Leading in a Crisis: A Walk Down Memory Lane  0

Smriti Handa
The task of leading during a sustained crisis is challenging. Some leaders tend to go with the flow assuming normalcy will soon return and some boldly distinguish between everyday problem management and long-term crisis impact. In this article, we understand how leaders’ behavioural response regulates their ability to overcome a crisis. 

Long period of intense pressure! Demanding times! Turbulence! Serious & unexpected outcomes! Demotivation! Failure!

These are not commonly used phrases in everyday business. In my 15+ years of experience, I have witnessed these in business meetings owing to a one-off situation that leaders are coping with; say a hyper-competitive environment in a growth phase of an industry or P&L challenges owing to price-sensitive customers or industry consolidation or impact of natural calamities etc.

As I look back into those times and think of the current pandemic, none of it happens overnight. It develops over a period. Some leaders tend to go with the flow assuming normalcy will soon return, thereby impacting the long-term health of all Key Performance Indicators. And then there are others who boldly distinguish between everyday problem management and long-term crisis impact. Leaders’ behavioral response regulates his ability to overcome the crisis successfully, and in majority cases, they leverage it for business benefits. Behavioral response stems from a leader’s ability to work with his instincts. His personal reflection of those instincts determines the fate (extreme!) of the business, customer, employee etc. Some great leaders that I have worked with have leveraged these instincts to outperform during tough times.

In this article, I will share my observations from my experiences while working with these senior leaders. While they could not control what was happening, they chose to manage their response by respecting their own instinct. That’s where their power lied! Think deep, because that’s where OUR power lies.

Experience and learning

Personal experience I:

We had been market leaders in a very strong position for the longest time. Suddenly hyper-competition hit the industry. Global players & local entered our market in dozens. I recall that at a point in time, there were clearly 11-12 players operating in each geography. Soon this will erode our revenues and customers. It will impact our market share. I remember the tension in the boardroom. Senior leadership was discussing counter-measures esp. given that global players had deep pockets. How to prevent the invasion of the existing customer base? In an open talent market, it could mean losing the best talent? How to manage price erosion? I could feel some rejection & remorse in the room. However, the leader was clear in his intentions; he wanted to protect the business, customers & employees. He identified with the situation, called out his fears openly and quickly switched to protect instinct.

To start with, there were quite a few bold decisions taken to ward-off smaller players with poor financial health in key markets. We decided to give a huge blow to them by tracking their top talent and hiring them. We identified markets where we had scope to impact their business health through vulnerable price strategy. We went ahead and launched our pipeline products in these markets first. Success in a few markets gave us the strength to push back tougher players by using various other levers.

My learning:

Fear & Protect are two very strong instincts. For those hungry to succeed, quickly identify the fears and move to protect. While some others may dabble with their fears and never have the courage to overcome them.

I realize that “Survival of the fittest” is well understood by mankind. It has been used and abused enough times for it to be forgotten in the day to day life. In a competitive business that is going through a crisis, a leader’s instinct actively identifies what could lead to extinction. Therefore, they fight their fears. That’s how leaders maintain their competitive position. They just don’t think, they do!

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Personal experience II:

Industrial area in which our manufacturing unit operated was highly impacted due to external turbulence. Units in the vicinity were shutting down for mid-term. In conversation with my Supply Manager, we were contemplating shutting down as well. Cases of external turbulence in that area were increasing. I could sense pressure on teams as shutting down the unit would mean a serious blow to our business, impacting revenue commitments. I was in an honest conversation with my supply head asking him to not give in to the pressures but do what is right by our people. I recall what followed! My supply manager took a deep breath. He reminisced about his past experiences of dealing with such crises.

We spoke about business continuity being the primary responsibility along with employee safety & health. We were clear on our focus on managing employee well-being. I wanted to play it safe, be cautious. However, he was not bogged down by the risk at all. He rather embraced the situation, relied on the competence of his Unit Head, HR team, employee maturity and past experiences devised a strategy and agreed with me that together we should be held 100% accountable. I know a lot of other units in the vicinity that shut down, I assume due to fear of the unknown. There was no analytics to prove that all will go well. He took a firm stance basis all available information and went with his gut. Kudos to such leaders! We emerged victorious as we allowed intuition to write our own fate.

