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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 ways smart leaders take on unexpected challenges

Developing a strong foundation coupled with flexibility can help leaders meet a crisis head-on and turn it into an opportunity.

12 ways smart leaders take on unexpected challenges
Members of Fast Company Executive Board share their expert insights. [Image: Courtesy of the individual members.]
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Leading a business isn’t easy even in the best of times. To be effective, leaders must develop resiliency—not only in themselves but also in their company as a whole. When challenging times strike, that resiliency can mean the difference between just surviving and thriving. 

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Below, 12 members of Fast Company Executive Board talk about strategies that can help a leader prepare themselves and their organization to find success no matter what the situation is.

1. SLOW DOWN TO TAKE IN NEW DATA

When you’re facing a crisis or an important inflection point for your organization, I recommend slowing down momentarily to take in the full scope and landscape of the problem you’re facing. Synthesize the new data in front of you, then quickly make decisions. Be prepared to measure impact, rigorously re-evaluate prior decisions, and make new decisions based on your experience and environment within six to 12 weeks so you have rapid response capacity as the crisis evolves or abates. – Cheryl Contee, The Impact Seat

2. DETERMINE YOUR TOP PRIORITIES

In times of crisis, leaders need to stay focused on the essentials. Rapidly determine top priorities while being flexible to changing circumstances, recognizing that agility may be more critical than ever. Priorities must always be vetted against your company’s mission and values, but one priority that must remain front and center is concern for your team. Strive to be the best role model you can for your employees, and do your best to be available and open to them, their opinions, and their ideas. This mindset will help you make quick and decisive decisions to lead your company through the crisis. – Brenda Weitzberg, Aspiritech, NFP

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3. LOOK FOR THE “POSSIBILITY STORY”

There is no such thing as disruption without possibility—they are two sides of the same coin. Reframe and look for the “possibility story,” because it is always there. If you’re not seeing it, it’s usually because you’re the one being disrupted, which makes it even more important that you and your team search for it, identify it, then map the steps to pivot into it. While you may not be able to change the big-picture uncertainty or stakes, you can often reverse-engineer the incremental steps and stakes that are necessary to fuel a meaningful pivot into the “possibility story.” – Jonathan Fields, Spark Endeavors Inc. | Good Life Project®

4. REMEMBER THAT INNOVATION IS BORN FROM CRISIS

On the surface, a crisis seems like adversity, but it’s really an asset in disguise when it’s fully leveraged. Innovation is born from crisis. The most innovative solutions and businesses were sparked from the dot-com bubble in the early 2000s, the economic downturn in 2008, and the pandemic in 2020—times that forced us to think and operate completely differently while experimenting and iterating quickly. The customer journey can change overnight in times of crisis, which democratizes how new solutions can come to life and who can come up with those new solutions. – Amy Jo Martin, Amy Jo Martin LLC, dba Why Not Now? Media 

5. SHARE WAR STORIES WITH FELLOW ENTREPRENEURS

Crisis is a natural part of building a business, but there are a few points I focus on. It’s in times of hardship that great leadership shines. It’s the hard times and how you handle them that will define the trajectory of your business. Surround yourself with other entrepreneurs. Sharing war stories is common, and even the biggest and best have gone through endless hardship. Knowing that provides strength and support. And remember, the good times come right after the bad times. – David Shadpour, Social Native

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6. TAP INTO ALL OF YOUR AVAILABLE RESOURCES

The best thing a leader can do to preemptively guard against an unforeseen or highly disruptive crisis is to have the best team in place to weather the storm. Moments like this are when it’s especially important to have a diverse team in place. If that’s not in place already, I would take a page from the aviation world: Aviate, navigate, and communicate. Crises of varying magnitude come and go all the time; don’t get so caught up in solving the crisis that you lose sight of the fact that you still have a company to run. A leader must bring all their resources, favors, relationships, and ingenuity to bear to safely navigate the organization out of the crisis while communicating with the right stakeholders along the way. – Rhoden Monrose, CariClub

7. ESTABLISH A DIVERSE CULTURE AND TEAM

There are many ways to introduce resilience into an organization—there certainly isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Expectful has built a resilient culture by establishing a diverse culture and team. Having a diverse culture ensures that you continually evaluate your users’ diverse needs. In 2020, we saw so many brands scramble to find culturally appropriate responses to the Black Lives Matter movement. You can preempt social catastrophes with a diverse workforce because it means that you’re already incorporating a multidimensional view. – Nathalie Walton, Expectful

8. USE YOUR EXPERIENCE AND DATA TO DECIDE WITH CONVICTION

In a crisis, leaders must act with conviction and compassion. It is critical not to bury your head in the sand and to be willing to make the hard decisions that you are called on to make as a leader. Use data, expertise, and your gut to determine the path forward, and identify what you don’t yet know. The final important step is to communicate all of that with appropriate transparency and empathy to the company. – Alexandra Cavoulacos, The Muse

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9. ANALYZE YOUR COMPANY CULTURE FOR POTENTIAL BARRIERS

The most critical question is this: Are you attracting and fostering a culture of support, innovation, and acceleration? Have you considered whether your company’s infrastructure is the barrier that prevents those very things? For example, childcare as work enablement is critical for the future of work. Without providing support for women to actively participate in the workforce—which means directly funding and supporting childcare—diversity, innovation, and growth goals are for naught. – Amanda Munday, The Workaround

10. DEVELOP “CUSTOMER OBSESSION”

The most important step any leader can take toward building a more resilient business is to get out and listen—actively—to your customers and employees. What is happening for them, what is changing, how are they feeling? What new problems are they facing that allow you to demonstrate empathy and extend your brand? Your customers and employees have the answers to where your new priorities lie, but you must listen to them with true openness to benefit from what they will tell you. This is a time for customer obsession, not mere customer focus. – Amy Radin, Daily Innovator LLC

11. ALWAYS BE OPEN ABOUT DIFFICULTIES AND DECISIONS

When facing a crisis, always lead with honesty and integrity. If you’re facing a problem, be open about what the problem is, what you know and don’t know, what your plan of action is, and why. You’ll never please everyone, and someone will always disagree with your decision. Still, people will respond to directness and honesty. – Patrick Ambron, BrandYourself.com

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12. REMIND YOUR TEAM OF WHAT YOU’VE SET OUT TO DO

It is important to consistently remind everyone of the company’s North Star. Call it out as part of your regular town halls. Remind the team of what you have all set out to do, and build a plan to get through the crisis. Pushing towards a common goal, especially during a crisis, develops unity and a sense of mission.- Anju Mathew, LynkCare, Inc., dba OncoLens


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.