Leading when it hits the fan

Like any writer who pens a column, I keep a list of topics to reduce the panic when it comes time to author a new one. My list contains almost 100 potential subjects and is very helpful.

I’ve found the trick is to have the discipline to add the idea to my list as soon as I recognize it and to include enough detail so that I can decipher the intent weeks or months later.

As I scanned my list, one topic jumped off the page, “Leading when it hits the fan.”

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why I added it to the list long ago. I suspect it was to reinforce the findings of organizational expert Edgar Schein, who concluded that how leaders are observed to respond to a crisis sends a clear message to employees regarding the true culture of an organization … despite what the framed “Our Values” document on the wall might claim.

Well, it has certainly hit the fan. Last month’s column was an era ago. So here’s a quick summary of some good — and not so good — practices that I’ve observed during the past month to hopefully avoid, minimize and respond to a crisis.

First of all, ensure your organization has an ongoing process to regularly and objectively identify, assess and abate potential risks. No organization can afford to minimize all risks. But every organization can and should know where it is most vulnerable. That’s where the resources need to go. Not toward the simplest or most politically expedient boogie man.

A useful tool for assessing and managing abatement is called the Failure Modes and Effects Analysis. The tool forces one to identify potential risks and quantify its:

• Impact or severity if it occurs.

• Occurrence or likelihood of it happening.

• Detection or ability to predict that it is going to happen (this is an inverse score with higher scores going to those situations that are difficult or impossible to predict).

Listen to the experts — use data. Although a pandemic would not be officially declared until March 11, data from China, Italy and Spain made it a foregone conclusion for the U.S. well before that.

While one could perhaps rationalize away China as an emerging health care system and a reputation for questionable data reporting, there could be no talking away Italy and Spain. Even my small, unsophisticated practice was warning clients on Feb. 28 to prepare based on clear data available to all on the internet.

Take appropriate action. Each crisis/potential crisis has its unique properties and requires unique action. What makes the coronavirus so dangerous is its combination of high severity (especially for elderly and those with compromised immune systems), high occurrence due to being easily transmitted and high detection due to carriers’ contagiousness prior to displaying symptoms.

Knowing that, successful leaders took aggressive actions to either dramatically improve detection (a la South Korea with a massive testing program) or improve occurrence via severe social restrictions before it was obviously necessary. In the case of COVID-19, waiting to take action until one could figuratively see the white of its eyes, was a deadly mistake.

Finally, communicate often, clearly and empathetically. Calmness and confidence (“It’s going to be a tough stretch, but we will get through this together.”) are reassuring when one’s life is being turned upside down.

Minimizing the crisis or painting pie in the sky pictures of success does no one any good. They will be remembered and credibility lost long after the crisis is over. Understand, acknowledge and address the personal fears that team members possess. They’re all asking the same question, “How will this impact me?” Thoroughly explain the reasoning behind the actions being taken.

Finally, reap lessons learned following the crisis. What worked well? What can and should we do better the next time? The next crisis might be a subsequent wave of this global pandemic or something entirely different that impacts only your organization.

Stay safe.