position the business to adapt quickly to any scenario.

General manager for Enterprise at MYOB, Kim Clarke said: “While there’s uncertainty around what the future will look like, we can be certain about one thing: the most essential element to any business now and next is to ensure you stay connected to your people and your people can stay connected to your business”.

“The businesses we have seen flourish have been able to harness their people and their business management software to pivot at pace,” said Clarke.

“A new bar has been set in terms what is expected for businesses and it is the responsibility of all business leaders to ensure they are equipped for this new future.

“Ensuring you have the right business management software is critical for business continuity.”

People will follow great leaders

This crisis requires a different strength of leadership. Focus on building a new level of trust within the organisation.

Be prepared for every possible scenario. Use the expertise of your workforce to discover new solutions and drive business forward, and leverage technology to maintain connections and productivity.

In these unprecedented times, a lot will be expected of leaders. There’s no way of knowing how long the repercussions of COVID-19 will last, or what the world will look like after we’ve beaten it. But if there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that what your people need most right now is a great leader.