Leadership has been in the spotlight in the last few weeks; very obviously if you have been following the political dramas (that’s the diplomatic term, I think) of the General Election. Decisions made have immediate and long-lasting consequences, both personal for the individuals and for those that they lead, and us the public. Casting our gaze across the Atlantic we can study another approach to leadership – and I’m sure there are lessons to be learned from there but again I’ll be diplomatic. Leading a business is of course a different proposition, particularly if you are one of the owners. You are unlikely to suffer at the hands of voters, for example. You do however have to answer to your customers, and at times the press.
Just think of the challenges that the leadership at British Airways faced recently when someone (allegedly) switched off and on the IT system. If you are fortunate, you and your business will avoid the real problems our political leaders and the bosses at British Airways have faced, but if a crisis does occur what should you be thinking about, and more importantly do?
Importantly, you need to apply common sense in a difficult situation and be prepared to leave normal practices behind. Speed is key to understanding the scale of the problem; how it’s affecting your customers and other key people and, crucially, what is the solution and how long it will take to implement.
I have been through difficult situations in my business life, and here are my reflections and advice, drawing from lessons I learned (and I should say keep learning!).
IDENTIFY KEY RISKS TO YOUR BUSINESS
Even now, over two weeks after the problems erupted at British Airways there is still debate over the root cause of the catastrophic failure of their IT systems. You have to ask if they had really considered their critical risks and why contingency planning failed (if, in fact, contingency plans ever existed). In my experience, you have to fully assess the risks in any business and have plans in place to ensure you can act. With due respect to Marks & Spencer (and I know it’s marketing), there has to be more than a Plan A (and perhaps our political leaders need to learn this lesson too). So ask yourself – what are the Top Ten risks facing your business and how are you addressing these? If you are unsure, then your business needs to carry out a review and identify key risks and potential solutions. Also understand that this is an ongoing process, not a one-off review.
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Don’t be afraid to get external assistance to help with this fundamental discipline and to call in technical support in areas like IT or PR if your business does not have this expertise in-house. You will be expert in areas where your business excels, but not in others. Recognise this and get help. You should also test drive proposed solutions – don’t wait to discover that your backup power supply does not, in fact, work!
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If things do go pear-shaped you need to cut through bureaucracy internally and externally. Set up formal and informal communication channels with your key people and partner companies. This should include all key individuals who are working on the problem, your customer base and others who are feeling the full force of the situation. The external and internal communications challenges require different approaches. To elaborate:
You will probably find yourself having deep, difficult and meaningful conversations with technical staff on topics that are way out of your comfort zone. But now is not the time to apportion blame or to forensically analyse why things have gone wrong. The priority is to fix things and to show true leadership skills.
Your people need to know that you trust their expertise and judgement explicitly and they can count on your full support to fix the issue as quickly as possible. This could be financial or simply getting access to the necessary expertise and assistance. You need to set up regular update sessions (both written and verbal) and everyone needs to know that the business will be working around the clock to resolve the issue, so set up shift patterns that work plus guidance on timings of updates.
You must ensure that customer-facing staff have regular updates and are given the opportunity to let you and your team know how your customers are coping – or not – with the initial impact of the problem. You need to be fast on your feet to resolve problems as they present themselves. It’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver on the date by which the problems will be resolved. One week on from the BA crisis luggage was still finding its way back to its owners.
Don’t lose sight of your customers and suppliers as the crisis engulfs you and your team. Treat them as you would wish to be treated – with care, consideration and respect.
BA couldn’t email customers as their systems had failed, but they needed to maintain regular contact with their customers. Social media, text, calls and of course face to face discussions must be part of the mix. Not all are appropriate to every situation, but a call to a major supplier may be just the thing to buy you much needed time and grace.
You may not have a full grasp of the power of social media, but your customers certainly do. Look at the speed at which the BA problems were broadcast by disgruntled customers and the damage caused to United Airlines by that horrendous video, and how politicians are harnessing these channels (Macron, in France for example). Tap into the talent you may have within your organisation to understand the positive and negative impact social media can have (a tip – it probably doesn’t sit at executive level!).
You will also have to ensure that your other key relationships (trade and supply chain partners for example) are aware of the crisis. They may be able to assist after all. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – extraordinary circumstances, require extraordinary solutions. You will be surprised at how willing your wider
business contacts will be to help.
Can you assess who is most affected by the crisis within your customer base and address their needs? Consider Apple’s response when under pressure from the US agencies to open their operating system for security reasons. Apple stuck by their core principle – being on their customers’ side on privacy – and refused, despite arguably upsetting many important people. Their strategy was well thought through and communicated, whatever your opinion on their decision.
Simple steps, though perhaps initially financially painful, can make a huge difference. Dealing with large numbers of disgruntled BA customers could have been eased by providing water, food and hotel accommodation quickly and by avoiding further bear-traps (seeking to pass the responsibility to travel insurers, for example). You should ask yourself what can we do to mitigate the impact of the crisis on your customers, and on your immediate reputation. These steps could save your reputation over the long-term.
PR AND REPUTATIONAL DAMAGE
Your business may not have had any experience of crisis management before or have any external PR support . In this situation, spending some money on external professional communications support will be invaluable and should definitely be considered .
Your business’s longer term reputation could be impacted by the crisis, but the lasting impact of this will be materially affected by how you and your team deal with it. If you are seen to lead the solution, the communications, customer service and other relationships effectively, then the crisis will pass and you will have achieved damage limitation. Handling a crisis well can, in fact, enhance your reputation both internally and externally. I would still however recommend avoiding the problems in the first place if at all possible!
Don’t be surprised if very junior people in your organisation excel in a difficult situation, as it can bring out the best (and sometimes the worst) in people. Be alert to the people who are coping well and those who are not praise the great performers and support those who are struggling.
You also need to look after yourself and your team. You will all be living on adrenalin and will not be eating or sleeping well – you need to ensure the whole team get regular breaks, or fatigue will lead to poor decision making. Stress is inevitable for all involved, and while we all know this can be constructive – driving activity and great effort, for example – we all know how destructive this can be.
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Your business and your team will emerge all the stronger from the crisis when you take time to learn key lessons and not apportion blame. You will be a more effective Leader as a result of the experience, however difficult it is and your business should also be more robust post-crisis assuming remedial actions are taken.
We learn through experiences and great leaders develop through good and bad situations. As a leader you will be the focus of attention, and the pressure will be immense. I would urge you to reach out and talk to others who have dealt with difficult situations as it can be a lonely place, but in my experience you will get the support and guidance you require.