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How to lead in times of crisis - turning chaos into opportunity.  How to lead in times of crisis - turning chaos into opportunity.

I have been teaching for over a decade how speed of change will be a huge challenge for all leaders and will demand Agile Leadership

Strategies of large corporations always risk being overtaken by events.  Never has this been more true than in the last couple of years with COVID, Russian invasion of Ukraine and other major disruptions.

Your world can change faster than you can hold a board meeting - and I'm not just talking about political changes, energy crises, civil conflicts, trade wars or mutant viruses.

Every large business contains hundreds of potential Wild Card risks - each of which may be very unlikely, but the combined risks can be huge - with very high probability of disruption from one event or another in any year.  And in our globalised, hyper-connected world, contagion happens at astonishing speed, as one event impacts another, triggering cascades of further risks.

That's why we will see growing emphasis on Leadership Agility, Dynamic Strategy, back-up plans and Adaptive Risk Management.   

* "Life with AI - How to survive and succeed in a super-smart world" - Patrick Dixon's latest book on AI is published in September 2024 by Profile Books.  It contains 38 chapters on the impact of AI across different industries, government and our wider world, including the impact of AI on leadership and management.

10 steps to survive a global crisis

1. Take immediate control

This is no time for empowering distant team leaders to use their own initiatives to run operations around the world.

Bring strategic and financial control right back into the centre, and lead very visibly from the front.

Reduce the size of your decision-making group, make sure you really understand what is happening and why, and then be bold.

Pull together a crisis management team and use it to drive massive, rapid change, 24/7, rolling out central decisions.

Make sure you are seeing reality - huge risks that you are being fed what people think you want to hear, rather than the naked truth.

2. Tear up your old strategy

No time to be sentimental about this.

Dust off your Plans B, C , D, E and F – (F is for total market failure).  

If you don't have more than one strategy, then your most urgent team task after fact-finding and immediate damage limitation will be to create Plans B, C, D E and F.

If you don't. you may end up continually behind the curve if the situation rapidly deteriorates, with loss of trust, credibility and momentum.

When 9/11 attacks happened, British Airlines announced in less than a week a comprehensive survival plan, which involved thousands of staff laid off, and complete restructuring for the following months.  

They were only able to do this so fast because all the hard work had been done by planning teams months before. The airline had already developed a set of detailed responses for a wide range of potentially disastrous global situations.

3. Conserve Cash

Cash is King in any crisis – because crises always hit the balance sheet, usually far more deeply, and for longer than leaders initially expect.  

The good news is that all storms do blow over, but the full blast can be far stronger than you would ever imagine.

So cancel or put on hold all non-vital one-off expenditure.  Freeze major new deals.

Take every step you can to improve liquidity in the early stages, before the crisis gets any worse.

4. Communicate your vision at the speed of light - internally and in the media

Communicate fast, widely, and as openly as you possibly can, about events as they unfold and how you are responding.  

Vision is absolutely vital to inspire confidence and release energy: not just tactical steps to mitigate against damage.

Vision to sustain and drive the business forward, through and beyond the current crisis.

Make sure your own teams really understand what is happening, and how you propose, with their help to save the situation, how important their own roles are in all this, all pulling together.

Don’t rely on your media teams to front important interviews.  People need to see the boss on TV news, on social media video clips, on radio bulletins, confident, open, clear, transparent, and passionate about doing everything possible to meet the challenges, whatever they are.

If your company is being criticised, always ensure your tone is sincere, empathetic and humble, not defensive, aggressive, cold or arrogant.

Let people see how upset you are about the whole situation. How absolutely determined you and your whole team are to get to grips with what has happened, to ensure all right steps are taken immediately.

Don't allow legal teams to scare you into silence when your instinct is that some things haven't been done as well as they should have been done. Apologise early, and make sure you sound like you really mean it.

Lawyers may tell you that you may risk indicating culpability, but in a social media age you can easily damage or destroy an entire brand by what may otherwise be seen as callous indifference at best, or outright evil cover-up at worst.

