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Six-Step Plan for Leading in a Crisis

Alessio Symons

Alessio Symons

June 2, 2020

Gibson Biddle lecturing at a product leaders dinner

A Review of the Insights From Connected and Gibson Biddle’s Leader’s Lead Workshop with Global Product Leaders

Leading in calm waters is a challenge that requires an understanding of how to get a team steering in the same direction, convincing them to see what you see over the horizon, and understanding the right moments for soft-touch management or for more heavy-handed decisions. However, with the current uncertainty that the world faces, the waters are anything but smooth. The waves are pushing teams and companies in directions they could never have foreseen, the horizon has disappeared in the spray, and every moment feels fraught with significance in terms of business direction and people’s livelihoods. 

Being a leader in a crisis requires an almost-impossible-to-perfect mix of flexibility and rigidity. It’s important to reflect the reality of the global uncertainty, while staying true to your vision and purpose. For anyone leading in this time, or with experience from other crises, it’s apparent that what you have to say right now matters more than ever, especially for ourselves and our clients who are operating in the new world of 100% remote teams. 

With our experience of working within a number of companies, we put on a workshop for a group of product leaders, along with Gibson Biddle (former VP of Product at Netflix), to guide, discuss, and debate great leadership practices that will help ensure that teams remain engaged, impactful work gets done, and better products continue to be built. Here we’ve summarized the thoughts of over 50 product leaders to create a simple six-step plan for leading in a crisis.

1. Listen

This applies to everyone: your customers, your employees, and the wider marketplace. Don’t act rashly on invalidated hunches, seek out conversations with people across levels and industries to understand the landscape they’re navigating. Listening first gives you a platform to make impactful decisions, whether that’s for designing user-centric products or guiding a fractured team.

2. Refresh your strategy

Having a clear strategy ensures that you aren’t being reactionary to minor shifts in the wider landscape. However, COVID-19 is no minor roadblock, it’s a seismic event on a global scale. 

The secret is to not throw away the strategy you have in place, pivot it to meet the needs of your customers who are trying to navigate the new normal and want products that help them do so. Pivoting the plan according to near- and long-term needs of customers ensures that reactionary planning can be profitable.

3. Be transparent and authentic

Across a variety of industries we have seen large and small scale layoffs, and although the economic tide appears to be slowing, it doesn’t appear to be stopping yet. This means that your team—small or large—are hearing stories of friends, former colleagues, and family members who are losing their jobs, which creates institutional nervousness.  

At this time your team needs transparency about how the organization is faring in uncertainty and to feel that their leaders authentically care about their concerns. This means relating clear, measurable numbers—turnover, success metrics, etc.—and being honest about the personal and professional challenges that you’re facing as an individual. There is power in understanding and in your team feeling that everyone is in this together.

4. Act calmly and decisively

A crisis brings big groups of people close to the precipice of panic. When leaders seem to make decisions from a place of panic, teams of any size can be very easily pushed over the edge, causing a huge erosion of morale and productivity. For product leaders, panic is the enemy of innovation. 

When you’re making strategic changes that impact small teams or the company at large, it’s critical that you share out a clear vision of where the change will take you, as well as why such a change was made. The clarity and finality of your communication will help gain a groundswell of support that is often the difference between success and failure.

5. Create and maintain employee rituals

Community is a huge driver of team success. Being remote is a massive obstacle for imbuing people’s work lives with that feeling. The organic opportunities to share ideas, stories, and casual conversation have disappeared in the blink of an eye.

Leaders now have the task of engineering community. This means creating rituals for knowledge sharing, as well as socializing as a team. Because community can no longer be a natural offshoot of culture, holding lunch and learns, knowledge clinics, and remote socials can keep teams together even when distanced.

6. “Over” communicate

Big changes, little changes, personnel changes, team structure changes, health policy changes, revenue wins, successful projects, and so many more, are all reasons to engage with your team. As a leader in a time of uncertainty, no news is too small to share. People are inundated with bad news at present, so any extra context they can be given is useful. Don’t assume your people know what you know. Bring your team long together by making them feel like they are given information quickly and with full context.

Leading, even in simple times, is anything but easy. It’s a balancing act that can never be done perfectly. But as we move through the disarray of the COVID-19 and into (hopefully) the post-COVID world, great leadership will be necessary for those hoping to help their teams thrive in uncertainty.

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