Leadership – Rise or Crumble During a Crisis
Contributed by Kristen McAlister
Someone once said to me, “a good economy hides a lot of sins.” During a crisis and challenging times, we see all of our “sins” come out of the woodwork, and this recent crisis is no exception. Seemingly small failures and oversights that have remained hidden are brought to the forefront and can no longer be ignored.
One unifying theme that is dominating our conversations with CEOs the past couple of months has been how clearly they now see the gaps they have with their leadership team, including themselves. We have found two primary causes:
- Not the right leadership – This is usually most apparent in finance followed by HR. Additionally, marketing and sales have not adjusted to new market conditions.
- Not enough leadership – particularly owners/CEOs playing dual role such as CFO or COO.
Beyond the conversations we are having, I have talked to some executive placement firms who say they may end up having one of the best years. Reason – there is a lot of movement happening in the c-suite of companies of all sizes and industries. Again, CEOs are finding they don’t have the right leadership in place or not enough of it.
Our leadership teams can either help us rise to the occasion or crumble to the bottom, both financially and culturally.
Here are some of the critical areas that we have seen have the most impact for leadership teams and CEOs to address during a time of crisis.
React quickly and adjust to current/future market conditions
Flexibility is the name of the game when everything around us is shifting. CEOs need their leadership team to immediately reach out to customers. Find out how they are being impacted and share how the company is going to increase support and partner with them going forward. Based on market conditions, decide what you need to change in regards to what you provide, how you provide it, or who you provide it to. Companies that were able to assess this quickly and execute it quickly are not only surviving but thriving during this crisis.
We saw many CEOs take this on themselves. They did not have anyone in place to do this for them or the team was not strong enough to manage it. For some, they spent too much of their time helping the leadership team adapt to the work-from-home (WFH) environments or convincing them why they couldn’t just “wait it out” rather than focusing on the immediate needs of the business and its employees.
Excel with soft skills – reaching out to employees
Well-functioning leadership teams devoted a portion of every day reaching out to employees – current and furloughed. They were writing thank you cards, sending gift cards, doing daily check-ins, etc. There was no shortage of communication. As the go-forward plan and any changes were decided, they helped craft the messaging and disseminated it out to the rest of the company. They were available for follow-up questions and advocated for transparency to reduce everyone’s fears.
Help reinforce or positively redefine company culture
Culture can be defined as how everyone acts when no one is watching. In a WFH situation, this has never been truer. We saw companies with 300 people in one building become 300 offices overnight. Great leadership teams kept this top of mind. They remained purposeful with their actions and came up with creative ways to reinforce the company culture in 300 offices or recognized how it needed to shift.
Rather than letting it morph to 300 individual cultures, they utilized on-going communications to decide what shifts needed to be made to the company’s culture and the employees’ identification with the company. Culture is a company’s brand identifier with its internal team. It is the CEO’s and leadership’s responsibility to be purposeful with that brand and be the brand advocates at all times.
No one leader is wearing too many hats
It has been interesting to see the pace of change that has occurred over the past few months. When this happens, it is critical that everyone stays on the same page and is clear on the priorities and where the focus should be. This started to crumble in situations where the CEO was wearing too many hats or didn’t have strong enough leadership in place.
It started with a strong need for financial leadership. Those with a strong CFO quickly focused on cashflow with daily or weekly cash projections and the PPP loan. This left the CEO to focus on the decisions that needed to be made and getting the 30, 60, 90 day plan in place. Those who were left feeling as though they were either doing everything or everyone was running in different directions, quickly found where their leadership gaps were.
Helps others adjust
We have all sat through that speech on the airplane – first put on your mask and then help your children to put on theirs. There is a lot to take in and adjust to during a time of rapid and continuous change. Those companies with a fully functioning leadership team were able to quickly get their masks on (figuratively and literally) then worked to get everyone else’s on. It was clear after the first two months, which managers and leaders were still trying to get their own masks on. In one situation, a CEO described to me a scenario where his head of operations was haphazardly leading others in the wrong direction because he had not gotten his own mask in place yet.
If any of the above is hitting a little too close to home, let’s talk. Rather than getting stuck in the movie “Groundhog Day,” our clients are immediately strengthening their leadership team by bringing in experienced executive leadership on an interim, part-time or project-basis. This is allowing them to focus on leading the company forward.