In an unprecedented crisis like this one, business leaders are forced to exercise new muscles. They will be tested in unknown areas and will have to get creative in their responses. But most importantly, business leaders must learn how to manage the chaos of the present while leading towards a more promising future.
There are certain areas that can’t be neglected in times of crisis, and we want to share how your leadership teams can rise to the challenges presented to them.
A note on messaging
The first step is always acceptance. In order to steer your company through the storm, you have to admit that the rains are falling. By establishing a messaging platform that is transparent, authentic, and consistent, you will help your team and your customers to foster resilience.
Don’t sugar coat
Without openness, the public will quickly sniff out deception. In times of crisis, your people are getting messages from competing sources and they may not always know what to believe. It’s critical for leaders to get in front of their messaging—both internally and externally—so that company stakeholders have an anchor.
At the forefront of every meeting, you should address your employees’ state of mind. Acknowledge uncertainty and be clear about what you are doing—and not doing—to learn more about present circumstances. Providing frequent updates with transparency and consistency will improve your credibility as a leader.
Arjen Boin, co-author of “The Politics of Crisis Management,” advises leaders to
Avoid a “paternalistic sense of children that need to be shielded from bad news….You want to level with the people—to project the uncertainty that exists.”
McKinsey and Co calls this “bounded optimism”—a combination of realism and confidence. Leaders should not underestimate the impact the crisis could have. Be prepared for the worst-case scenarios and take the situation seriously. Employees will appreciate that you are considering the company and their livelihood in the highest regard.
Ira Helsloot, of the Crisislab, agrees: “We are longing for that positive message, but we will not believe the positive messages if the leader is not transparent about the negative part.”
Define and share priorities
As you establish a tone of transparency, it’s also important that leaders share the new priorities of the company. You can’t rely on yesterday’s playbook anymore, and stakeholders will be looking to you for guidance.
Unfortunately, during a crisis, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for a full set of facts. You need to embrace action. Define the new priorities for your company and share them publicly—early on. These priorities will be part of your consistent messaging. Even as information evolves, people should know what’s expected of them from their leaders.
McKinsey and Co calls this the pause-assess-anticipate-and-act cycle. Take time to collect new data as it unfolds, observe what’s working, and then act decisively:
“Visible decisiveness not only builds the organization’s confidence in leaders; it also motivates the network of teams to sustain its search for solutions to the challenges that the organization faces.”
Leading in finance
Your fiduciary duty has never been more important than it is during a crisis. Financial modeling and pivoting will allow you to evaluate different versions of an uncertain future and make sure that your business is prepared for the worst.
Know what’s working
Now, more than ever, it’s important to understand your business model and leading indicators of success (or struggle). Once you’ve identified those indicators, make sure you communicate to your leadership team on what they are, why they are important, and how you are monitoring them.
As you’re modeling scenarios, brainstorm ways the business can pivot with your sales, customer service, and marketing organizations. Now might be the best time to focus on a different customer segment or industry. Which companies have not been affected by COVID-19 that we can market and sell to? Who might need our services more right now than before?
You are in a unique position to discuss different scenarios with your leadership team. Model out as many scenarios as you think relevant, discuss those scenarios, and create relevant action plans for each scenario with your leadership team.
Although it can feel like a chaotic time, now is the best time to review your budgets and communicate with every member of your team—leaders, managers, and employees alike. There has never been a better time to ensure that everyone in your company understands how their actions affect the company as a whole.
While it may seem extreme, it’s also critical that you keep an eye out for fraud. Fraudsters have always tried to capitalize on disasters, and the current downturn is no different. The Federal Trade Commission, Better Business Bureau, and others have issued notices asking us to be extra vigilant.
After the 2008 recession, 55% of certified fraud examiners said that occupational fraud increased—both in frequency and dollar amount.
Layoffs and cost-cutting measures can leave holes in your businesses’ internal control systems.
Monitor your data regularly and consider a surprise audit to decrease the risk of fraud in your company.
Learn more about eliminating fraud in your company by downloading our free guide.
Find low hanging fruit
Identify and act on the easy adjustments to discretionary spend. Find the easily cut items, things that will reduce expenditures for the short-term as you focus on your core business activities and expenses.
If you have travel or conferences scheduled, be sure to reach out to those organizations to determine refund or postponement eligibility. Submit expenses and pay vendors on time to keep from paying costly late fees. When planning for the future, avoid overpaying for last-minute travel or shipping.
And of course, consider any flexibility with tax payments (per the new deadline) or federally funded loans. Adjustments like these can free up cash flow for the time being.
Leading in sales
In any strong company, sales and marketing strategies need to align. This partnership becomes even more valuable in a time of emergency. Harvard Business Review describes how even during a crisis, “building and maintaining strong brands—ones that customers recognize and trust—remains one of the best ways to reduce business risk.”
Maintain a culture of confidence
In times like this, winning is a state of mind. Your sales team is looking to leadership for reassurance and vision. Wherever possible, recreate the energy of the sales floor and celebrate victories—even small ones.
This kind of confidence depends on organizational alignment. Make sure that your teams know what “wins” look like in the new normal. Encourage employees to identify and act on what they can control and let go of what they can’t. Refocusing their priorities to match those of the company at large will build confidence in themselves and their work.
