To handle a crisis leaders should create a "sense of urgency"

2 months ago 21

The adage “don’t let a good crisis go to waste” never rang truer than in the early days of spring 2020 when the pandemic first ravaged the country. Hotels lost all their business virtually overnight, restaurants shuttered—with many never reopening—and credit markets evaporated. So why did some leaders like Delta CEO Ed Bastian or Walgreens CEO Roz Brewer not only weather the storm but emerge stronger than before? 

The answer, according to Lynn Perry Wooten, Simmons University president and co-author of The Prepared Leader: Emerge from Any Crisis More Resilient Than Before, is being prepared not for every eventuality but with the right systems and people in place. 

“A prepared leader makes sure they’re creating a sense of urgency and should always be scanning the environment, looking inside and outside the organization,” Wooten told Fortune’s Lee Clifford at the inaugural Impact Initiative summit in Atlanta on Tuesday. “What are the political, economic, and socio-cultural trends we need to be [looking at]?”

The best leaders, she said, recognize they can’t plan for the specific details of a particular crisis and instead focus on systems in order to establish a set of procedures to operationalize solutions to whatever does come their way—be it a pandemic or the current energy crisis

Once they’re in the crisis, Wooten continued, exceptional companies learn throughout the process. She cited Walmart’s use of predictive sales tools that forecast an increase in Pop-Tart sales during hurricanes. So, when the inclement weather forces store closures—a worst-case scenario for any retailer—Walmart can at least make sure to stock up on the products it knows customers want and boost its sales.  

“Learning happens in multiple forms,” she said. Individual leaders should look to master a specific skill in their area of expertise; that way when the whole team comes together, it has the collective knowledge needed to succeed. 

Relying on a team is a hallmark of prepared leaders because they realize a crisis can’t be solved alone and will inevitably require help from others.  

“You want to make sure you have competent people on your team,” Wooten said.

To build the sense of collective identity needed to create something larger than the sum of its parts, leaders need to “invest in trust,” Wooten added. And the best way to build trust is with effective communication skills. Even in a crisis, leaders will have to be keenly attuned to the various preferred communication methods of their many stakeholders.

In fact, the primary thing she cautioned organizations against is ignoring any of its stakeholders. “What would I look like as a university president if I didn’t also care about parents?” she said. As Simmons University president, she made sure to distribute campus COVID-19 guidelines on social media for students, but via email (complete with a printable PDF) for parents. The execution itself was straightforward; what mattered was that she was intentional about reaching all the university’s stakeholders. 

It might seem like a small step, but for Wooten, it’s part of modeling the preparedness she hopes her students learn throughout their education and that they’ll ultimately adopt when they become leaders. There may be no way to definitively avoid crises in the future, but at least the leaders of the future can be better prepared to face them. 

“Every MBA student should have crisis leadership as a class because it’s such an important skill set,” Wooten said. 

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