Leadership in Crisis
When we look around the world at the moment we see a variety of different style of leaders tackling the biggest crisis in a generation. What distinguishes the best from the average and worst?
There are a number of key attributes that distinguish a great leader during a crisis which I will talk about:
-Visibility, Communication, Decisiveness, Compassion, Collaboration and Adaptability.
On 17th August 1998 Russia went into crisis with the Ruble crashing, a number of western companies pulled the plug on Russia and retreated back to Europe with massive losses. John Mars paid a visit to the Mars office in Russia and said to the leadership team 'We are not pulling out, the Russian people have had faith in us and we must show faith in them' He told the team to 'figure out a way out of this crisis as we are here for the long term'.
The context is that the business was mainly selling chocolate bars - Snickers and Mars bars, not an essential product but one not usually effected by changes in economy, but unfortunately the biggest issue was that most of their distributers could not afford to buy the product off Mars due to the Ruble crashing, so Mars had no way to distribute the product.
What did they do? They showed compassion and took decisive action, as well as collaborating with their distributors. They allowed the distributors to have the product and let them pay once they had been paid by stores, keeping them viable. This not only resulted in sales for Mars but kept the distributors in business and long term resulted in a level of loyalty that means today Mars still have over 50% share of the chocolate market.
Closer to home, while I was at Delmaine as CEO, during the first Covid lockdown we had a lot of nervous people in the business. Information was changing all of the time, people saw panic on the news so what did I do:
Over-Communicate - During a crisis you cannot overcommunicate, things are changing all of the time and even if you don't have anything new to say, you can keep reiterating the focus, what's been done and what the focus is. Without information your team will fill the gap with rumours. I communicated daily to everyone, even getting peoples' personal emails to ensure everyone got first hand information, as we could not do big townhall sessions.
I kept the communication short and sharp and to the point, but I was very clear what the leadership team would be doing and what I expected of everyone.
Be Visible - I spent time walking around the factory, connecting with sales staff around the country to be available for questions and to check in with them to see how they were feeling. There are a lot of things your staff won't raise with you in a group but will raise with you one on one when you ask 'How can I help you?' or 'What concerns do you have?'
Like talking to my teenage son, how you frame your questions is essentially; 'How are you?'
response 'I'm good' versus 'What are you worried about/What frustrations do you have/What one thing can I do to help you feel safer'
Talking to people also gives you the pulse of the business, you will be able to see the body language versus what people are saying and you will also generally know which of your staff are more outspoken and they will be the ones that amplify the concerns.
Show Compassion - I had a lady in the lab come up to me and was obviously very worried. She has a husband who was in the 'at risk' category and worried that her being at work was going to put him at risk. I listened carefully to her and reassured her that she was safe at work and we will do everything we good to maintain that safety at work through putting in place clear processes and reassured her that if there was any risk to anyone at work we would put their health first and the business second, which we did.
Decisiveness and adaptability go together - You don't have all the information you need in a crisis but you need to take the time to get enough information and then make the best decision you can as a team. It is important to have a diverse group of people to help make the best decision, I invited in the head of Quality as she had some expertise that would be useful in the covid crisis. We had to constantly review the information and changes from government sources and decide if anything changed. It is important for the leader to listen to all voices and ensure that everyone feels heard and that the team are aligned. The leader should not feel they have to make the decision and play the 'hero leader'. It is about being real not right. The leader needs to be a great questioner to ensure that all the relevant questions have been asked before making a decision.
Collaboration is also a great skill to have, not only internally in your business but externally and Covid showed this perfectly. With every business going through the same thing why reinvent the wheel. I reached out to others I knew in the FGC and also offered our solutions to others. Anything you can do to take work out of the system during a crisis means you are more focused on your people and what you need to do, not spending all of your time doing.
I think the other big thing that comes through during a crisis is humility, the leader does not have to have all the answers, or any in fact. The leader just needs to bring the right people together and create the environment where the best answer at the time will emerge.