Leaders can count on many certainties during the lifetime of their businesses. Many of these inevitable events are positive, but others, such as a large-scale crisis, can strike fear into the hearts of people overseeing an organization.

Crises come in many sizes, the larger of which include natural disasters, financial recessions or global pandemics. Although crises of this caliber might not occur frequently, their occurrence is inevitable. In anticipation, thorough crisis management planning can provide businesses the freedom, agility and unity needed to endure.

When businesses are considering ways to prepare for a potential crisis, they often focus on finances and technology while overlooking their most valuable asset: human beings. With the right leadership and a shift toward focusing on people and culture, organizations can withstand crisis — and even emerge stronger than before.

David Jacobson, a professor of practice teaching law, global business strategy and complex problem solving while serving as the executive director of online education at the SMU Cox School of Business, was recently part of a Cox School webinar on leading as a component of crisis management. Jacobson stresses that when leaders accept that uncertainty is a constant, they can better plan for themselves and the employees who depend on them.

We spoke with Jacobson on his idea of “uncertainty as a constant” and what that means for leaders of large systems during modes of crisis management.

Crisis: When, Not If

The knowledge that a crisis is inevitable can be powerful. Leaders need not be fearful when a crisis surfaces — instead, they can be empowered by the fact that they have prepared for it. They might never have perfect information on their own, which is why seeking counsel from others in the organization is critical.

Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter says that as a leader, you can’t possibly know enough or be in enough places to understand everything happening inside — and, more importantly, outside — your organization. Jacobson adds that, “The best we can do is to have a system in place where we have credible sources of information. In order to be credible, that means you have to have sources of information coming in that you don’t always agree with.”

Instead of micromanaging, leaders should listen to those around them both before and during a crisis.

“Strong leadership comes from being a good listener and a good collaborator,” Jacobson says. If they channel those attributes before a crisis even appears, the company will be better poised to weather storms of any kind.

Large Systems and Agility

All businesses should practice crisis management at some level, but it’s particularly critical for large organizations — think universities, corporations or government agencies — with myriad departments and moving parts. The more people within an organization, the more important it becomes to develop agility.

“To be agile means that instead of panicking and having all of your focus on trying to reclaim your past,” Jacobson says, “your focus becomes a study of listening and watching, and then using the people on your team to react accordingly and rapidly. Institutionally agile businesses have early-warning systems built into their data acquisition. As things start to happen, the data is being interpreted in such a way as to invite a question and a response. If you are going to be agile, then you need to be inviting divergent opinions with authenticity and openness.”

Another challenge faced by large systems during crisis management is the multiple levels of leadership. Top executives might have different plans and views than mid-tier leadership. Jacobson notes that leading from the middle, on a lateral basis and with technical competence and apolitical facts, will facilitate the best outcomes. Leaders should seek advice and input from all levels of employees and know when to relinquish control. This will lead to a path of agility and bring the spotlight back to the heart of any business, which is its people.

The Human Factor

The concrete and tangible aspects of crisis management, including finances and legal processes, are more straightforward and simpler to tackle. Oftentimes, what gets overlooked is also the most obvious.

At the heart of an organization are the people who make it tick. According to PwC’s 2019 Global Crisis Survey, employees and company culture should be viewed as any organization’s greatest possible strength. A crisis can have major psychological impacts on humans, so leaders should develop ways to mitigate their stress beforehand.

“If you’re asking what’s possible, then you’re already starting to think about what your customers, stakeholders, employees and suppliers might need from you,” Jacobson says.

Focusing on the human element also requires cultivating trust and emotional intelligence on the part of leadership. According to Jacobson, high emotional intelligence permits you to ask the right questions and communicate without undermining or marginalizing. Leaders can help their communities adapt and optimize themselves for potential crises.

The PwC survey echoes that company values, teamwork and integrity are crucial to maintain in a crisis, as anything less can harm the organization and harm employees long term. “Making values-based decisions can help bring the [organization] and its teams together and come through the crisis stronger and more unified than before,” the survey says. Having a team dedicated to crisis management in place, along with a clear communications strategy, will further foster that unity.

The human factor of crisis management can be simplified to this: Be there for your people and be present.

“Having their back means that you’re making sure the people who work with you feel heard, have the space to grieve and have the tools they need to get the work done,” Jacobson says. Leaders who are there for their team can look toward the future, whatever crises it may hold, with confidence and optimism.

Embracing the Uncertain Future

Creating strategies for dealing with future crises requires organizations to function within a new normal — one that they build with their people in mind. Planning involves testing, gathering data and having the courage to try new tactics — even if they’re unfamiliar or challenging.

“We need companies to have teams of people who are willing to lean into what’s ugly, to disaggregate ‘ugly’ into bite-sized pieces,” Jacobson says. “If you have good data and you’re technically competent with what your business does and what your customers need, then you can probably figure out pretty fast what you can let go of and what you can walk toward.”

As leaders strive to move their businesses and their employees confidently into a crisis or other time of uncertainty, the organization’s mission can stay active.

“If you can help them eliminate personal stress,” Jacobson says, “and give them what tools might have been missing, then they can focus on the mission.”

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