How Leaders Can Keep The Best Of ‘Crisis Mode’

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CEOs and management teams have faced an unprecedented social and economic crisis that has prompted organizations to quickly adopt new business priorities, leadership behaviors and cadences. Senior leaders have had to embrace change and adapt their organizations more rapidly and on a more widespread basis than any other crisis I have seen in my lifetime.

But instead of causing these organizations to break, or even bend, the COVID-19 crisis has often been an occasion for surprising resilience, focus and action. We have seen organization silos broken down, management teams galvanized and leaders who are doing some of the best work of their careers. We are seeing many constructive insights emerging from this crisis that can have beneficial effects on organizations for many years to come.

It is inspiring to hear the positive impact that the COVID-19 crisis has had on leader behavior and company culture. One of my clients, John, is a senior vice president for a major payroll and human resources company. He told me, “We have noticed how successful we can be as a team. We have been working with zero silos, have a regular cadence and are putting our employees and customers in at the top of every discussion and decision. I have never been prouder of our team.” His company has learned they can be more decisive, agile and rapid in moving the business during this extraordinary time.

Another client, Ray, is CEO of a packaging company. He shared that “during the crisis, we have more cross-organization communication than ever. We are solving not only pandemic problems but identifying ways to improve our business in general. It isn’t me driving this; it is our managers running the company.” His company has experienced record months recently by engaging and mobilizing their front-line leaders and their employees like never before.

I am sure many top leaders have discovered and experienced similar circumstances with management teams and organizations rising to the occasion. There are some valuable leadership lessons to be learned that must be applied after the crisis passes. How do you preserve and maintain your best practices to improve business and organization effectiveness in the future?

Learnings To Take Forward After The Crisis

Senior leaders have shifted to crisis mode literally overnight, are managing large businesses and organizations from their homes and have suddenly shifted operations so they can have focused, intense videoconferences and management team meetings throughout the day. This crisis is obliterating layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and organizational politics. When people are hyper-focused on responding to a moment of crisis, it can be a chance for people to unite around a shared purpose, without the usual noise, resistance and infighting. Based on our exceptional clients’ response and success over the last several months, below are some learnings to apply when we are on the other side of this crisis:

  • Mandate ruthless prioritization. Everything cannot be a priority. Allow your team to review your priorities and advance or stop initiatives immediately. Stop adding and start removing things to do.
  • CEOs must let their leaders lead. CEOs do not need to make all the decisions and be in front of everything. Assuming the management team is competent, they will rise, as well. These leaders are closer to the organization, anyway.
  • Focus on speed and decisiveness. Apply time limits to decisions, and ensure all those who should provide input or expertise are present. Do not waste valuable time by delaying or expecting perfection. This includes 100% clarity of ownership for actions and decisions.
  • Employees and customers come first. Your management team should be continuously engaging and listening to your most important stakeholders. Have a real perspective and do not live on anecdotes. If you take care of employees and customers well, your investors will ultimately be rewarded.

The above leadership principles seem obvious but are often forgotten when not in crisis mode. My client Andy, president of a well-known retail chain, stated, “Our clarity of purpose and focus has been extraordinary during the pandemic. We need to ensure that we institutionalize these learnings and practices.” Andy, a former Navy officer, also recognizes that you cannot be in “general quarters” forever, which refers to being in constant crisis or “wartime” mode. Many of the above practices can become mainstream for business operations with greater discipline. Andy plans to institute shorter, more focused meetings that are crystal clear on objectives and accountability each time.

John’s company will attempt institute management sprints adopting similar tools on some (but not all) key business improvement decisions and initiatives. This would require the key players to attend carefully planned meetings and come well-prepared to make a decision and mobilize following an hour debate. Leaders who have learned this practice will strengthen this muscle for the future.

Ray’s company believes these practices will improve their business operations for years to come. Ray plans to continue his weekly all-management meetings after the crisis is over.

After The Crisis: Keeping The Lessons Alive

One day, the COVID-19 crisis will subside. When that day comes, how can we preserve the good aspects of management and organization culture that we have seen during this crisis?

Now that we are in this moment of crisis, many management teams would tell you that it has been the occasion for some of the best leadership experiences of their lives. Teams are rallying. Organizations are rising to the occasion. But let us not allow this one point in time to be a “finest hour.” Let us carry forward some of these lessons and insights for how to build a better foundation of purpose, focus and stronger organizational culture for years to come.

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