In this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & Chief Executive Bryan Strawser discusses ‘Suiting up for the Crisis’ as a Crisis Leader.
Topics discussed include what it takes to be a good crisis leader, the importance of thinking about crisis management as a team sport, and crisis management frameworks. In addition, Bryan discusses where to find additional training and resources to strengthen your crisis leadership muscles.
Related Episodes & Blog Posts
- Blog Post: Suiting Up for a Crisis Part I: The Crisis Leader
- Blog Post: Before the Crisis: The Value of a Trusted Business Continuity & Crisis Management Advisor
- Episode #55: Crisis Leadership Roundtable
- Episode #75: Big Mistakes during a Crisis
- Episode #88: What is the goal of crisis management?
- Episode #96: Crisis Leadership in the time of Coronavirus
- Episode #104: Supporting the team in a prolonged crisis
Hello, and Welcome to The Managing Uncertainty podcast. This is Bryan Strawser, Principal & Chief Executive here at Bryghtpath. And this week I’d like to talk about Suiting up for a Crisis. I specifically want to talk about crisis leadership and how to think about being a crisis leader. If you think about it, it takes about 60 hours of training to become a certified first responder. It’s about 600 hours of training to become a firefighter. I’m a volunteer emergency medical technician and have been for several years. And that was hundreds of hours of my time between coursework and practical experience and hands-on experience on an ambulance and in an emergency room and continual education year over year to maintain my EMT certification. But to become a crisis management leader in your company, the requirement is no training, a whopping zero. But yet as your organization’s crisis leader, although it might not be your everyday job to save lives, a lot is still at stake, halted operations, downed facilities, lost revenue, damaged reputation, and many times the safety and wellbeing of your employees, your customers, your visitors, and others.
Firefighters and EMTs have hundreds of hours of training, building endurance, learning how to suit up for their job, and then wielding the right tools so that they can confidently run into their next burning building or help an individual in need of critical medical care. As your company’s crisis leader, are you prepared to do the same? Here’s what you need to know. Let’s start by what it takes to be a good crisis leader. A confident crisis response starts with the person of the crisis leader. If you’ve been tapped for that role, you likely already possess many of the skills and characteristics it takes to get the job done. But here are some of the important ones. The first is cross-functional leadership perspective. During an incident, the crisis leader must be able to lead and communicate the appropriate messages across all channels, up to senior leadership, down through their own silo, and horizontally to coordinate the activities of various company components. The Harvard National Preparedness Leadership Initiative Program of which I’m an alumni, refers to this as leading across.
A good crisis leader also has the perspective, the ability to think strategically and tactically simultaneously, at the same time. They can see the big picture and account for external influences on this situation, while also working on highly practical and simple solutions where needed. They possess extraordinary situational awareness. The crisis leader must possess keen situational awareness and have the ability to pivot quickly in response to changing circumstances and needs and they possess extraordinary self-awareness. Your response as the crisis team leader sets the tone for how your team and others will respond throughout the crisis. As a grounding force for your crisis management team and the entire organization, you must remain calm and unflustered in the face of a highly charged situation. The need for self-awareness also extends to understanding your strengths and weaknesses before it’s go time. A successful crisis leader will search their weaknesses with an eye towards improvement and surround themselves with a well-rounded team whose strengths complement their own limitations. Now, crisis management is a team sport and great leadership often comes down to having the right team.
As your organization’s crisis leader there are a few key steps you can take to ensure that you have a well-rounded and complementary crisis team at your side. The first is to define important roles and responsibilities. The first step to building out your crisis management team is to define the key capabilities and functions that you need to have at the table. Now, we often see businesses skip this step and launch straight into identifying specific team members, but this approach can cause things to quickly unravel when disaster strikes. For example, the head of information technology, your CIO might seem like a shoo-in to be a part of your crisis management team.
