How senior execs can guide companies out of crises

One of the more powerful weaknesses in crisis response is the lack of specific roles and assignments for top management.

One of the more powerful weaknesses in crisis response is the lack of specific roles and assignments for top management.

The result of this crucial gap in crisis management planning is the mismanagement, lack of management, or paralysis that afflicts crisis response efforts.

This defect occurs all too frequently in plans I review, responses I analyze, and scenarios I explore with client companies. In the course of directing a client's crisis response, analyzing past responses to crises, or developing powerful response strategies, it's clear to me that promptness and effectiveness of responses depend on having five essential responsibilities spelled out carefully in your crisis plans for the CEO (or surviving leaders):

1. Assert the moral authority expected of ethical leadership.
No matter how devastating or catastrophic the crisis is, forgiveness is possible, provided the organization, through early behaviors and leadership, takes appropriate steps to learn from and deal with the issues. The behaviors, briefly and in order, are:

  • Candor and disclosure (acknowledgement that something adverse has happened or is happening)
  • Explanation and revelation about the nature of the problem (some early analysis)
  • Commitment to communicate throughout the process (even if there are lots of critics)
  • Empathy (intentional acts of kindness and compassion)
  • Oversight (inviting outsiders, even victims, to look over your shoulders)
  • Commitment to never letting it happen again (finding ways to prevent similar events from occurring)
  • Restitution or penance (paying the price - generally doing more than would be expected or required)

    2. Take responsibility for the care of victims.
    The most crucial element in any crisis, aside from ending the event, is managing the victim dimension. There are three kinds of victims: people, animals, and living systems. It's top management's responsibility to see that steps are taken to care for victims' needs. This is both a reputation-preservation and litigation-reduction activity.

     Most devastating responses to crises occur when victims are left to their own devices, their needs go unfulfilled, or when, for some reason (usually legal), the organization that created the victims refuses to take even the simplest of humane steps to ease their pain, suffering, and victimization. Out of all of the CEO's essential responsibilities, taking a personal interest and active role in the care of victims is the most important. Maintain a positive, constructive pressure to get victim issues resolved promptly.

    3. Set the appropriate tone for the organizational response.
  •  Tone refers to internal management behavior that helps the organization meet the expectations triggered by a situation. If senior management takes on the posture of being attacked or victimized, the entire organization will react in the same way. Very rarely are large organizations and institutions considered victims. They are generally considered to be the perpetrators at worst, or arrogant bystanders at best.

    It's the most senior executives who need to set a constructive tone that encourages positive attitudes and prompt responses. This approach protects the organization's relationships with constituents during the response and recovery period, shows respect for victims, and reduces the threat of trust or reputation damage.

    4. Set the organization's voice.
    Put a face and a voice on the organization as it moves through the crisis. This action is directed toward the external world - how we describe ourselves, how the response is going, what responsibilities we're taking, and what outside scrutiny we're inviting.

    5. Commit acts of leadership at every level.
    Leaders acting like leaders has significance during urgent situations. Literally walk around and talk to people. Encourage, suggest, knock down barriers, and help everyone stay focused on the ultimate response process goals. Random acts of leadership are always welcome in any environment, but especially during crises.

    Rather than huddling in their executive offices, trying to determine what steps should be taken to resolve the situation, 90% of activities should have executives out and about, being leaders, motivators, and instigators of empathy. Of all of these, it's the prevention of similar occurrences that will help victims come to closure and provide sufficient evidence that enough lessons have been learned to avoid the need for litigation and other forms of public embarrassment and humiliation. All crises are management problems first. Preplanning executive actions can avoid career-defining moments. Include specific executive instructions in all plans and response scenarios.

  • James Lukaszewski is chairman and president of The Lukaszewski Group.

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