Fear & Protect are two very strong instincts. For those hungry to succeed, quickly identify the fears and move to protect. While some others may dabble with their fears and never have the courage to overcome them.

My learning:

Tough times call for tough decisions” but don’t wait for an eternity for data to prove it for you. Let learnings from past experiences count. oft gauge the environment. Bank on your sixth sense that’s developed over years. In a crisis, time is of the essence. Ensure you act early on.

I have seen that leaders who emerge victorious take a stand earlier than later. They may not have all the data available to allow them to make just the “perfect” decision, but they follow their gut & trust their own competence. They don’t let every passing second to damage the team’s morale or strengthen the competitor’s belief. They don’t wait for data correlations & causation to be established to perfection.

They hear their team, evaluate the competitor, rely on their past judgements and available data points. Then they decide for the good of the organization and its people. Irrespective of the situation, no one can pre-empt the outcome of our decisions, BUT there is no way to know the outcome till we make a decision.

Personal experience III:

Our price-sensitive industry was witnessing a market share gain year on year. We had a functionally capable leadership that managed business growth. This growth was being managed by meeting customer expectations on pricing. Our bleeding P&L needed immediate attention. At that point in time, where functional heads were content with their ways of working over years and a growing business, it was tough for the newly appointed business leader to help them see the BIG picture. It would have been easier to blame past practices and external factors. Purely by data points, we were doing the best to hold on to our market share. However, for global stakeholders to continue business in this geography it was important for us to break-even.

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Personal Experience

Business levers needed correction- ideally all of them? Functional leaders needed to use their expertise in ways that meet organizational objectives. But who will bell the cat? How could a new leader call out current achievements as inconsequential? Without hurting sentiments of these long-tenured employees, asking them to reflect on the negative outcomes wasn’t an easy task. What I saw at the time was the leader’s ability to read through the personal needs of team members. He saw it as a consistent pattern- individual need to be respected, feel empowered and have strong personal connect with the leader. He read it well. That’s when rational discussions and P&L conversations would have failed. What was needed was trusting your own instincts and showcasing situational leadership.

New leader’s response was simple. He developed relationships with those who had been in the position of power for long. He invested time and earned respect early. He built their confidence that they were right as they “did the right thing always”, “believed in organization good” and “are focused on the long term”. He related with their need to meet their objectives. He showcased empathetic leadership. Everyone can plan on logic and rationality. That is obvious! Once you gain an understanding of the situation at hand, it is the ability to trust yourself and regulate your response according to it that counts.

My learning:

Empathy & connect lend themselves to affiliation. Great leaders recognize this and build on this to ensure they have the right ecosystem to lead through tough times. Upon recognizing the need for affiliation, leaders must work towards collaboration, openness and transparency to get the right answers quickly. Leaders who are not open to change their style or want to change others without changing for the sake of others often find it difficult to lead through a crisis. For teams to succeed, leaders’ personal role, agility and openness is important. Successful leaders don’t put the blame on the team’s inability rather they lead the team through it to reach the pinnacle.

To be successful, be an optimist who looks at the world with an open mind and is generous enough to accept it as it is. Click To Tweet

To sum it all up, we will not have all the answers before we make decisions. What we need are our gut, instincts and intuition. We need the courage to trust them. All these strong leaders overcame inertia by knowing that nothing is permanent- neither the crisis nor their decisions. They were open to making mistakes. They believed in the fragile nature of the ecosystem and therefore made decisions effortlessly knowing that they can be wrong. Decision making seemed easier to them as they had witnessed the frivolous nature of a decision from a longterm perspective. However, they didn’t take their responsibility lightly. They made the most of the information available at that point in time.

To be successful, be an optimist who looks at the world with an open mind and is generous enough to accept it as it is.

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