There are two sides to leadership in times of crisis. One is managing the urgencies of the crisis; keeping people safe, ensuring business continuity, connecting with customers, managing the supply chain. The other side focuses on the “to be” state: leading people and organizations through the crisis. This side may be even more challenging, as it involves various individual human factors. In the current crisis with its inherent complexity and changes, this second side will be most critical for organizations to mitigate the impact of the crisis and come out of it stronger.
What does it take to get from managing to leading in times of crisis? I believe, it starts with trust. Sometimes, leaders have a natural tendency to micromanage to get a (false) sense of control. I believe this is the time to rely on the teams that you built and understand they are well equipped to take the best decisions in an uncertain environment. Trusting your team allows you to unlock time that you may invest in the leading side.
As the leader of Asia Pacific for GE Steam Power, I have been reflecting a lot on how to maintain a forward-looking, productive team spirit in these times.
I wanted to call out three traits that I believe are key to leading through crisis and beyond:
Transparency and communication
While I consider myself to be a naturally candid and transparent person, I find that these times challenge leaders to achieve a higher degree of transparency. Leaders should not only be open to their teams and explain the challenges that we will all be facing, but they also need to be humble and acknowledge that as a leader, they might not have all the answers – let alone the right ones.
This is a time where there is a lot of fear, frustration and uncertainty and leaders can help their teams maneuver the rough waters by sharing a vision of what’s possible and what it takes to achieve the possible. Getting teams aligned around this vision of how to get through this situation will give hope and focus the team’s efforts to reach the best outcomes.
This will require more frequent communications with your teams to ensure an even higher level of employee engagement than before. Maintaining a close connection to your teams is particularly important when people are working remotely, as all the informal communications opportunities like ‘water cooler conversations’ are not available.
While trusting means to be ‘hands off’ to some extent, it is important to make the team feel you are there whenever they need your support in these times of crisis.
Care and empathy
Everyone responds in a different way to a crisis, depending on individual factors. I realized rather quickly that some employees will be frozen by the crisis and drastic changes to their daily lives. Others will thrive during these times. Understanding this variation and structuring teams to their best abilities is a great way to demonstrate empathy.
A simple way of understanding how your teams are coping is checking in regularly and having non work-related conversations with your team members. A proactive approach can have an amazingly positive effect on teams in motivating and giving them hope. I am checking in regularly with each of my team members, and I try to use video conferencing tools whenever possible to make it even more personal.
One way I have found to help my team to cope is recognition. I am immensely proud of the great work that our teams at GE Steam Power are doing every day to keep power plants running and help our customers ensure continuous electricity supply to homes, hospitals and industries. I communicate this pride to my teams, and I recognize achievements even more than in normal times. This also helps support our common understanding of the purpose and why our work matters, and is a powerful tool in mitigating some of the uncertainties.
Quick and resolute action
In a crisis situation, waiting for the last 1 percent of information before acting could be an unaffordable luxury. Business leaders need to act quickly and resolutely with the information available to them.
Under these circumstances, we need to take mitigated risks and make decisions that might not rely on our usual 100%, tried and tested accuracy. We need to trust that these were the best decision with the best possible outcome at that point in time.
In a crisis, leaders need to become good at adopting a ‘Learn as you go’ approach. It is okay to make mistakes as long as you move quickly. Thomas Edison, the great inventor and founder of General Electric said, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” Speed is what matters here; failing fast and learning fast is critical.
Across industries we say that there are three phases to crisis situations. In phase one, you are in the “eye of the storm,” in the second phase you are redefining the environment and sharing best practices and insights gathered, and in the final phase you are adapting to the “new norm.” In Asia Pacific, countries sit at various phases, while some countries are beginning to move towards a full “recovery phase,” many are still in the eye of the storm.
Bearing this in mind, what the “new norm” will look like and when we will get there is difficult to predict. It is one of the things that we as leaders need to admit is what we don’t know. We will be expected to show resilience and take on the tough realities of the day, while inspiring our people with sharing our strong belief that we can power through the crisis.
A crisis is also an opportunity for true leaders to be forged. Leaders who succeed in difficult times because they understand the needs of the markets, the needs of their customers and the needs of their teams. Leading with transparency, frequent communication, sincere empathy and swift decision making will definitely take leaders a long way during this fast-paced, intense period of time.