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Mary Rose McLean on crisis management skills for leaders

Falling dominos - Mary-Rose McLean

Keeping your head in a crisis is a fundamental part of being an effective business leader. And when a crisis hits a business, good leadership can mean the difference between surviving and crashing out.

It can seem like almost everything has changed over the last decade in the way we do business. The digital revolution has transformed communication, productivity, where we work, how we deliver solutions and much more.

But one thing in business has stayed the same. The toll a crisis can take on a company, and how vital leadership is to ensure longevity and resilience.

Why crisis management matters

A business crisis can threaten a company at the very highest level. And to successfully steer the situation to a positive conclusion means mobilising the leadership team.

A crisis, by its nature, means that businesses can’t use the standard plans and procedures they have in place. A crisis needs something different, something specific, and something only a meaningful leader can provide. That’s why the survival of the business in a crisis rests solely on you as a leader.

Major crises can include anything from breaches of cyber security, extreme weather destroying products or services, and the sheer complexity of IT systems leading to more infractions. Whatever the crisis customer relationships, employees’ futures and the company’s own reputation are on the line.

The basics of crisis management

Any business leader facing a crisis should stop and ask these five questions before deciding on a course of action:

  1. What exactly happened?
  2. Why did it happen?
  3. How are we going to extricate the business from it?
  4. What route should we take?
  5. What do we need to get through this?

It’s inevitable that in a crisis, a business will not have access to all of the information needed. There will always be an element of the unknown, and under pressure from internal stakeholders and sometimes the media, leaders must make fast decisions. Leaders must defuse any tensions, inspire confidence in internal and external parties, reassure stakeholders and maintain focus on what must be done.

The first step for any resilient leader is to accept and acknowledge the crisis and that there is a lot of work ahead to deal with it. Uncertainty is part and parcel of crisis management and it’s vital that leaders stabilise the situation as soon as possible.

Four key crisis management skills

It’s impossible to know when crises will hit. That means preparation is key, and ensuring people are ready for any given situation is ideal. Business leaders should demonstrate four key crisis management skills:

  1. Task-orientated management skills

A leader needs to identify key issues of the crisis by separating them from the routine or irrelevant issues. This will help the leadership team, and the wider business, accept the reality of what they’re working with. They can then work out how to move forward.

It’s here that creativity regarding problem solving is important. This could entail leaders asking for support from others, bringing in consultants or external expertise or internal staff outside the normal team. The leader should also understand how to delegate and ensure that every aspect of the issue is being worked on by the appropriate people.

  1. Excellent interpersonal skills

It’s natural for everyone to have differing levels of emotional intelligence. This can also be developed and taught through appropriate executive coaching, active listening, acting on feedback and taking the time to empathise with others.

In addition, leaders must have communication skills that can be developed, practiced and honed. Media training is worthwhile too, as crisis management may well involve communicating with media outlets. This should include negotiation skills and knowing how to be influential in the right way.

An attribute that some business leaders find tricky, but that is very important, is being flexible. Leaders must be adaptable and able to change their mind in the face of new information.

  1. High levels of confidence

Confidence develops presence, which is especially important when dealing with the media or in communicating with the workforce. Being calm, pragmatic, credible and humane in the face of a crisis, are all important.

  1. Ability to manage stakeholders

Categorising stakeholders and understanding clearly importance versus influence is crucial. While some people within a business may be forgotten initially, for example, overseas employees, they will still be affected. Good leaders understand this and ensure that everyone is informed of progress.

A crisis is always going to be impactful, and it’s always going to be difficult for a company. But if leaders get their crisis management skills right, the organisation is far more likely to not only survive the crisis, but adapt, learn and improve.

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