Leadership and Communication During a Crisis - From a CEO's Point of View

I was asked by my marketing team to write an article about leadership and communication in a time of crisis.  After much procrastination, I painstakingly obliged. 

Truth be told, it’s a sensitive subject and not something I enjoy writing about. I’m usually motivated to read the b2b digital marketing tea leaves and share some insights into the next unique data source. The next piece of game changing Martech or how a process advancement increases our efficiency. All of which tap an innovative artery that pulses pros prodigiously.  

Why is it so challenging? For the simple fact that, during a crisis, difficult decisions need to be made and communicated. In the professional services business, one which is built upon growing amazing people, whatever the crisis, it almost always directly affects the people we have learned to respect, appreciate and like.  

If you are in the people business, and I would argue every business is a people business, great cultures create fertile ground for meaningful relationships. And these meaningful relationships were cultivated over a long period with lots of blood, sweat and tears spilled together over years… all reduced to an annual alumni zoom meeting? As an empathic people-lover, that’s simply tragic.

Nonetheless, in a Time of Crisis, Leaders Must Lead

Facts first. A crisis contains a triage of information that must be analyzed, reviewed and assessed for context relevant to each individual business.  

While we will eventually rely on our own experiences to assess the facts and options, that experience should be put to use post factual analysis. We must look to root out unconscious and conscious bias during this time as we assess every incoming data point. Then and only then, do we rely on our experience and gut to begin the decision-making process. 

There Must Be Shared Sacrifice 

In our company we call this “Crowning”, where we put the interest of others, our clients, our teams, and that of the company before the individual.  

This is part of our culture which we reward, call out and try to live every day. Thus, before we make any tough decisions, leadership must come to the table, discuss where the pains are in the organization and make a plan all before they ask the sacrifices of others. 

Leadership must be willing to feel the pain first before they ask their staff to sacrifice. 

Find the Balance 

Easily the hardest part of making any tough decisions is striking the fine balance between looking after the needs of individuals, and ensuring the health and viability of the business.

Too often companies are unable to strike this balance.  

Big business tends to look beyond individual needs in an effort to maximize profits and shareholder value at all costs, where and when necessary. 

This is short-sighted and will come with a larger price down the road.  

Smaller, more family-owned businesses simply are not willing to dole out a bit of “tough love” and make the hard decision to let good people go, till it’s too late.  

I recently attended an Agency executive webinar where it was projected that 15-20% of agencies will go out of business during this recession; that’s simply heart wrenching and not necessary.  

Instead of a few people losing their jobs, when you go out of business, everyone loses.  

Good leadership will refuse to allow this to happen. 

Direct and Clear Communication  

This does not mean communicating everything; every challenge, every new data point, every incoming potential threat, every decision.  

It does mean, however, that once important and challenging decisions have been made, you communicate it well.  

Following the three C’s; clear, consistent and confident.  

Additionally, line-level management must be brought up to speed on how to communicate directly throughout the organization 1-1, beyond an all-hands meeting. Even if they don’t agree with the decision, they should be able to help the rest of the organization understand the rationale and plan.

Clear Directives with a Bias Towards Action  

In a time of crisis it’s easy to get caught up in the crisis, whether it be the barrage of headline news, or the fact that a co-worker was directly affected by the crisis.  

It’s easy to get lost, get distracted and lose sight of now, more than ever, we all need to get our best work done.  

Unfortunately, in our capitalistic environment, there will be winners and losers. And those companies and cultures that can set clear directives from the top, while creating autonomy for the team to execute a well-thought plan, will win. 

Stay Positive but Remain Realistic  

Find the small wins to celebrate. Create new cultural events like Zoom happy hour Fridays.  

Laugh at the small stuff, find a way to create levity and forget some of the pain around you.  

But never try to minimize the reality of the situation or overproject unrealistic positivity; “it’s not that bad, we will be just fine, or nothing will really change”. Create levity while being realistic.

A Bonus: Volunteer  

If you are able, give, volunteer.  

Nothing feels better than truly helping those in greatest need during a crisis. It also demonstrates incredible leadership and can be infectious.  

We are all social creatures looking for clues on how to act and behave during these times.

Look at Every Challenge as an Opportunity  

This can be a moment that galvanizes the team. It can bring people together, times of greatest challenge can create the strongest bonds, after all it’s a people business. When the dust settles and a crisis ends, it’s the people who stare fear in the eye and say “we got this”, that the strongest bonds will be made, and who will keep your company moving in the right direction. 

In these trying times, I am beyond grateful for my family, my team, my colleagues and the quality work we continue to do for our clients. We truly are all in this together. 

If you’re facing challenges on how to best communicate with your teams, or share war stories, hit me up anytime!

Be sure to leave a note in the comments section that you’d like to schedule a virtual meeting with me!