Securing business leadership is a challenge under the best of circumstances, but it is especially difficult in times of market and customer crises. This is 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 future and well-being. Each case is a new case where previous experience will not help you.
For example, the Covid-19 pandemic caught every company, large and small, insecure and at least a third of small businesses did not survive. For most 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. However, we all know some leaders who came forward.
I believe these are the ones who have handled their value proposition the best, the best support from their team, and followed their moral compass, as described in a new book, True North: Emerging Leader Edition, by Bill George and Zach Clayton. Both authors have managed their companies through multiple crises and are graduates of Harvard Business School.
Here are their recommendations, as well as my added knowledge, for developing your leadership skills in anticipation of the next business crisis that comes your way:
1. Face reality, starting with your 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 have you tried to blame others or external factors for past 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 you hold, and the accomplishments you have achieved. This in turn will help you hone your focus on where to improve.
2. 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 taking 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 gathering data and repeatedly 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’ll be surprised at the added knowledge you can gain by asking questions of your team and other constituents.
3. 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 come up with and support every solution, and you all have to communicate the same message to the customer and the market. Make sure your team trusts you today.
4. Be proactive in responding to the next crisis.
By being proactive in response rather than defensive, your leadership is affirmed rather than questioned. The current crisis can potentially be minimized, and certainly should be used to make your business and your leadership more effective and visible in serving your customers.
5. Treat every crisis as a banner for long-term change.
In my experience, many leaders begin by treating every crisis as a one-time blow. The result is a minimal reaction on your part and things get worse. I recommend that you start overreacting to even a small crisis and look for long-term implications that can lead you to a better response and presence.
6. In the spotlight, always follow your true values.
Every crisis is an opportunity to highlight personal and company values that go beyond financial gains, and to show that you are trustworthy and sensitive to customer and higher-level needs. Don’t hesitate to admit mistakes, but show a real willingness to correct mistakes and improve the result.
7. Focus on winning now and creating a long-term advantage.
Crises reveal your courage to your team and your customers, in taking the bold steps necessary to win. Bold leaders don’t worry about looking good—they just want to push the team to a win. Great leaders make every opportunity a long-term win, rather than simply mitigating short-term damage.
If you see yourself as an emerging business leader, I encourage you to test yourself in lower risk situations to prepare for the greater challenges of a crisis. Practice the strategies outlined here to better prepare yourself to not only lead your team, but also have the courage to make the bold moves that will enable you to emerge victorious when the time comes.