Any executive onboarding into a new position should converge and then evolve. They should get a head start, manage their message and then pivot to set direction, build the team, sustain momentum and deliver results. However, if you’re a new leader making a hot landing in the middle of a crisis, you must parallel process and: 1) Jump right in to help; 2) Learn with everyone else; 3) Let your leadership emerge over time.
In normal circumstances, asking for help onboarding into a new organization is a great way to show some vulnerability and start relationships. In a crisis, everything is turned around. People are scared, confused, and overwhelmed. They are going to appreciate you more if you come in offering help than seeking it. Be a team-oriented giver, not an individual taker.
1) Jump right in to help
Leadership is about inspiring and enabling others to do their absolute best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose. In a crisis, Maslow’s hierarchy resets, and everyone has to build back through the stages of physiological to safety to belonging to esteem and then self-actualization needs all over again. You have to deal with the current reality before you can focus on the future.
Even worse, as Harvard’s Dutch Leonard explained in a recent session on Crisis Management for Leaders, in major emergencies like COVID-19, no one knows what to do. We’re all operating in an environment with far more stress, far less capacity, and far less knowledge than anyone can reasonably handle. As he puts it, effective leadership is going to require “rapid innovation under stress embedded in fear.”
Everyone is at the same disadvantage because no one knows how the crisis is going to play out or what the organization is going to look like on the other side. They can’t help with your onboarding. But you can provide them needed extra capacity if you focus on helping them. Make it about them at the start, not about you.
2) Learn with everyone else
You’ve just crossed the border from Ethiopia into Kenya. You’ve cleared immigration and are getting back on the highway. What must you do next?
Change to the other side of the road. People drive on the right in Ethiopia and on the left in Kenya. If you don’t switch sides, bad things will happen.
Similarly, every company drives on different sides of the road in different ways and you need to learn from others in the company how things work to avoid collisions.
But, in a crisis, it’s like jumping into a moving car with a group of people trying to change tires while accelerating on a new road in a country they know nothing about. They’re not going to slow down to give you an orientation on the rules of the road. You’re all learning together. Don’t ask to learn from them. Learn with them.
3) Let your leadership emerge over time
The core of effective crisis leadership is iterating through the following steps, all guided by your purpose (mission, vision, values):
- Re-look at the new situation and scenarios from physical, emotional, reputational, political, and financial standpoints.
- Agree near term objectives and intent. (Focus on physical safety first, reputation second, and financial implications third.)
- Develop options for what you might do.
- Predict risk-weighted outcomes for each option.
- Choose which options to prioritize next.
- For each priority, get clear on an accountable leader and what will get done by when by whom with what resources.
- Execute, monitor, and iterate.
In a crisis, all are trying to figure out what to do together. John Hagel suggests asking powerful questions is more valuable than pretending to have answers. Let your leadership emerge through the iterations as you learn more, clarify evolving roles and expectations, and earn others’ confidence.
Think in terms of four stages: I) Listening and doing what you’re asked to do; II) Providing input into the discussions; III) Making recommendations; IV) Making decisions – after you’ve earned that right through your work in the first three stages.
Timing your transition from stage to stage is going to more of an art than a science. Let the evolution of your relationship with your boss and team members guide you. Along the way and through every step, your communication should be emotional, rational and inspirational:
- Emotional: connect with your audience, empathizing with how the crisis is affecting them personally.
- Rational: Lay out the hard facts of the current situation – in detail with a calm, composed, polite and authoritative tone and manner.
- Inspirational: Inspire others by thinking ahead, painting an optimistic view of the future, and calling people to practical actions they can take to be part of the solution – instilling confidence in themselves.