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 workforce.”
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.
Prepare yourself. 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.
Take questions. 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 they represent.
First posted on FastCompany.com on 9.14.10