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Leading Your Organization Through Crisis

By Michael VanBruaene, Guest Blogger

What are you going to do when your organization has a substantial problem or is in crisis?  What will you do to overcome it and move forward; maybe not fully solve it but successfully move forward beyond it?

Be relentlessly assertive, and aggressive, if necessary.  There is a lot at stake and you need to do everything possible to solve the problem, even if feelings are hurt.  Of course you do not want to unnecessarily eliminate potential supporters or create enemies.  You will have to use discretion and diplomacy along the way.  

Be authentic, it’s the essence of being a leader.  This includes understanding your strengths and weaknesses and selecting team members and external resources that complement your strengths and weaknesses. 

Do what’s in the best interests of your organization and your customers.  This should guide all of your actions and decision-making.  You exist because of your customers and the products/services your organization delivers.  In some instances there can be a struggle between what is best for your organization and what is best for your customers.  What is best for your customers may be a new product/service you should deliver that could require substantial change within the organization.   Realistically, what is best for the organization and the majority of its employees will be the new products/services.  The challenge for you is to effectively implement the change.

Fully understand the problem along with the pros and cons of possible solutions.  You have to master the problem and solutions, to the extent necessary. Be insistent in requiring and obtaining all of the information you and your team needs to make effective decisions.  If the problem is fluid and subject to change, get out in front of it.  Strategize how it may evolve and determine alternatives to address it, as well as the extent to which you can affect how it is perceived by others.

Document the problem.  The effort of writing it will go a long way in helping you to clarify and understand the problem.  The same process should be applied as you develop a solution and its implementation.

You may have to enlist the assistance of technical specialists, but do not let their “expertise” cloud your understanding of the problem or overcomplicate the essence of that which has to be fixed.

Establish a framework or vision, for the solution, as soon as possible.  This provides a common focus for everyone involved and those you are informing.  Initially it can be a broad statement, with minimal specifics.  As you move forward with more knowledge about the problem and a possible solution you can continually add more substance to the framework and vision.

Be transparent about the challenge. Keep employees, customers, and stakeholders informed as often and as much as possible about the problem and solutions being considered, to the extent necessary.  You do not have to provide everyone with in-depth information.  It will use too many resources.

Be careful as to what you say, to whom you say it and how it you say it.  Communicate information succinctly and accurately.  Be honest about the problem at hand, but it’s not necessary to say everything about it.  State what’s in your best interest.

When it’s time to move forward with a solution you will need allies, and minimal adversaries.  Keeping them informed and obtaining their feedback may help you in solving the problem and also crafting the message about your solution.

If there is a lack of information harmful rumors can occur.  They can be countered by providing updated and carefully crafted information on an ongoing basis.

Be careful, particularly in fluid and substantial crises, about what you say and when.  You do not want to be too definitive too soon, when there is a good chance that circumstances will change in unexpected ways.  This is particularly important when you do not have control of all of the information that is flowing about the challenge.

Small decision making team is best. Balance the need to get as much input as possible into how to resolve the problem, with the need to keep your team as small as possible.  Having a small team does not preclude you from obtaining information, comments and perspectives from a variety of resources.

With a small team the chances for effective working relationships are maximized and dysfunction minimized; coordinating actions and keeping team members informed is facilitated.  It also makes accountability, effective working relationships, and managing information easier.

Your mindset and example.  Your personal approach to addressing the organization’s challenges sets the example for all of your employees. It will permeate how they apply themselves to their responsibilities and their interactions with each other, customers and stakeholders.  Be clear about the expectations you have for yourself and your employees.  Everyone has to be accountable for their commitments, including yourself.  And avoid any negative behavior as it will have adverse repercussions not in your best interests.

Your approach will also have an impact on those external to your organization that have an interest in the outcome of your efforts.

Be wary of those that simply question possible solutions, as well as those that are completely agreeable.  Are the questioners doing it from self-interest or because they’ve been molded to think that this is their role?  You want people on your team that while possibly identifying weaknesses in a plan, are also recommending improvements, and are able to describe why their recommendation should be considered; or at least be aware of them as they may have certain characteristics that benefit your team.

Sometimes more difficult to identify are those who agree with you, without doing any critical thinking on their own.  Like those above, you ideally want team members who are actively engaged with you in understanding the problem, and developing and evaluating solution alternatives.

Use public relations and/or crises management specialists if necessary.  Do not be reluctant to use public relations specialists and/or crises management specialists if necessary.  At a minimum meet with a few to get a sense as to what they could do to help you.  In the future, you should establish a relationship with a firm so that when a crisis occurs you can quickly get them involved.

Michael VanBruaene was a KPMG Director and blogs at “Michael VanBruaene – Pragmatic Approaches To Move You and Your Organization Forward”.  Go to his website for additional articles, tools and information. He can be contacted at

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