No one could have predicted, much less prepared for, the massive disruption wrought by the novel coronavirus, or the sheer velocity with which the crisis spread around the globe. Many organizations that had comprehensive pandemic response plans in place discovered they couldn’t implement them fast enough to get ahead of the accelerating crisis. Others saw their carefully crafted crisis and business continuity protocols repeatedly upended by evolving information and events.
When or how the Covid-19 crisis will end is at this point anyone’s guess. While we can only speculate about how society, the economy and people’s lives and livelihoods will be changed long-term, one thing is certain: Covid-19 has fundamentally altered how businesses, governments, public institutions and their leaders think about, plan for and manage future crises.
Here are five early lessons from the global outbreak to help your organization emerge stronger and more resilient than before.
Build Immunity, Not Plans
Instead of constructing more detailed crisis plans, organizations should look to the lessons of epidemiologists and focus on building immunity to future crises – biological and otherwise.
Crisis planning prepares organizations to respond when the unexpected happens. Crisis immunization strategies, on the other hand, focus on keeping the crisis from happening by uncovering and proactively addressing the root causes of crises – like the brittle supply chains and overreliance on outsourced labor that caught companies flat-footed as the virus spread and international borders slammed shut.
A well thought-out and thoroughly tested crisis plan remains a must. Actively heading off otherwise preventable crises significantly reduces an organization’s vulnerability to operational and reputational risk and frees up time, money and brainpower that can be put to better use preparing for more complex threats, such as a global pandemic, that can’t be neutralized.
Decentralize Crisis Teams
It’s tempting for leaders to want to be involved in every crisis decision. When the crisis crosses multiple borders, however, the centralized, command-and-control crisis team model at the heart of most crisis plans may prove dangerously short-sighted.
Where appropriate, consider decentralizing crisis leadership by designating separate teams to fight the immediate fires, deliver vital intelligence from the front lines and keep the company’s long-term growth plans in focus.
These groups might include a central team made up of representatives of all key corporate functions that sets overall priorities, assimilates incoming data, allocates people and resources and guides the short-term, tactical decisions necessary to restore key operations.
Another team could comprise a diverse network of local leaders and subject-matter experts who have their fingers on the pulse of key stakeholders. Their job is to provide a clear, continuously updated picture of what’s happening on the front lines; share feedback from customers, employees and other essential groups; help shape messages and ensure those messages reach and resonate with their intended targets.
While the first two groups are managing the immediate crisis, a third can be designated to keep watch on the long-term horizon and plot a course toward a strong and sustainable future for the enterprise after the crisis is over.
In times of crisis, people are motivated to act. What they need is a simple framework to act purposefully and help them make sound decisions quickly when emotions are high, information is limited and uncertainty reigns.
The most important thing leaders can do in times of crisis is to define and communicate the organization’s priorities so everyone understands what is important and what is not. Early on, these priorities are likely to include ensuring the safety of employees, restoring critical operations and caring for customers. Together with the company’s core values, these three-to-five clearly articulated priorities then serve as touchstones to guide decision-making, ward off decision paralysis and help managers make smart trade-offs when conflicts surface.
Know When to Hold ‘Em
How leaders “hold” those around them has nothing to do with #MeToo and everything to do with the way leaders reassure employees, keep them informed and unite them in purpose.
In psychology, holding describes the way in which an individual contains and interprets the environment in times of uncertainty. Containing is the ability to ease another’s distress, while interpreting is how people help those around them make sense of uncertain situations.
Effective holders use facts to reassure workers that the organization can weather the storm. These leaders help employees interpret conflicting information, give them clear direction about their roles in the organization and remind them of their responsibility to care for themselves and their families.
Holding is contagious. When leaders hold, they encourage those around them to hold, too. We may remember leaders for their charisma or vision, but it’s how they hold us when the chips are down that endears them to us and cements our loyalty and trust.
Winston Churchill took a daily two-hour nap during the darkest days of World War II. He saw these “siestas,” as he called them, as essential to reviving his mental balance, energy and spirit. But they also served another purpose. Nodding off in boring parliament meetings was practically expected. To sleep literally while bombs were falling signaled Churchill’s confidence in his staff and his belief that there were brighter days ahead.
Maintaining a personal self-care routine while bombs are (figuratively) falling does more than keep our minds and bodies in fighting shape and allow us to top off our emotional reserves. It boosts our confidence and sense of control and encourages others to follow our example. Leaders who don’t model self-care in times of crisis have only themselves to blame for their increased workload when the teams they count on hit their breaking points.
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A version of this article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of PRSA’s Strategies & Tactics.