As many of us have witnessed firsthand in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, crises can throw us for a loop. When business conditions change suddenly and drastically and the future appears uncertain, getting your bearings and choosing a clear, deliberate path forward is a daunting task. You may find yourself and your colleagues alternating between the despair of seemingly permanent changes and the improbable hope that a return to “normal” is near. Somewhere between these extremes is a productive path to sizing up your situation, making choices and taking action.
One of the reasons that crises such as COVID-19, economic distress or geopolitical instability are so unnerving is that we often exercise little direct control over the forces giving rise to the crisis. What we can control is how we respond to those forces. It begins with how we perceive what we’re facing. Do we hone in on the danger and threat posed by the crisis, or do we look at it as an extraordinary challenge we’re motivated to overcome? Do we focus on what might be lost if the crisis overcomes us, or do we identify and pursue potential gains that might result from successfully meeting the challenge?
By adopting a positive — yet realistic — mindset, you can more readily rise to meet the challenges and regain some control over the path forward. In addition, you and your colleagues must also work together to take intentional, coordinated action and engage the rest of the organization in addressing the crisis. This requires a particular approach to leadership. The Center for Creative Leadership defines leadership as a social process that enables people to work together as a cohesive group to produce collective results. Effective leadership results in three distinct outcomes: direction (agreement on overall goals), alignment (effective coordination and integration of work) and commitment (mutual responsibility for the group’s success). When direction, alignment and commitment (DAC) are at high levels, people are able to work together to achieve results they would never accomplish on their own.
Here are five key steps that you and others can take to clearly frame the challenges you face and lead together. They will help you to build direction by articulating a bold and flexible vision, strengthen alignment by cultivating innovation through collaboration and inspire commitment by leading with empathy.
1. Question previously held assumptions.
The culture of an organization and most of its everyday practices are rooted in a shared set of deeply held beliefs and assumptions. Those collective assumptions help keep things on course and operating smoothly, but if taken for granted or not held to proper scrutiny, they can also create inertia. When your organization meets a crisis head-on, especially one that is “unprecedented” or puts the organization in “uncharted territory,” some of these assumptions will likely be upended — or at least seriously altered.
In the face of a crisis, it’s critical to examine the core beliefs about your business model, your customer and your people and see what might need to be re-examined. In addition to reconsidering the things you should or must do, also reconsider the things the organization has typically avoided. Perhaps the risks associated with certain actions, or the “reasons not to” matter less than they did prior to the crisis.
2. Put fresh assumptions to the test and unleash innovation.
Establish a compelling vision for what might now be possible and how the organization will rise to meet the challenge. Move forward in a bold and committed manner, but remain flexible and allow for course corrections. View new initiatives through the lens of lean innovation practices — experiment and fail fast, establish build-measure-learn loops, and create feedback and feed-forward mechanisms.
Remember, new challenges require new approaches. Upskilling your talent to be more learning-agile and fostering a growth mindset will boost your organization’s collective capacity and skill to generate and implement new solutions. Your efforts at innovation should not resemble a mad scramble. Avoid the temptation to run off in separate directions in a rush to execute — or, conversely, to spend excess time pursuing perfection, instead of executing on good-enough. Avoid these traps by dedicating focused time to gain alignment through collaborative conversations that balance the need for deliberation and the yearning for action.
3. Firmly re-establish the “why?” in the hearts and minds of your people.
Any efforts to bring a new vision to fruition will not be sustainable unless your people can connect clearly and deeply with the reasons they’re doing it. Make sure the new vision corresponds to the organization’s mission and values. Highlight how the effort and the sacrifices made can result in better outcomes for both the organization and its customers. Engage in regular messaging so the relevance and urgency of addressing the crisis can be continually felt and fuel the energy and perseverance needed to get things done. While embracing the new and bold things the organization is doing, also celebrate and find comfort in aspects of the organization’s culture and practices that are stable and enduring.
4. Bond through adversity.
If you want to cultivate the high level of commitment necessary to emerge successfully from a crisis, it can’t be all about setting and reinforcing the new vision and investing in rigorous efforts to plan and execute. Recognize that in asking a lot, your people will be going through a lot — physically, mentally and emotionally. So will you. Attend to others’ needs by interjecting empathy and active listening into everyday interactions. Acknowledge the strain that the crisis places on everyone. Don’t be afraid to express your own emotions and demonstrate some vulnerability; it’s actually a show of strength and helps build relationships. Keep communication flowing and encourage dialogue about tough issues. Engaging others in difficult decisions and providing choices whenever possible will foster shared ownership. As individuals adapt to new ways of doing things, reward their efforts and willingness to change.
5. Bet on your people.
Seize this moment to push people out of their comfort zone and encourage them to stretch themselves so they can prove to you (and themselves) what they’re capable of doing. The response to a crisis often necessitates some degree of reorganization, so do some intentional reassignment of roles and responsibilities to provide select people with new challenges and opportunities. Leverage the need for cross-functional work to break down silos and forge new relationships. At the end of the day, your talent will make a difference in seeing you successfully through a crisis; putting your trust and confidence in them can provide a tremendous boost.
Crisis has a way of putting us to the test. And while it’s far from ideal, the experience can take us to new heights when we embrace it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Working together to pursue these steps, your organization will find itself heading down new paths. As the organization collectively navigates the “new normal,” some points along the journey will seem arduous, if not painful, but continue moving forward together in pursuit of what you’re seeking. Resist the temptation to fall back into the “old normal” for the sake of comfort and familiarity. Instead, keep striving ahead and working to build and maintain direction, alignment and commitment — there will be a bright future for those organizations who commit to turning the challenges of today into the opportunities of tomorrow.
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