Keep Calm and Lead On

Leadership is taking an organization on a journey toward a future envisioned state.  Leaders need to be careful how they react when the organization runs into trouble, so that they overcome the difficulties and can resume their journey. The news is littered with stories about organizations that were unable to address bad situations in a calm, well thought-out manner.  In those cases, the organization suffered, either short or long term damage, as a result.

In the Not for Profit world, contributors are easily swayed by signs of trouble in an organization.  As leaders, it is our responsibility to work proactively to avoid crises and to prepare for when trouble strikes. NFP leaders and Boards should be proactively addressing crisis management.

Someone much smarter than me once told me, “Act boldly and passionately in pursuing opportunities, but be calm during a crisis.”  That advice has stuck with me and I hope it will stick with you.

Below are some suggestions to help you Keep Calm and Lead On when crises occur. These suggestions work for any style of emergency, such as a weather disaster, an accident, a cyber-attack, or a major service delivery issue.  Don’t forget that crises can impact your organization directly or indirectly, for example, if there is a major disaster impacting your clients, so you must be ready in either case.

What to Do:

  • Before (Planning)
    • Be prepared – establish contingency and crisis plans, business continuity, disaster recovery and back to work scenarios, along with internal and external communications plans. The scale, scope, width and breadth of these documents should be determined by your Risk Management Plan.
    • Select a recovery Program Manager – Identify one strong individual to lead the crisis response. This person must know the plan and have the authority to enact the plan.
    • Select a Decision-making Process – if the crisis causes a key decision maker (or several) to be unavailable, there must be some plan for continuity. This process should identify delegates or define situations for Board involvement, such as an executive committee.
    • Establish a comprehensive Communication Plan – so important, I’m mentioning it again. Always have up to date contact lists, internal and external communications policies, contact plans, some type of emergency notification process via internet/email or phone.
    • Design a Test Plan and review plan with leadership and Board, run periodic tests and review results with leadership and Board. Make necessary adjustments.
  • During (Acting)
    • Ensure safety. If the crisis represents a danger to staff, make sure everyone is accounted for and is out of harm’s way.
    • Don’t panic. Activate the recovery plan and support your crisis program manager completely.
    • Focus on the problem Whatever the issue, work to address the immediate contributing cause.  There will be time later for a deeper investigation of root causes.
    • Look for best actionable short term solution available – a crisis is likely not the best time for an all-encompassing long term fix, so think “triage” in the immediate timeframe
    • Execute – in some cases, crises give folks pause and no one pulls the trigger on the solution at hand.
    • Maintain control over communications and follow the plan. Try to find the balance between saying too much too soon and saying not enough or waiting too long. Keep communications simple and on point.
    • As a leader, all this must be done calmly.  It is crucial at times of crisis for you to act as if you know exactly what you are doing. You can seek input, but you must lead discussions purposefully toward resolution and then get behind the solution fully.  No space here for second guessing and extended pondering.
  • After (Listen, Learn and Improve)
    • Debrief, Discuss and Document what worked and what didn’t work in the crisis process (you’ll need it again someday)
    • Find the longer-term solution, if initial solution is not permanent
    • Recognize staff efforts
    • Identify root causes and initiate changes needed to avoid issue in future
    • After action communications – coordinate internal and external messaging, as well as, any continuing follow up needed.

What Not to Do:

  • Focus on blame at any point in the process
  • Adopt the “Why did this happen to me?” mindset
  • Concentrate too long on finding the cause. Solve the problem at hand and conduct deeper analysis after resolving the immediate crisis. (Unless solving the crisis requires determining the full root cause, then that is the problem to focus on)
  • Show panic and/or uncertainty to staff
  • Sugarcoat or cover up
  • Wait too long for communications

Wrap up

Keeping calm in a crisis is a challenge for any leader.  The keys to effectively leading through a crisis include; preparation, focusing on the solution, guiding your organization toward that solution and learning from the process. Have a plan and conduct yourself with a determined, unshaken manner. Lead your organization through adversity. Crisis preparation is not a normal operational task in most organizations. It should be!  Boards and management should discuss crisis management on a regular basis to avoid turmoil and long lasting negative impacts.

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