How Leaders Can Keep Their Cool in a Crisis

The word crisis suggests something that happens infrequently. But these days, crises have become a regular state of affairs. Brands that you’d think would be fairly immune to scandal have found themselves embroiled in controversy.

And those that deal with public relations challenges regularly have still been caught off guard by a customer insurgency. Some crises disappear quickly and others never seem to go away.

When it comes to a crisis happening, the question seems to no longer be “if” but “when.” Every leader needs to be prepared. By their very nature, crises put things in a whirlwind and emotions run high. So it’s imperative that leaders keep their cool and make smart decisions.

To get inside the eye of the storm, we spoke with executives who have had to successfully navigate crises of all kinds. Here’s what we learned:

You can’t pick your crisis. The first thing to know is that you need to expect the unexpected. “Rule Number 1,” according to Jamie Moldafsky, CMO of Wells Fargo, “is that you don’t get to pick your crisis. You have to be ready.”

Brian Irving, former CMO of Hampton Creek, concurs: “Your crisis is not the one you think it’s going to be.” We suspect that Skittles probably thought their crisis risk was more likely to come from a food safety problem than from campaign tweets.

Others like Nordstrom and Oreo have similarly found themselves pulled unexpectedly into political debates. Regardless of the cause, the important thing is to have the right people, data, tools, process, and mindset to handle whatever might come your way.

Don’t leave it to the lawyers. When the crisis does hit, the first hours are essential. The usual response is for the CEO to huddle with his or her legal counsel and communications team. The focus is typically on assessing legal risks and figuring out how investors and the media will react.

But there are other constituencies that need to be considered, too. Customers, employees, and partners are watching to see how the company reacts. Are you being transparent? Are you taking responsibility?

Are you living up to your own mission and values? Involve your head of marketing and human resources early. They will have a perspective the lawyers won’t have and need to be in the room when decisions are made.

The story is worse than reality. A consequence of the tendency to “bunker” the executive team is a lack of information flow to the wider organization. Brian Irving has observed that “when there’s a void of information, people will create their own story. The story they create is usually ten times worse than the reality.”

Marvin Chow, VP of Global Marketing at Google, emphasizes how important it is to create a vision and then build and show momentum. He suggests starting with the senior team to ensure alignment, then bringing the vision to the rest of the organization to make sure they understand where they are going and why.

Once that is established, keep reinforcing the vision and show regular progress. This builds internal momentum and creates a culture in which the difficult or impossible becomes not only possible, but probable.

Find your north star. As a leader, it can be difficult to keep everyone motivated in a crisis, including oneself. Amy Friedlander-Hoffman, Head of Experiential Marketing at Uber, believes it is essential to keep “coming back to the core.” Personally, this means knowing “Who I am and what am I bringing to this.” As a company, this means, “Who are we and what is our mission?”

Jamie Moldafsky emphasizes the importance of staying positive and optimistic: “You have to keep your eye on the long-term.” According to Marvin Chow, it’s easy to point out the problems. The challenge is being someone who gives answers and solutions.

Stay true to your mission by focusing on the user or customer and doing what’s best for them in a way that is meaningful to the brand.

It’s not what you say. One of the consequences of digital and social media is that a story can grow exponentially and go from zero-to-crisis in a matter of hours. It also means that you don’t have the control over the story that you once had.

Many who have been through a crisis note a shift in their thinking. Jamie Moldafsky observes that the focus used to be solely on the question “What are we going to say about this?” Now an equal concern is “What are others going to say about this?”

The challenge is that by the time the crisis comes, it’s often too late for many brands. You need to create a bank of goodwill when times are good, so that when a crisis comes, a community of advocates is ready to speak up, reassuring critics and reinforcing your message.

Control what you can. You might not be able to control what people say about you. But there is one thing you can control: yourself. According to Jamie Moldafsky, “A crisis is a crisis. It’s all about how you handle it. And that’s within every leader’s control.” Amy Friedlander-Hoffman advises to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” You have a choice. “You can come in every day trying to get your job done, frustrated that you have to keep putting out fires. Or you can realize that putting out fires actually is your job.”

Fix the underlying problem. Sometimes a crisis is simply not your fault. But sometimes it’s a symptom of a deeper problem in your culture, product, or operating model. If you don’t fix the underlying problem, the crisis will go from “one-and-done” to one that goes “on-and-on.”

Hannah Jones, Chief Sustainability Officer at Nike, believes a company “should never let a crisis go unused or unleveraged.” Instead, use it as an opportunity for transformation. In Nike’s case, complaints about worker conditions in the late 1990s was the impetus to “tap into something deep within us about our values. We learned to respect differences, be empathetic, and find shared vision. We accepted accountability, apologized, and began to make the deep, systemic changes internally, in our supply chain, and to embark on a journey of collaboration and advocacy with the industry as a whole.” It’s too easy in a crisis to just treat the surface symptoms, and not look to the underlying issues.

The lessons learned by executives who have weathered a crisis are relevant to anyone who finds themselves in challenging circumstances. We all have to get better at overcoming obstacles, dealing with uncertainty, and staying focused in a changing environment. It’s good advice for everyone to be prepared, stay true to your purpose, involve others in solutions, control what you can, and work on the underlying issues.

Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking.

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