Adversity: It's Not Whether It Will Happen But How You React That Counts

June 14, 2010
Be clear about what you know, what you don't know and what you need to know to map out an acceptable course of action.

At some time you're going to face serious adversity. Maybe you already have. Your crisis may be an internal or external one, but it will come. The more extensive your leadership reach, the more likely you are to face these situations. The impact can be disastrous for your business and for you personally. Just ask executives at Toyota or BP. Once you're there, the only thing that matters is your ability to navigate through the storm. While each situation is unique, and there is no prescriptive formula for success, you've got to carefully manage these five things or you stand little chance for a successful recovery.

  1. See Things Clearly
    Your effectiveness in dealing with the situation is entirely dependent on your ability to thoroughly assess it. If you underestimate the extent and potential impact of the problem, you're headed for disaster. You must surround yourself with people who will tell it like it is. Your job is to listen to them and to assume the worst. Be clear about what you know, what you don't know and what you need to know to map out an acceptable course of action. Toyota executives have been criticized for either having been uninformed or for having ignored the extent and seriousness of acceleration issues. Did they see things clearly? Don't settle for anything less than a candid picture of the situation. Think worst case, not best case.
  2. Define a Successful Resolution
    You must carefully and clearly identify the set of outcomes that will constitute resolution. This includes delineating important milestones along the way. This is not the time for generalizations and high-level reviews. Details matter. Everyone must have the same understanding of what success looks like. A temporary fix or stopgap may appear to signal the end when the real work is only just beginning. As the one in charge, your definition of "resolved" is the only one that counts. Make sure everyone understands it even if it feels like you're stating the obvious.
  3. Command and Control
    Autocratic leadership is not in vogue. We'd rather think of ourselves as participative leaders who empower our teams to execute based on a high level vision supported by goals and strategies. We play at the strategic level and others handle the executional details. Forget all that for now. In crisis mode, you have to take control and stay on top of the action (and reaction) plans. This goes for communication as well. Control it carefully. Too much information from too many sources (even when well intended) confuses the situation and derails progress. Speculation and assumption are your enemies. This is the time to be more boss and less leader.
  4. Recognize and Manage Differing Agendas
    Here's a sad reality of crisis situations. There are people, both internal and external, who have interests that are in direct opposition to a successful resolution. Some may just love the controversy while others actually see failure as a personal opportunity. You had better understand whom they are, what is motivating them and then deal with them proactively. The more external the issue, the more carefully you have to manage this. Just look at everyone continually weighing in and critiquing BP's handling of the spill. Most lack the knowledge and qualifications to warrant the airtime, but that doesn't stop them. At best, remove them from the equation if you can. At a minimum, neutralize their impact as much as possible with logic and fact. Also, regardless of what you say, people close to the problem will be seeking to posture themselves for the inevitable question of who's to blame. It's human nature. Accept it, but manage it and don't let it detract from your focus on problem resolution.
  5. Don't Declare Victory Too Early
    You will want to, but you must resist the temptation to sound the "all clear." Nothing is worse than having to admit that what you thought was fixed is still broken. Better to let others conclude it long before you declare it. The mop up operation is just as valuable as ending the crisis itself. In the aftermath, while the information is still fresh, you can learn a lot about what happened, why it happened and how to prevent it from happening again. You'll be able to have a unique view about who performed well under pressure and who folded like a cheap lawn chair -- important learning for the future.

Adversity can be a great teacher and an effective filter. It shows us what we're really made of. It can unite teams or it can destroy them. As the one in charge, the result is in large part up to you.

Cory VanBuskirk is President of CVB Consulting Group which is focused on helping their clients grow profitably by embedding strategic thinking throughout their organizations as well as developing and implementing innovative customer relationship building processes.

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