This article is part of a two-part series dedicated to helping crisis team leaders and team members prepare for their next crisis.
An average of 60 hours of training is required to become a certified first responder.
600 hours to become a firefighter.
And to become a crisis management leader?
A whopping zero.
And yet as your organization’s crisis team leader, although it may not be your everyday job to save human lives, a lot is still at stake—halted operations, downed facilities, lost revenue, damaged reputation, and many times the safety and well-being of employees and others.
Firefighters have hours of training building endurance, learning how to suit up, and then wielding the right tools so they can confidently run into their next burning building.
As your company’s crisis team leader are you prepared to do the same?
Here’s what you need to know.
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 the role, you likely already possess many of the skills and characteristics it takes to get the job done. Here are some of the most important ones.
Cross-functional Leadership: During an incident, the team leader must be able to lead and communicate the appropriate messages amongst all channels—up to senior leadership, down through various silos, and horizontally to coordinate the activities of various company components. The Harvard NPLI program refers to this as “leading across“.
Perspective: A good crisis leader must have the ability to think strategically and tactically at the same time. They can see the big picture and account for external influences on the situation, while also working on highly practical and simple solutions where needed.
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.
Extraordinary Self-awareness: Your response as the crisis management team leader sets the tone for how your team and others respond throughout the crisis duration. 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.
Crisis Management is a Team Sport
Great leadership often comes down to having the right team. As your organization’s crisis team leader, there are a few key steps you can take to ensure you have a well-rounded and complementary crisis response team at your side.
1. Define Important Roles and Capabilities
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. We often see many businesses skip this important step and launch straight into identifying specific team members. But this approach can cause things to quickly unravel when disaster actually strikes.
For example, the head of IT may seem like a shoo-in for the crisis management team—possessing leadership skills, technical know-how, and well-developed communication channels across all silos of the organization. But during an emergent cyber-threat, the IT director will be all-consumed with managing their own department’s stake in the incident response and unable to step away from their normal position to act as part of the crisis management team. In this case, your team would be better served with another expert who works alongside the IT director but has the bandwidth to respond when an incident arises.
Thoughtfully developed roles and capabilities can help ensure that your team can act at its fullest capacity during the next crisis.
2. Get the Team in Place
Once you’ve defined the roles that adequately encompass the key capabilities and functions you need in your crisis management team, it’s time to get the 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:
- a high-level of subject matter expertise
- extraordinary situational awareness, and
- a willingness to serve on the team
But having the right team doesn’t stop at filling the roster.
Each team member should be well trained and equipped to carry out their role as a crisis team member. This can be accomplished by meeting regularly with your team members and providing them with appropriate training, education, and mentorship.
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?
3. Making the Team a Team
Friction points and personality conflicts within a team are inescapable. And they are 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 a sense of familiarity and trust within the team.
Team training and exercises, such as tabletops, 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 both individually and as a team on a regular basis to make sure team members feel supported by and connected to the team.
It’s About the Process, Not the Outcome
As the crisis leader, it’s tempting to measure your team’s crisis response by the outcome. However, the outcomes of a crisis, even when well managed, are rarely optimal.
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 that need to occur
- Capture decision points
- Build accountability
- Determine where you are collecting your sources of truth
- Set the pace and battle rhythm of the crisis response
- Ensure that situational updates are communicated to the right people at the right time
Having a solid crisis management process will build trust within your organization and ensure that everyone stays level-headed and confident in times of crisis. And over time, it will help to build awareness, ensure that resources are properly positioned, and build connectivity within the organization.
Suiting Up for the Crisis: Your Next Best Steps
There is simply no substitute for experience. If you have the opportunity to work under a seasoned crisis leader, whether within your own business or at a partner organization, this is the single best source of preparation that we can 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 are invaluable to both you and your team in building the muscle memory needed to respond effectively to 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.
- Formal leadership training programs are another option. Many provide good training at a highly practical level but often fall short when it comes to addressing leadership training. The Harvard National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI) program is one with which we have personal experience and know to specifically approach crisis management training from a leadership training perspective.
- Good old-fashioned book learning is another way to augment your learning if time and resources are more limited. Although there are many books to choose from, we’ve found Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry & Jean Greaves and You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When it Matters Most by Leonard J. Marcus et. al to be particularly excellent.
A trusted consultant can be invaluable to smaller less-resourced organizations looking to build out specific crisis management capabilities. Or even to those with plenty of depth but who 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 who is also the right fit to meet the needs of your organization.
Brygthpath’s crisis management experts have extensive experience in evaluating, developing, and implementing crisis or emergency management programs in enterprises of all sizes. You can learn more about our services and capabilities here. Be sure to check out our Ultimate Guide to Crisis Management to learn more about our approach to Crisis Management.
You can read Part II: The Crisis Management Team at this link.