How do good leaders handle a crisis?

When an event like COVID-19 disrupts our world, affecting the lives of employees and customers alike, how do we respond as leaders? It’s an important question because, as leaders, we are carefully observed. Our words and actions carry a lot of weight.

There were several years in my life when I was responsible for crisis management of global telecommunications networks. There are industry principles we practiced and lessons we learned that are relevant for the small business owner who’s trying to navigate through the uncertainty of COVID-19.

First, assess the health risk profile of your business with respect to its potential impact on employees and customers. Your primary responsibility is their safety. Consider changes to policies and procedures that lessen the health risks of running your business.

Second, act quickly and carefully. Decide what changes are appropriate and establish a timeframe to implement them. Err on the side of caution. This is a “people first” moment for you as a leader.

During a crisis it’s almost impossible to over communicate. Your employees and customers are dealing with a huge amount of uncertainty: your job as a leader is to acknowledge their concerns and describe the things you’re doing to lessen their concerns. Communicate calmly and frequently. Invite questions, phone calls and emails from employees and customers. Transparency and honesty are highly valued.

Choose your words carefully! While you may be losing sleep over the prospect of a business decline, the last thing your employees need to be subjected to is your own self-doubt and worry. Your job right now is to project confidence and to demonstrate that you’re in control of the situation (even if you don’t feel in-control!). People are looking to you for leadership in the classic sense: wise guidance on how they should deal with this challenge.

Plan ahead. Once you’ve addressed immediate responses, develop contingencies to handle a long-term event. What steps could you take to maintain business continuity if the disruption of COVID-19 lasted longer than 2 weeks? 30 days? 60 days? Which of those contingencies should be implemented now?

Finally, disruptions like this always offer opportunities. The situation is the situation: can you reframe the way your business is approaching the disruption in order to ethically increase business? For example, the cleaning service industry has the opportunity to reinforce the role they play in home and workplace cleanliness. The demand for one-time deep cleanings will increase.

How could your particular business reframe its offers to meet the shifting demands caused by the impacts of COVID-19?

Assess. Act. Communicate. Demonstrate confidence and control. Good leaders are calm, unflappable and in command of the situation. Your employees and your customers will appreciate and respect you for it.


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