In The Chaos Imperative: How Chance and Disruption Increase Innovation, Effectiveness, and Success, authors Ori Brafman and Judah Pollack explain the “paradox at the heart of chaos”: drawing on examples from the Black Plague, they demonstrate how the crisis created the “crucible in which the modern Western world was forged.”
The Renaissance, one of the greatest periods of modernization and innovation, followed on the heels of tragedy. Brafman and Pollack argue business leaders today can apply this example to drive growth and profit during periods of disruption. They even advocate for introducing “controlled chaos” into an organization’s structure to spur new ideas—but, in the case of COVID-19, elements of chaos are, of course, already in motion.
If history serves as any indication of what’s to come after the pandemic, it stands to reason the current “landscape-scale” crisis will transform the market and introduce a new order of leadership. The businesses that survive the fallout will need to adapt quickly, which often means inaugurating leaders with a fresh perspective and ideas. Companies are looking for change agents prepared to shake up the status quo.
Here’s how you can redefine the existing structures at work, break through bureaucratic inertia, and ultimately realize new opportunities to advance in your career.
Set an Agenda
Establish priorities and KPIs based on your department and influence, which may involve any of these focal points:
- Cost control
- Staffing shortage
- Operational challenges
- Employee morale
- Supply chain management
- Stakeholder engagement
- Customer service and retention
- Revenue streams
- Payment collections and invoicing
- Brand reputation
- Business continuity planning
Next, identify 3-5 of the top priorities within your department and at the company overall—without conflating urgency with necessity. Re-evaluate your priorities at least once a week and use these points to allocate your resources and attention. As you brainstorm new strategies for improvement, keep this top-level perspective in mind.
Cultivate Executive Presence
In The Politics of Crisis Management, Arjen Boin writes, “Effective crisis leadership cannot be brought about by simply ‘doing the right thing’ on the ground.” Instead, Boin, a professor at Leiden University, argues that business leaders need to control the narrative. Evaluate your presence at work and within your industry. Do you maintain a calm composure in the face of pressure? Do your subordinates and peers believe that you are honest and transparent with them?
Prof. Boin says it’s critical for leaders to balance a reassuring tone with respect for your audience. Don’t sugarcoat situations or appear paternalistic in your correspondences. Employees aren’t children, and you’ll garner more goodwill by addressing issues head on instead of tip-toeing around them.
That said, you shouldn’t harp on the negative. Seek out personal connections with your colleagues, highlight improvements, uplift individuals for their contributions, and lead with empathy. Try to connect your communication strategy with a greater purpose, whether that involves your company’s product or service or a manifestation of the broader company culture. McKinsey & Company recommends what they term “bounded optimism”—projecting confidence and hope tempered with realism.
These 5 qualities help determine if you’re ready for the C-suite
David Ogilvy famously said, “Leaders grasp nettles.” Though the business tycoon and founder of Ogilvy marketing might never have imagined the circumstances of today’s crisis, the adage remains true. Leaders are people who don’t shy away from a challenge. But identifying the problem is just the first step toward developing a solution.
Ask yourself how you can intervene to prevent obstacles, mitigate the damage, or recover after a setback. Is there any way to turn the tables on the situation to serve your interests (or the company’s)? Even if your proposals are imperfect, make a list of your options, calculate the risks, and prepare a statement about what direction you think the company should take. Draw on every resource available to you—which might include coworkers, historical data, market research, breaking news, and more. It’s essential to understand current events as they evolve and have at least one or two trusted sources on the frontline.
In an article with Harvard Business Review, ghSMART management consulting company suggests learning how to make decisions rapidly and with conviction. This echoes U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous speech during the Great Depression: “This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. There are many ways in which it can be helped, but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly.”
When you only have incomplete information available, as is the case for many business leaders today, sometimes the best you can do is avoid decision paralysis. Make a move now to define your professional legacy.
Prove Your Support
Earlier this week, the Census Bureau reported nearly one-third of Americans show signs of clinical anxiety or depression because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic impact is great, but don’t let the bottom line desensitize you to your team’s emotional needs. When you interact with people at work, whether it’s in person or over video conference, show compassion for their experience. Try to spend at least a few minutes at the beginning of every engagement to ask how people are doing and express genuine interest in their response. If you manage a team, be as flexible as possible when it comes to scheduling working hours and addressing minor infractions.
Effective leadership is about more than just meeting your professional milestones—it’s about connecting with people and inspiring them to reach their full potential. If you can prove you’re invested in your team’s well-being, you’ll win their loyalty and support.
Crisis Management in Action
Crisis management doesn’t typically follow the top-down approach of day-to-day operations. New leaders emerge. As the old English proverb says, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” The pandemic is a tragedy for the entire global community, but it also creates the conditions that help distinguish new leaders. Now is the time to use whatever power at your disposal to build a better future.
If you prioritize company goals, apply yourself at work, and behave with integrity, use these experiences to advocate for a promotion. Make sure to record your impact (using quantitative metrics, when possible) and maintain visibility within the organization at large. If you want to advance professionally, conduct yourself in a way that makes your intentions clear.