Modern leaders face unprecedented challenges. writes Peter Andrew, Managing Director of CCI South Africa. In an environment of widespread global political instability, with a backdrop of new ways of working, changing customer expectations and broad economic uncertainty, leaders today are being tested on many fronts.Winston Churchill’s famous observation about never letting a good crisis go to waste – which he made during some of the bleakest days of World War II – is highly applicable today. How a leader approaches and manages a crisis can make or break their tenure at the top. So, how should they manage these challenges? These four steps are the foundation of my approach to crisis management.

Identify the core of your business

A crisis is defined as: “a time of intense difficulty or danger”. When things go wrong, good leaders must find ways to mitigate this difficulty and danger so that the business keeps running as close to normal as possible. This means identifying the core of your business so that you can put measures in place to ensure that the most important parts of the business continue without disruption.

If, for example, you run a human capital-intensive business – as I do – people are at the very core of your business. Here, a good leader must think about what their people need to keep doing their jobs. In some cases, this might require extreme measures. During the KwaZulu Natal floods in 2022, staff movements were limited, so to keep our operations running efficiently, we accommodated our key personnel in hotels close to their offices. This ensured that our teams could get to and from work safely while meeting our business continuity needs.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Communication is key. In line with this, it’s important to communicate honestly about the situation so that everyone knows exactly what is happening and what to expect. This is true of all external stakeholders and customers, but most importantly, the key constituency of employees.

Even leaders who favour a more collaborative approach need to be mindful that in times of crisis, employees look to their leaders to display decisiveness. Good leaders will offer a direct approach when it comes to communicating what is going to happen and what everyone needs to do to yield the desired results. And, if things don’t go well, then an agile mindset that facilitates a change in plans is essential, as is a clear and rapid line of communication with employees, stakeholders and customers to update them on these changes.

Be in the moment, but also hold onto hope for the future

If there is a crisis in front of you, you need to be in the moment. When our fight or flight instincts kick in, it can really focus the mind and alter how we do things. In action this means making faster decisions, taking more risks and tackling tasks systematically so that we can get through the situation. In saying all this, it is also so important to have hope that things will get better in the future. A thorough crisis management plan will set you up with the guide rails for strategic decision-making while leaving space for measured and timely messaging.

According to the World Economic Forum, the leaders who demonstrated particular strength during the pandemic conveyed messages of hope, with the idea being to help people see a path out of despair. Retaining hope is central to emerging out of a crisis.

Draw on past experiences

Good leaders should leverage previous experiences, whether it’s something personal or a business experience, when critical events happen. This is why a post-crisis debrief is so important because it presents an opportunity to learn and do better next time. As part of the debrief process, one might highlight the right people to call on should something similar happen in the future. Our learning from past experience has led us to assemble teams, both internally and externally, who can help us react quickly but with the necessary consideration.

And finally…

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to managing a crisis, but hopefully these guidelines start you thinking about what needs to be in place for a proactive, rather than reactive approach to crisis management. The benefit of planning for the worst, but hoping for the best, is that should a crisis emerge, you won’t have to start at the beginning and put together a recovery plan from scratch. With an agile mindset that gives the flexibility to adapt and adjust your planning on the go, you’ll be positioned for success, even in a difficult situation.

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