Oil spills. Terrorist attacks. Pandemic influenza.
Hurricanes. Each of these events can disrupt your business significantly. It is
therefore important to develop what a 2009 report from the IBM Business Values
Institute calls “human capital resilience,” which the study defines as “an
organization’s ability to respond and adapt rapidly to threats posed to its
The word resilience captures how leaders must learn to cope
with adversity. The report outlines a number of steps that organizations can
employ to ensure their employees have the infrastructure and resources they
need to work through a crisis. Critical to the success of crisis plan is the
behavior of senior leaders who, particularly in these perilous times, are
dealing with serious issues all of the time. Sometimes the unexpected will
occur, and when it does, an executive needs to be ready. Here are some tips on
how to manage yourself and your message when the heat is on.
The only thing you can say about a crisis is that it will likely occur when you
least expect. You cannot prepare for the specifics but you can coach yourself
how to respond. Just as companies have crisis plans, so too, must executives.
Think about what you would say and how you would say. Practicing forms of
meditation will help you learn to stay calm. Nothing will prepare you for the
severity of what occurs, but thinking how you would respond in advance–before
any crisis occurs–is good practice.
Plan your message.
Think about what you will say. Do not approach the podium and expect to wing
it. Do an outline and jot down thoughts for talking points. You can even write
up a situation report as an opening statement. Huddle with your staff to get
their ideas. Be collaborative in accepting ideas from others.
Get right to the
point. When you take the podium, address the key issue immediately.
Acknowledge the severity of the situation and the damage. For example, if there
was a plant fire, lead with the fire and then speak of injuries. Express
sympathy for victims and their families. You might also talk about what it will
mean to production to lose the plant. But save the details for later; be clear
and concise in your prepared remarks.
Here is where good leaders shine. Invite the audience (reporters or employees)
to ask questions. Be as candid as you can. Also, invite subject matter experts
on to the stage with you to speak to their specific areas of expertise. If you
don’t know the answer, admit it and promise to give a response as soon as
possible. By taking questions, you demonstrate that you are in charge and are
able to respond to the breaking news situation.
Be accountable for
what you are doing. A senior leader is responsible for how the organization
responds to the crisis. Make it clear that you are in charge. People want to
know there is someone in authority who is managing the issues and their
consequences. Such authority does not guarantee positive results but it does
give people assurance that someone knows that is going on.
Communicating in a crisis may be a discipline but it is also
public theater. Leaders need to be seen as well as heard. They need to take
questions and be available at all hours. A vivid recent example is Billy Nungesser,
president of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. As the magnitude of the oil spill became ever greater, Nungesser raised the call for urgent action to protect coastal Louisiana. He
made multiple appearances on CNN and other news channels. With his folksy manner
but strident demands for federal protection, Nungesser certainly helped raise
awareness of the catastrophe that was unfolding. In his area’s time of need,
Resiliency is essential in preparing for a crisis, and it is
essential for leaders to demonstrate it when advocating on behalf of the people
John Baldoni is an
internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach,
author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world’s
top 25 leadership experts. John’s newest book is 12
Steps to Power Presence: How to Assert Your Authority to Lead (Amacom 2010). Readers are welcome to visit John’s Web site, www.johnbaldoni.com