It’s often a fatal error to put off making an official statement on a breaking news story that involves your company.  A delay of just a couple of hours can create a rolling-news vacuum which you can be certain will be filled by all kinds of other commentators – some of whom may well be very critical, and may set a negative tone for how the entire story is reported globally.

And when you issue a statement, make it clear that an update will be made very soon - and keep the promise.

And do remember to explain early to your teams and wider organization that market sensitive information can't be given to them before the rest of the world, which may mean that they first hear about upsetting news when the media does.  Otherwise you risk people feeling hurt and betrayed, for example hearing about a factory closure on the radio in the car on the way home only ten seconds after receiving an SMS message from the company.

5. Scrap your incentives and bonus schemes

Scrap the normal bonusable objectives and metrics – to ensure people are incentivized to do the right things in rapidly changing situation.  

Time and again I've seen examples where teams or business units are effectively penalised financially for doing the right things, because the performance indicators are out of touch with reality.

6. Use independent advisors to reduce risks 

Bring an external independent advisor into your top team as you reform strategy in real time, to challenge and correct blind spots, acting as your iunsurance policy against ovefrlooking impact of risks.

The greatest risk in a global crisis is institutional blindness.  

Just ask yourself one question: how many of the people you rely on have been in your company for more than 3-5 years?  Most people lose objectivity after 2-3 years in a company - even more so if most of their career has been in the same sector.  

Global crises are by nature multi-dimensional.  You just cannot afford to be surrounded by people with the same world view.

7. Focus on protecting core revenue

Make sure some senior team are totally focussed on protecting the core business, motivating people to carry on, problem solving.  You will need to give attention to other things - eg communicating the vision.

8. Keep major shareholders and lenders very close 

Owners and lenders need to know every day that you are on top of the situation, and deserve very regular and personal progress reports.

9. Seize the opportunities 

If the crisis is because of external factors, then your competitors, suppliers and so on may also be suffering.

Be ready to make money by wise use of cash to buy up distressed companies that are likely to have a great future, and which are a good strategic fit

If you have conserved cash well, mobilised teams rapidly, made bold decisions, gained a measure of control faster than competitors, then you may find massive opportunities presenting themselves one after another.

But don't do this until the worst of the storm is over; firstly to protect your own balance sheet against misjudgements about whether there is a second phase of the storm to deal with, secondly because as time goes by, it will be even clearer who to do deals with and on what terms.

10. Take time to think alone

The greatest personal risk for any leader in a crisis is losing perspective, exhaustion, failing to see the wider picture, not having enough mental space to create the "genius" insights and compelling vision which will totally transform the situation.

You cannot just manage your way out of a crisis, with tactical decisions.  Major crisis requires leadership which is very different.

Management is about following procedures and protocols.  Leadership is about tearing up the usual way of doing things, changing direction altogether to fit a radically different situation.

So make sure you also take time out to think, sleep, regenerate - the future depends on it.

Secret of implementing rapid change

Most people don’t want to change. Because they don’t see the point, or even if they do, they are all too often convinced that the end result will not be worth the effort, for them, for those around them, even perhaps far beyond that.

The secret is to win people over and make them enthusiastic drivers of urgent transformation.

Radical change happens instantly without a change management programme when everyone sees the crisis, knows what to do, and believes there is hope for the future.

Here is a fact:  if a major fire breaks out in a building, and there has to be a full-scale evacuation, and much of the building is destroyed, you do NOT need a change management programme.  

It requires very little management effort to:

- Get large numbers of people to suspend everything they are working on

- Get them all to leave the building rapidly

- Get them working hard on a major programme to restore full operational efficiency in a temporary building up the road

The problem is clear and demands urgent response. Failure to act fast, with total complete efficiency could mean some get trapped in the building and burn to death.  Failure to recover fast could mean major losses and some people losing their jobs.

So then, make the problem clear, explain what the urgent response is, give people hope that there will be a better future, and they will follow you into radical change.

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