Leading People Through a Crisis

Elegant leaderBy, Jessica Titlebaum

Captain Chelsea “Sully” Sullenberger spoke at the Options Industry Conference this year in Austin, Texas. As the keynote speaker, he talked about emergency landing US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River and keeping safe all 255 aboard. One of the things he said about handling the crisis was that, “You can manage many things, but people deserve to be led.”

A crisis in the office may not feel much different than maneuvering a plunging plane. The same goes for any crisis; you have to look at the situation from a bird’s eye view, trust your team, confidently communicate to the parties involved and rely on the processes you already have in place to get you through, safely and successfully.

Get Out of the Way
Cynthia Zeltwanger is the Executive Director of the Paulson Institute. She currently oversees daily operations and workflows of the Institute’s staff in the United States and China.

Prior to joining the Paulson Institute, Zeltwanger spent 17 years at FIMAT USA, a subsidiary of Societe Generale. FIMAT merged with Calyon Financial in 2008 to form Newedge Group, where Zeltwanger was global chief operating officer. At FIMAT, Zeltwanger held roles such as; chief executive officer and managing director of the Americas as well as general counsel.

In 2003, while at FIMAT, the Northeast coast and Midwest parts of the United States as well as the Canadian Province of Ontario experienced a widespread power outage.

“During the blackout, we had the option to support the New York office from our Chicago office; however, the electrical back up for that particular office was also on the East Coast,” she said. “We couldn’t communicate between the offices and we knew it was only a matter of time before clients got a whiff of what was going on.”

While in New York, Zeltwanger had to trust her employees in Chicago to control the situation.

“My manager was in Chicago and I had to trust that he had it under control. I knew the New York office had a lot going on and sometimes, the best thing to do in a crisis is get out of the way.”

One of the things she learned while handling the blackout was not to micromanage, but to delegate work.

“We dispatched information and let the employees make the good decisions we knew, they knew how to make.”

First Steps and What to Avoid
While Zeltwanger believes you should delegate work in a crisis, the first thing she recommends is getting all of the facts.

“First, find out what is happening,” said Zeltwanger. “There after I would get multiple people’s opinions. Make sure you are not just listening to one person with one specific view on the matter.”

She said that it is important to move quickly when faced with a crisis, but make sure you have all of the facts.

“Also, determine how time sensitive the problem is,” said Zeltwanger. “While you should be timely in your decision making; don’t be ready, shoot, aim.”

Take enough time to figure out how you will calmly approach the crisis. Be steady and directive with the people around you.

“If you can’t provide information immediately, give them the plan from what you do know. Don’t just go into a room and avoid everyone,” she said. “People will make up stories because of the lack of information.”

Zeltwanger suggests providing enough information so people know you are working on getting the answers.

“Let people know you are aware of the problem and working to fix it,” she said.

She believes that communication is essential and if you can’t give them information, give them enough so they know what to do at that moment.

“Be honest too. Information is going to change but they won’t trust you if you have not been honest,” she said. “It’s hard to spin a story in a crisis anyway, because you don’t know what information will be coming out next.”

Practice Firedrills
Andrea Goodkin is a partner at Laurus Strategies, a human capital consulting and global employee benefit organization that provides services for clients across the entire employee life-cycle; from selection and onboarding, rewards and retention, development, engagement and workforce productivity. She leads the Human Capital Consulting practice and manages about 20 employees.
When a crisis arises in Goodkin’s office, it most likely revolves around people.

“When I am dealing with a crisis, it frequently means something happened and someone can’t get to a client meeting or to where they need to be,” said Goodkin. “Whether you are in the middle of a natural disaster or your flight was cancelled, the most important thing to remember is to stay calm.”

Goodkin has learned that if you have a meeting on Tuesday morning, you should fly out on Monday night. She has also learned that the last person out of the office never carries critical materials.

She suggests making sure the current situation is not tied in with other possibilities for mishaps.

“We never operate solo and always have a back-up plan,” said Goodkin. “We have communication plans so it’s clear who to call, what resources to go to and a structure to accommodate a crisis.”

Goodkin believes these safeguards have to be part of the company’s DNA.

“You have to prepare for crisis management in advance and play out the ‘what if’s?’” said Goodkin. “It’s wonderful when someone creates a process and activities to manage an emergency and the best time to test that process is when you are not experiencing a crisis.”

Goodkin also advises to leave room for flexibility.

“As humans there are many things we could do to mitigate disasters but we all too often cut corners and don’t leave room for flexibility, which is critical when managing a crisis,” said Goodkin.

Establishing Solid Relationships
“Having solid relationships also helps on many levels,” said Goodkin. “We are in the people business and when we are faced with a crisis, we rely on our relationships.”

She explained that having good relationships means building a team that you can trust to carry the assignment through to completion even in a crisis. Further, she has also learned that good relationships are crucial when interacting with the parties involved.

“You need to have a trusting relationship with the person you are working with so they don’t shut down,” said Goodkin. “You also need to have collaborative conversations with them to put a good plan in place.”

Calm, Cool and Collected
Both Goodkin and Zeltwanger believe staying calm, cool and collected is the best way to navigate a crisis.

“When dealt with a crisis, you have to do a thoughtful change of course and manage that change in a reasonable way,” said Goodkin. “Do not overreact.”

While managing a crisis may be challenging, leading people through the crisis is how we achieve professional growth. A leader should prepare for emergencies by putting processes in place, they must rely on their relationships, gather all of the facts, exude confidence and if needed, get out of the way.

A crisis can rile you up but if you follow these tips, you can ensure a soft landing.