Providing business leadership is a challenge under the best of circumstances, but it is especially difficult in times of market and customer crises. That’s when you most need your team to be engaged and supportive, at a time when they may not fully understand the issues, and fear for their own future and well-being. Every case is a new one where prior experience won’t help you.
For example, the COVID-19 pandemic caught every company, large and small, off guard, and at least a third of small businesses did not survive. For most of the others, it was a crisis where business leaders were challenged like never before to rethink their business model, redefine their organizations, and reconnect with customers. Yet, we all know a few leaders who surged ahead.
I believe these are the ones who had the best handle on their value proposition, the best support from their team, and followed their moral compass, as outlined in a new book, “True North: Emerging Leader Edition,” by Bill George and Zach Clayton. Both authors have managed their own companies through multiple crises, and are graduates of the Harvard Business School.
Here are their recommendations, as well as my added insights, for developing your skills as a leader, in anticipation of the next business crisis coming your way:
Face reality, starting with your own contribution. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we all have weaknesses and biases. How long has it been since you looked in the mirror, and assessed how your actions may have contributed to a crisis? Do you take full responsibility, or did you tend to blame others or external factors for previous crises?
I always recommend that you start by counting your positives. Make a list of your strengths, the things you are good at, the values that you hold, and the accomplishments you’ve achieved. This will in turn will help you improve your focus on where to improve.
Always dig deep first for the real root cause. In my experience, many aspiring leaders are quick to attack the symptoms of a problem, rather than take the time to find the root cause. Fixing symptoms may be a quick fix, but it fails in the long run. You get to the root cause by collecting data, and continually asking “why” before implementing a solution.
Feedback from the field is that it usually takes five “whys” to get to the real root cause. No matter how much you think you know about a situation, you will be surprised by the added insights you can get by asking questions of your team and other constituents.
Engage frontline teams to decide on a solution. It’s amazing what you can learn from customer-facing teams in anticipating a crisis, and looking at solution alternatives. After all, they have to roll out and support any solution, and you all have to communicate the same message to the customer and marketplace. Make sure your team trusts you today.
Be proactive in responding to the next crisis. By being proactive in response rather than defensive, your leadership is confirmed rather than questioned. The actual crisis may potentially be minimized, and certainly should be leveraged into making your business and your leadership more effective and more visible in serving your customers.
Treat every crisis as a long-term change flag. In my experience, too many leaders start by treating every crisis as a momentary blip. The result is a minimal reaction by you, and things get worse. I recommend that you set out to over-react to even a small crisis and look for long-term implications that may lead you to a better response and presence.
In the spotlight, always follow your true values. Every crisis is an opportunity to highlight personal and company values that go beyond financial returns, and show that you are trustworthy and sensitive to customer and higher-level needs. Don’t be hesitant to admit mistakes, but show a real willingness to correct mistakes and improve the result.
Focus on winning now, and creating a long-term edge. Crises reveal your courage to your team and customers, in taking the bold steps needed to win. Courageous leaders don’t worry about looking good – they just want to incent the team to a win-win. Great leaders make every case a long-term win, rather than just mitigating short-term damage.
If you see yourself as an emerging business leader, I encourage you to test yourself in lower-stake situations to prepare for the greater challenges of a crisis. Practice the strategies outlined here to be better prepared not only to lead your team, but also have the courage to make the bold moves that will enable you to emerge as a winner when the time comes.
*** First published on Inc.com on 8/26/2022 ***
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