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COVID-19 is unlike anything we’ve experienced. But the way leaders need to communicate in crisis is very familiar

Corporate communications executive Darren Brandt says bosses can’t lose if they are candid and compassionate.

COVID-19 is unlike anything we’ve experienced. But the way leaders need to communicate in crisis is very familiar
[Photo: EvgeniyQ/iStock; Gary Bendig/Unsplash]

As New York braces for a peak in coronavirus cases in the coming days, it feels premature, and perhaps a bit insensitive, to compare this crisis to 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, or the Great Recession. Yet these events—and the current pandemic—all underscore the importance of strong communications skills. Whether you’re the CEO of a global corporation or a newly minted VP leading a small team, the way you talk to your people in fraught times matters. Here are a few important lessons I’ve gleaned from having consulted and observed great communicators (and a few duds) through two decades of crises.

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Transparency.  Never have companies been more transparent with their employees, vendors, and customers.  Now is not the time for leaders to revert to the old way of doing things. CEOs need to overcommunicate.

One way to do this is by clearly detailing plans for, say, tackling customer service, or perhaps the more mundane task of collecting mail when no one is in office. At the end of all-staff calls ask this  question: “What are we not thinking about; what are we missing?” There are often tangible benefits derived from inclusion, including smart answers.

I’ve counseled two kinds of executives: those who fight and those who take flight.  The fighters are willing to engage in smart and sometimes challenging discussions with those they serve. Others will fly: They hope to continue to collect sales while their customers and clients are focused on their own survival. Being present and having voice always wins. There will be short-term pain for all; however, there will be greater long-term pain for those that don’t show up.

Decisiveness in the face of imperfect information.

We face an open-ended crisis, and no leader has a crystal ball into the future of his or her business. Still, leaders need to make decisions—sometimes bold—and then share those decisions with the troops, acknowledging that a million variables are at play. One CEO, in the midst of a major downturn in his sector, once told me, ”I may be (proven) wrong, but I’m not uncertain” in the actions his company would take.  Another CEO of a major Fortune 500 company told me his only regrets were not communicating his conclusions and moving more quickly when he knew a decision needed to be made.

Right now, many are taken by the leadership style of New York governor Andrew Cuomo.  His communicative style is strong—exemplified by a plain-spokenness, a bias toward communicating frequently, and a decisiveness in his actions.  Formulating a strategy, driving alignment and then executing a plan, all framed within the context of don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good, is paramount.

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Compassion goes to the head of the table.  

How we work has been disrupted like never before. By some estimates, more than 90 percent of the employed world is working in a different way. WFHWK (with kids), WFHWP (with parents), and WFHWOL (without everyday liberties)—each of these is new to many of us. All that is to say, patience and empathy are key virtues that must shine through across all methods of communication.

Leaders must display patience and view every employee— more than ever before—as individuals who are crucial to the success of our team. There is no “model” employee right now. Leaders need to understand that some employees will appreciate more optimistic discussions; others more practical. It will become readily apparent which among them appreciate discussion of the moment and which just want to get to work. It may sound exhausting, and it’s a lot of work, but employees and clients alike appreciate you meeting them where they are.

Related to patience is pacing.  Leaders are presently challenged by a need to marry a number of messages that can be hard to reconcile: 1. Take care of yourself first (your head and your heart). 2. Your coworkers and customers are counting on you. 3. Let’s be great and indispensable right now.  Fortunately, we have come to understand that there is some overlap.

Imagine a Venn diagram where work and other responsibilities meet.  For many, work holds great appeal as an activity with a clear focus and end goal that helps people feel better about advancing something within their control. For others, a rebalancing may be necessary. Leaders throughout an organization will be required to demonstrate understanding of the needs of each individual and manage to the sum of those needs.

I am fully of the belief that the behaviors leaders exhibit today will hold great impact on how those leaders and companies are viewed in the future.  The sacrifice many brands are making to help make a difference at present is telling, and their ability to speak the right way about these efforts will surely guide brand perception for years to come.

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These are unique times, but not so unique as to not appreciate some lessons learned from ‘like’ times.  New ideas, approaches and actions will all be needed to lead today, but in truth, these lessons shouldn’t go away when the crisis subsides. Communicating with transparency, decisiveness, and compassion never go out of style.

Darren Brandt is co-CEO of Sloane & Company. He advises companies on corporate positioning and media relations, thought leadership, issues management, and mergers and acquisitions.

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