If uncertainty is the new certainty, then leaders must prepare for it, and not just for external crises that are the equivalent of a meteor strike that affects everyone, like Covid-19.
Over the course of a long career, leaders can expect to face several crises that are specific to their organization, division, or team. Hackers may expose sensitive customer data. A software glitch could lead to safety hazards. A factory accident may injure employees and halt important production.
A single employee’s tweet could escalate into a social media backlash that damages the reputation of your organization. For all leaders, there is simply more to worry about, particularly as the lines between work and life have blurred, with corporations, rather than government, facing greater expectations to right more of society’s wrongs.
If you’ve established a simple plan, fostered a strong culture, developed a cohesive team, and built an ecosystem to ensure you’re hearing important signals, you’re much more likely to better weather the next crisis.
The middle of a crisis is not the time to start working on those foundations. Because when you’re under tremendous pressure, with knots in your stomach that make clear thinking a challenge, you need to rely on muscle memory to navigate the crisis. Your team will be looking to you, as the leader, to be calm, confident, and credible, and you cannot fake those qualities....
The path forward will not be smooth, and it will be different for every organization and every industry. These existential questions about permanent changes to the way we live have made this crisis overwhelmingly difficult for so many leaders. In addition to trying to protect the viability of their business, they must now also worry about the mental health strain on employees who have been forced to work at home.
Yet, for all the uncertainty and breadth and depth of the pain that the pandemic has caused, there are aspects of this pandemic that present a more straightforward leadership challenge than a crisis that is unique to your organization.
Show up and be human
Surprisingly, not every leader shows up when a crisis hits, particularly when the time comes to make painful cost cuts (which Covid-19 has forced on many companies). David Reimer, CEO at Merryck, spent a dozen years earlier in his career at Drake Beam Morin, a consulting firm that helps companies with restructurings and layoffs. Most leaders retreated to the shadows during moments of crisis, he said.
They’d make an announcement about a restructuring, but then vanish from the internal spotlight for a while. Then there were CEOs who were pretty good about at least getting the message out on a regular basis through town halls. But they also stayed at arm’s length, particularly once they’d announced a layoff. And then there were CEOs who would actually check on the people who’d been laid off to see how they were doing. So with some CEOs, their stated values literally didn’t end with your layoff notice, to some degree....
Leaders need to be more visible than usual during times of crisis, because they need to set the tone through their words, deeds, and body language. Even in more stable times, leaders are always “over-read,” meaning their employees analyze every furrowed brow, hunched shoulder, or stray comment for hidden meaning. But leaders can also use that scrutiny to send clear signals that any cuts are being made with a deep appreciation of their emotional and financial toll on the people they are letting go.
For example, Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott International, won widespread admiration for an emotional six-minute video he posted in March 2020 in which he talked about the steep losses the company was suffering (he explained that he would be forgoing his salary for the balance of the year, and that his executive team’s pay was being cut by 50 percent).
He acknowledged that his team had misgivings about him delivering the message on video, where everybody could see the effects of his treatments for pancreatic cancer, including his “new bald look,” as he said, and weight loss that made his suit look a couple of sizes too big.
“I can tell you that I have never had a more difficult moment than this one,” Sorenson says into the camera, visibly choking up. “There is simply nothing worse than telling highly valued associates—people who are the very heart of this company—that their roles are being impacted by events completely outside of their control.”1
Employees want a confident leader, but they also want to see their human side.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from The CEO Test: Master the Challenges That Make or Break All Leaders by Adam Bryant and Kevin W. Sharer. Copyright 2021 Adam Grant. All rights reserved.