They have the leadership skills, the technical know-how, and the well-developed communication channels across the organization, but during an emergent cyber threat, they’re going to be all consumed with managing their own team’s stake in the incident response and may be unable to step away from that normal role to act as a part of the crisis management team. In this case, the team might be better served with a different expert from IT, who normally works alongside your CIO, but has the bandwidth to respond and represent the organization when an incident arises. Thoughtfully developed roles and responsibilities can help ensure that your team can act at its fullest capacity during the next crisis.
The second is to get the right team in place. Once you’ve identified the roles that adequately encompass the key capabilities and functions that you need in your crisis management team, it’s time to get your team on board. The specific skills and capabilities needed of each team member will vary by role, but in general, all crisis management team members should have three things, a high level of subject matter expertise, extraordinary situational awareness, and a willingness, a passion to be on the team. But having the right team doesn’t stop at just filling the roster. Every team member has to be well trained and equipped to carry out their role as a crisis management team member. This can be accomplished by meeting regularly with them and providing them with the appropriate training, education, and mentorship along the way.
And don’t forget about supporting your team during the actual crisis. Where do they stand emotionally, physically, and mentally, and are they getting the resources and support they need to effectively carry out their roles? And the third is that your crisis management team has to be a team. Friction points and personality conflicts are inescapable, and they’re often amplified under the pressure of an actual incident response. But your team needs to be able to work together effectively during times of crisis. That’s why it’s important to continually work on fostering that sense of familiarity and trust within the team. Team training and exercises like tabletops and simulations and other scenario-based training are the next best thing to a crisis for building a sense of team unity. You should engage with team members individually and as a team on a regular basis to make sure that your team members feel supported and connected to the team.
And remember that it’s not about the process, it’s about the outcome. As the crisis leader, it’s tempting to measure your crisis team’s response by the outcome itself. However, the outcomes of a crisis are rarely optimal, even when you manage it well. That’s why we think it’s best to measure the performance of your process rather than the ultimate outcome of a specific crisis response. In the hands of a good process, positive outcomes are guaranteed to follow regardless of how a particular crisis unfolds. A good crisis management framework will capture action items as they need to occur. Capture decision points, build accountability, determine where you are collecting your sources of truth, set the pace and the battle rhythm of your crisis response and ensure that situational updates are communicated to the right people at the right time.
I do want to go back, I called out the headline here incorrectly. It is about the process, not about the income. And I said that backwards initially. Having a solid crisis management process will build trust within your organization and ensure that everyone stays levelheaded and confident in times of crisis. And over time, it will help build awareness, ensure that resources are properly positioned, and build connectivity within the organization. So what are your next best steps to suit up for the crisis? Well, there’s simply no substitute for experience. If you have the opportunity to work under a seasoned crisis leader, whether in your own business or at a partner organization, that is the single best source of preparation that we recommend.
But not everyone has the benefit of side-by-side learning in a well-resourced organization. In that case, you have a few other options, training and exercises. They can be invaluable to you and your team in building the muscle memory you need to respond effectively in an incident. In particular debriefing past incident responses, whether your own or others can help you learn from the mistakes of others to identify strengths, weaknesses, and best practices. The second is formal leadership training programs. Many provide good training at a highly practical level, but might fall short when it comes to addressing leadership training. A great exception to this, the Harvard National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, or NPLI is one which I have personal experience and they understand how to specifically approach crisis management training from the perspective of being a better leader.
The third is good, old-fashioned book learning. It’s another way to augment your learning if time and resources are more limited. Although there are many books to choose from, we have found Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves and You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most by Dr. Leonard Marcus and the NPLI Faculty, to be particularly excellent.
And lastly, a trusted consultant can be invaluable in organizations looking to build out specific crisis management capabilities, or even those that have plenty of depth but are in need of a fresh perspective. Of course, we’d like to recommend ourselves for the job, but the most important thing is to find a consultant with not only the right skills and qualifications but is also the right cultural fit to meet the needs of your organization. That’s it for this edition of the Managing Uncertainty podcast, we’ll be back next week with another new episode. Be well.