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Leadership In A Time of Crisis: 3 Strategies to Successfully Manage Change

When I was 25 years old, I was hired into a leadership role at a company which, unbeknownst to me at the time of my hire, was experiencing an internal crisis. A few years later, I moved into another leadership role and the organization I was working for – and the world — was rocked by the dot com era and 9/11. Leadership in moments like this is difficult. It’s lonely, exhausting, terrifying. These experiences influenced my career trajectory. Having been in leadership roles in times of crisis myself, I wanted to be able to help leaders facing the same challenges. Since then, I’ve researched how to navigate crisis and successfully manage change and I’ve led many organizations through times of crisis – membership decline, employee disengagement, conflict, and declining revenues. Based on what I’ve experienced and learned over the course of the past two decades, there are three practices leaders need to rely on in a crisis – practices which offer a clear way forward, no matter what the situation.

1. Create community.

It’s scientifically proven; our brains are wired to resist change. When we encounter change, it lights up the pre-frontal cortex. Initially, we feel excited to innovate and willing to explore the unknown. But the cortex’s capacity is limited and quickly burns out, leading to feelings of overwhelm, frustration, and anger. In these moments leaders long to go back to the norm. Some leaders start to ignore the challenges before them, actively resisting the concept of change. As for the brain’s influence on change, there is an antidote: collaboration. Our pre-frontal cortex is closely tied to our fight-or-flight response, but we’re less likely to respond with fight-or-flight when we’re supported by, and in community with, other people. Collaboration is most successful when it incorporates cognitive diversity — actively listening to and engaging the participation of people representing different career stages, backgrounds, and experiences. The leaders of these organizations refuse to live within the confines of a hierarchy. Rather, they go beyond the boardroom and executive ranks to actively seek the feedback of mentors, think tanks, advisory boards, young professionals, and students. Some have even gone so far as to implement cognitive diversity on their boards, realizing the importance of having a team which accurately reflects the community. Collaboration aids leaders greatly in easing their fears, making it possible to adapt and accomplish change. We’d likely achieve more and fear less simply by having the option to talk through our fears. We’d be more likely to get out of our comfort zones and take risks because we’d be asking “why?” and “what if?” not as individuals, but as teams. Collaboration helps manage change and create something valuable out of chaos.

  1. Immediate next steps: Surround yourself with people you trust, whose values align with yours and with those of the organization. Bring this group of stakeholders together – people who aren’t just leaders by definition but by their attitudes and actions. People who are passionate about the organization, want to help your community of members or employees, and will support you on this journey. Collectively, determine the best course of action to best serve and engage your community. Collectively, implement the plan.

2. Narrow your focus to deliver the best services, products, and experiences as possible.

In a crisis, leaders are forced to think about their organization’s capacity and resources. It’s times like this when many leaders come to the realization they’re focusing on the wrong priorities. Leaders today still tend to equate success to quantity and profitability. This mindset is likely a remnant of the past two centuries when the approach to leadership was aimed at making money. We were building–quite literally–the American Dream. Manufacturing more widgets, expanding assembly lines, building bigger buildings, and generating more jobs. The leaders of this era focused on inspiring their employees to work harder to produce more to make more money. This approach to leadership was sustainable then. In today’s market, it’s problematic. An organization’s focus on quantity and profitability is evident when it struggles to articulate the mission, pinpoint a target market, and curb turnover or decline. The people working in these organizations tend to describe their work as “busy”. They feel stressed, directionless, disengaged, and burned out. The pursuit of quantity and profitability is a business strategy riddled with risk. Along the way, leaders lose sight of the organization’s purpose, vision, and people. Along the way, leaders lose sight of everything that’s important and the organization loses its competitiveness and value. Being hyper-focused on serving a niche, fulfilling a mission, inspiring a vision, and delivering exceptional performance is the best — and really only — way to compete in today’s market. Pull in the best experts, build the best curriculum, develop the best tools, build the best systems, deliver the best experiences – all the while practicing collaboration and community-building by staying in conversation with your team, and being more responsive to their needs. In the end, your members, clients, and employees are engaged, and your organization is driven by something considerably more impactful than profits and traditions.

  1. Immediate next steps: This is the time to immediately stop doing whatever it is that wastes your organization’s resources and draws attention away from what’s most important. In other words, cut the clutter, kill the sacred cows, stop the mediocrity, and narrow the focus. Clearly identify your competitive advantage and commit to doing fewer things exceptionally well. With your team of stakeholders, identify what your community needs to succeed and what the organization does – or needs to do — to effectively forge an emotional tie to your community of employees, members, and volunteers.

3. Communicate continuously.

Communication during crisis may sound like simplistic, even obvious, advice. However, few companies actually implement on this strategy. During a crisis, leaders feel vulnerable and protective of their organizations. Some opt to keep quiet, unsure of what to say or how to say it. Others have a belief leaders should stick to formalities and traditions – not showing weakness and certainly not wasting time on frivolities, like social media. And yet, it’s in moments like this one, we look to our leaders for support and guidance. It’s in moments like this when we desperately need and want our leaders to be in the trenches with us. For my book, Talent Generation, I researched organizations with extremely high profitability and high employee engagement, to identify the traits common among them all. In every instance, the leader was highly visible and communicative – not just in times of disruption, but all the time. These leaders were considerably more likely to engage in dialogue and continually communicate with their audiences, such as conducting pop-in customer visits, distributing video messages, and hosting town halls. Nearly all posted regularly to social media. Some even moved their desks to a different location each month, so they were constantly sitting with different team members. All of these leaders prioritized communication, seeking ways to actively listen to and forge relationships with their communities. They were their authentic selves, and shared their vision and passion continuously. When leaders communicate with positivity and consistency, it builds trust and loyalty. Many of these leaders also empowered their communities to be part of the story-telling effort, inviting them to partake in viral video or photography contests or author blogs on the organization’s behalf. As a result, widespread changes and grassroots momentum occurred, all which positively contributed to the organization’s culture, visibility, and branding.

  1. Immediate next steps: As a leader, find a way to authentically communicate with your community at least once a week. Go to the people. Be visible. People are craving leadership in a time like this, but you don’t have to do it alone. Engage your stakeholders, inviting them to communicate with your audience each week as well. Eventually their efforts will expand to a larger group of people, and your audience will begin to actively engage.

Make no mistake about it. Leadership really matters and it’s intended to influence and maximize the efforts of others towards the achievement of a goal. But being a leader doesn’t mean you have to work alone. Engage your community. Get clarity on purpose and communicate vision with the help of your community. Lead your organization from a place of collaboration and your organization won’t just survive this disruption — it will emerge even stronger and more relevant than before.

If you’re interested in putting these strategies into practice in your organization, but don’t know where to start, let’s talk about it!


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