And remember, sales teams are competitive and social by nature. If you’ve had to adjust to a completely remote workforce, encourage productivity with virtual all-hands and closing celebrations on slack. You could also consider remote games, low-cost raffles, or simply, the virtual high five.
Honor the numbers
In both sales and marketing, the numbers speak volumes. Even though KPI targets may have moved slightly to compensate for economic and social changes, you shouldn’t ignore them.
Track successes and report updates regularly to your team members. Share dashboards with progress, engagement, and other sales cycle metrics, just like you would in the office. Just because you aren’t on the same sales floor doesn’t mean you can’t empower your sales team to push each other virtually.
And as you’re measuring successes, take the time to identify and double down on your most profitable channels.
Remember your audience
Knowing your customer isn’t a new marketing strategy, but it’s increasingly important in times of crisis. Take the time to identify the challenges your prospects face—both new and old—and really speak to them.
Just as your internal messaging needs to be transparent, your external messaging cannot be tone-deaf. Be sensitive to the current emotional climate. Continue regular and consistent customer communication; silence will speak volumes. Address what the company is doing differently and how customers are being affected. Stick to your tried and true target audience and strategies (and make sure you turn off any tests or previously scheduled content that is irrelevant today).
More than anything, continue to offer value. In times like this, customers appreciate genuine outreach—with the goal of helping them, not selling to them.
Leading in support
Tethr recently completed a study monitoring customer service calls from March 11, 2020 to March 26. In just two weeks, the average company saw the percentage of calls scored as “difficult” more than double—from a typical level of 10% to more than 20%.
Your support teams will be feeling the stress of this crisis, straight from the mouths of your customers. In order to lead with bounded optimism and empathy, these teams needs to be trained and supported.
Ensure tight communication loops
The communication loop between the executive team and customer success teams is critical. Ensure teams are receiving the right communication in a shifting landscape of needs and priorities. Close that loop by communicating the thoughts and fears of teams “in the trenches” back up to the executive team.
Create an internal “source of truth”—a document, video, or guide that informs team members about the current situation and what your business is doing in response. This doc should align priorities across every level of your company. If possible, you should also point customers and team members to public documents and messages about the company’s current course of action.
It may also be worth exploring the current toolkit your customer service team is using. Do they need better answers, saved replies, or even automated technologies? Consider what will best help your support teams to create a positive experience for your customers.
Go above and beyond
When you know that your customers are feeling uneasy, you should do all you can to relieve stress for them. They are feeling the pressure at work and likely in their personal lives as well, so be extra patient, kind, and supportive. Your customer success team is likely empathic by nature, but give them extra guidance and reminders to be helpful—even when customers calling in are less patient than usual.
Your customer will always remember the companies who were kind and fair to them in times of distress.
Shift your perspective to view clients as partners and offer resources, help, and ideas however you can. Sometimes, this is as simple as letting them know you are there for them.
Leading your people
The pandemic has changed the way we work, which means our workplaces look different now and will likely look different in the near future. You need to be prepared to engage with your teams on an even deeper level, all the while modeling resilience and level headedness.
Engage and empathize
First and foremost, your people need to feel safe in the “new normal.” You should do all you can to contribute to their physical well-being, supporting adjustments to remote work and good health habits. But you should also promote psychological safety. Team members should feel free to express fears or concerns, in addition to successes.
Perform regular “pulse checks” with your teams, so you know exactly where employees are feeling the strain. Empathize with the struggles and offer flexibility when needed.
McKinsey and Co explains,
“A crisis is when it is most important for leaders to uphold a vital aspect of their role: making a positive difference in people’s lives. Doing this requires leaders to acknowledge the personal and professional challenges that employees and their loved ones experience during a crisis.”
Identifying these challenges may require you to engage in new ways. Consider workforce surveys. Offer mental health resources. Keep holding weekly one-on-ones. Monitor overall team sentiment. Start meetings with interpersonal questions.
HBR says that one of the traps leaders fall into during a crisis is forgetting the human factor. Yes, being decisive and strategic is critical at this moment, but don’t neglect your people.
Rely on others
Another trap leaders can fall into during emergencies is trying to do everything themselves. A hyperactive need to control everything will lead to a less responsive and productive organization.
Rather, leaders can better mobilize their people by relinquishing the top-down mentality and setting clear priorities. Grant others the authority to discover creative solutions and implement decisions without having to gain constant approval. In uncharted terrain, you may find innovation from unlikely sources—so give everyone a voice.
Importantly, HBR reminds us to “embrace action, and don’t punish mistakes. Missteps will happen, but our research indicates that failing to act is much worse.”
Your people will look to you for a source of calm in the storm. In the face of uncertainty, you can be a model of resilience, confidence, and honesty—as long as you’re tending to your personal well-being.
Keep your mind and body in fighting shape. Establish self-care routines: not Netflix binges and gallons of ice cream, but moments of meditation, exercise, or even just healthy eating.
Be mindful of your emotional state as well. Trust those closest to you to look for warning signs that you’re overly stressed or not operating at full-capacity. Leaders are not immune to the personal effects of crisis and being attentive to your own well-being will enable you to maintain equanimity, even when others are losing their heads.