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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

12 business leaders share how they lead their teams through a crisis

From staying focused on goals to leaning on the strengths of their team, successful leaders take difficult situations in stride.

12 business leaders share how they lead their teams through a crisis
Members of Fast Company Executive Board share their expert insights. [Image: Courtesy of the individual members.]
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The last several months were an unprecedented test for most organizations. The ability to take in the facts, make a plan, and lead the team forward has been essential for leaders.

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Below, 12 members of Fast Company Executive Board share the strategies and philosophies that help them lead their teams through a crisis and on to a brighter future.

1. FOCUS ON WHERE YOU’RE GOING, NOT WHERE YOU’VE BEEN

I don’t think anything could have prepared us for the challenges of 2020. Who knows what will happen next? What I do know is that the playbook that existed only a year ago is no longer useful—to borrow from Wayne Gretzky, “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” I share this because, in the middle of the chaos in a crisis, it’s important to strategically prepare your company, leaders, and brand for what happens after the crisis or change has occurred. For me, this is where storytelling, creativity, and different perspectives can help leaders see blind spots, think through opportunities, and recenter back to the brand’s North Star. – Leslie Wingo, Sanders\Wingo

2. LEAN ON YOUR CORE VALUES

I believe the most resilient companies lean on their core values to get them through tough times. A strong culture is what helps companies weather the storm of a crisis. The behaviors you helped cultivate—which are most often a reflection of your core values—are the things that help push you forward in both good times and bad times. – Yaw Aning, Malomo

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3. STEP BACK FROM THE PANIC AND MAKE A PLAN

Take a step back and remember that all crises feel more intense when you’re in the middle of them. People and organizations are resilient, and the situation is probably not as catastrophic as it feels right now. Once you can embrace that knowledge and take some of the hysteria out of the air, your brain becomes much more capable of making a plan. – Jeremy Johnson, Andela

4. DEVELOP A CULTURE OF LEARNING

Successful companies foster resilience through a culture of learning. When the workforce is learning, it’s growing and thriving. It’s focused on what’s next and creating a positive employee experience. Whether you’re upskilling workers to address what’s next or reskilling them for future opportunities outside their current roles, you’re telling people their potential is just as important as their current work output. – Laurie Ruettimann, LFR Inc.

5. KEEP YOUR TEAM IN THE LOOP

Leaders typically begin by blaming employees when things start to go awry. They tend to think they are going at the issue alone and others are either in the way or, at best, on the sidelines. Employees feel the stress and pressure as well. Speak to them, let them know what’s going on, how you’re feeling, and—most importantly—what your plan is to help see the organization through. This builds trust and prevents difficult moments from turning into moments of attrition. – Melvin Hines, Upswing International, Inc.

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6. DISTINGUISH BETWEEN EMERGENCIES AND OPPORTUNITIES

Uncertainty, competitive pressures, and workplace conflict are present in most companies. As individuals and across teams, being comfortable with change is not the same as building resilience—resilience is one of those things that you mostly see in the rearview mirror once it has been tested. Building organizational resilience depends on a nimble attitude, empathy, and a commitment to resolving conflict directly. In any crisis, our physical response kicks in before our brain can make sense of things. I have learned to distinguish between an emergency and an emergent opportunity so that we build the capacity to lead through difficult times. – Kerri Hoffman, PRX

7. DEFINE THE PROBLEM AND THE GOAL

Resiliency requires moving on several timelines at once—responding to a “now,” or a crisis, while also protecting for the future. The first step is to get out of a crisis mindset; reframed, the crisis is simply a new set of parameters that has moved to the top of the priority list. The team needs to follow the systems already in place to make good decisions. Put the right people—with diverse expertise and thinking styles—in a room, and clearly define the problem and the goal. Split up and think, then get back together to discuss real ideas, and if there’s time, determine the warning flags to stay the course or readjust. – Monica Landers, StoryFit

8. EMPOWER YOUR TEAMS TO BE PROACTIVE

Maintaining and encouraging an entrepreneurial approach has helped Convene stay resilient during trying times. Empowering our teams to take full ownership over their departments and allowing them the freedom to take risks makes them better equipped to move quickly and adapt when a crisis strikes. When you’re in the midst of a crisis, it can be hard to switch from being reactive to being proactive. It’s critical to take a step back from the issue at hand and ask yourself, “What am I not seeing? What’s the big picture telling me?” By slowing things down, zooming out, and taking the time to reset, I’ve seen my team switch from reacting to adapting and innovating. – Ryan Simonetti, Convene

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9. GET COMFORTABLE WITH REACTING QUICKLY AND CHANGING PLANS

Having a quick reaction time and the ability to change my plans have been critical to me when handling a crisis—and sometimes even help me thrive. Building an organization with a culture of rapid experimentation can help you get comfortable with reacting quickly and changing plans. To iterate and learn quickly, I’ve practiced making fast decisions with a reasonable amount of conviction—based on a combination of my intuition and whatever evidence we can collect—testing that decision quickly, and then either going deeper or changing course based on the outcome. Seeking advice and feedback as well as changing our strategy, budget, and team quickly in the face of new information is part of our normal growth strategy and works well amid a crisis. – Sara de Zarraga, Flare

10. TURN TO FRONT-LINE STAFF FOR PERSPECTIVE

In a crisis, a company’s greatest asset is often its front-line employees. CEOs and upper management sometimes lock the boardroom doors and strategize high-level solutions when critical feedback and perspective are available right outside. Empowering the staff to contribute when you’re in crisis mode is especially relevant for small businesses, where each team member’s impact on the company and insight into operations is greatest. And when the dust settles, valuable new leadership positions can emerge for unlikely candidates. – Rich Palese, evoJets

11. STAY FOCUSED ON YOUR NORTH STAR

Resilience starts with an intentional, authentic commitment from leadership. The best leaders deeply understand the company’s vision and roadmap and constantly audit where the gaps exist. They build an organizational culture that incentivizes and invests in the development of its people, products, and impact. They also leverage their brand as a North Star that informs every strategic decision in a way that is differentiated, relevant, and sustainable. In the midst of a crisis, leaders acknowledge the issue, take responsibility, and overcorrect. – Melissa Barash, Left Tackle Capital

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12. INVEST IN PEOPLE WHO ARE INVESTED IN YOUR MISSION

When you have a small business, finding new people who are a good fit and are mission-aligned is really difficult. Doing so is, however, crucial to both the growth and stability of your company. Employees who really believe in the mission of the company are the ones who are going to turn it up to 11 when times get tough. – Alex Husted, Helpsy


Fast Company Executive Board is an invitation-only professional organization of company founders, executives, and leaders who are defining the future of business through design, innovation, creativity, and impact.