As any HR leader will tell you, crises are an inevitable part of the job. Tough situations pop up, and often they’re out of our control. How can companies weather a crisis and turn it into an advantage in the long run? In this interview series, we talk to seasoned HR leaders who share their strategies for weathering the storm and turning a crisis into an advantage.
Hi Paaras, welcome to the series. Can you share your story of when an organization you’ve worked at entered into a crisis? What happened? What did you do?
The COIVD-19 pandemic was a critical experience that impacted us all in one way or another. We have all talked about the impact of COVID-19 for the last few years, but it was one of the biggest challenges I faced that altered how I thought about work daily.
As a business, we doubled down on all forms of communication to ensure the messages were clear, timely, and concise during this time of immense change. Our leadership team held daily calls Monday through Sunday to effectively define direction, any changes or updates, and who and what we would communicate.
We kept an open conversation with our associates, clients, and partners at all times—even when we didn’t know everything.
I learned it was better to share what I did know vs. staying silent too long. In a time of crisis, it’s natural for people to fill in silence with assumptions. Sharing what we knew helped drive trust and confidence.
What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?
I was empathetic. We all were. Everyone was going through COVID-19 at the same time. Everyone might have had different driving factors, but a crisis doesn’t allow for much stability for anyone, so any time you can align on a vision or find a solution it’s really exciting.
My team and I were able to accomplish so much during this time because we had a plan. We over-communicated to show constant alignment, we had to prioritize projects and delegate tasks to work effectively.
Most importantly, we celebrated both our wins and failures. This is what truly got me through, and allowed me to show up every day refueled, and re-energized.
Can you please tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and how the company ultimately turned the crisis into an opportunity or advantage? What did the next chapter look like?
Generally speaking, during a time of crisis, humans are more inclined to want to accomplish things and feel successful. When a crisis occurs, there is a natural adrenaline and a desire to serve.
The key during a crisis is being able to understand what “good” looks like in the very moment and communicate that to your employees. You have to communicate and make it something tangible so everyone can deliver against it.
Our employees had to learn new ways of working via Zoom meetings and no longer meeting face to face. As a leadership team, we sent frequent health and safety updates to our employees as well as how we were performing as a business during uncertain times.
If you can be clear on the status of the business and what success looks like, then you can properly navigate through any hard moment. I believe this is how you must operate if you want to come out winning and better at the end of it.
Here is the main question of our interview: Based on your experience, can you share five actionable pieces of advice for HR leaders about How Companies Can Turn A Crisis Into An Opportunity or Advantage?
What "declare” really means in a crisis is you are calling “it” something. Declare that you know that something is going on and if it has a name—declare it.
In March 2020, our “it” and crisis was a global pandemic, called COVID-19. In a crisis, you have to face it head on like “We are going through COVID-19, as a company, community, and society and our commitment to you and our customers is…”.
Don’t pretend a crisis is not happening, empathize with what it might feel like to not know and start setting the state of what people can expect from you as you go through the crisis together.
Set up a communication cadence. Be clear on who your stakeholders are, what information they need to know, and the best way to get this information to them.
Additionally, ensure that your company knows the experts you are going to rely on and take guidance from. In the case of the pandemic, the CDC was a key resource that was leveraged.
It’s important to set these parameters so that people can be confident in the decisions you are making as a leader and understand where and who your facts and data are coming from.
Prioritizing is a big one. Often in a moment of crisis, you must double down and prioritize to deliver against the things that are most important.
No crisis is the same and the type will determine how you react. For example, when I worked in retail, if we had a bad storm that impacted a region and had to shut down stores, we fundamentally could not work normally and we had to acknowledge that. We had to reprioritize the work in a sustainable way that could be done until we were able to re-establish our new “normal.”
Making sure you are really crisp on the biggest priorities is essential so people know what they no longer have to do, and so they can prioritize the work in front of them.
Innately people want to help so identify who is best suited to drive the outcomes you need.
This is the turning point of a crisis where you can develop people in new ways that may not have been available before. Once people are identified the next part of delegation is giving people space to deliver where they can, try new jobs, make mistakes, and excel.
Celebrate and acknowledge when things go well. Celebrate as often as you can, and also differentiate and recognize those who are excelling and going above and beyond or other specific moments.
Don’t only celebrate the wins. Own and celebrate when it does not go right—it is okay to fail and try again!
Be vulnerable and be open to new ways of working, learning, and accelerating. This shows employees they do not have to be perfect all the time, and that you are not going to be perfect all the time and that’s okay. It shows that you have agility and can change course and adapt. It also sets the stage when you come out of crisis to capitalize on those behaviors.
Leverage this time to create new ways of thinking and checking in, not only to get you through crisis but also hopefully to accelerate your growth and accomplishments that come afterward.
What are a few of the most common mistakes you see leaders make when their company hits a crisis? What should be done to avoid them?
Often leaders want to instill confidence and a thought-out plan and, as a result, they end up waiting too long to act on it. I think these mistakes come from a great place, but communicating fast even if you have to change the direction soon after is okay.
I think calling it what it is is important and saying, “Hey, we are getting to you as fast as we can; we are sharing information as we know it,” and what that might mean is if anything changes you are making a commitment to come back and update that information as it becomes more relevant.
I think there is a tendency to wait to get more information, or wait to see what someone else is doing, which is important—especially for a public company. However, if you’re honest and share what you know, when you know it, and set the expectation that you also expect it can change, then I also think that goes a long way.
What advice would you give to HR leaders and organizations who have yet to hit their first real crisis?
First, make sure you spend time to have a great relationship with your CEO. Having an open and honest line of communication with the CEO is a fundamental pillar of business operations whether you’re in a crisis mode or not.
If you are in a state where you haven’t hit a crisis, take the time to think about a couple of times you’ve gotten close and create a plan for them. Even if you don’t know what it will exactly look like, you can start getting into the practice of executing against one and it will become muscle memory.
When you make these plans share them with your team and discuss what role everyone will play. Don’t wait for a crisis to hit to have a plan, find one that’s occurred and leverage that to know what your plan of action might be.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Kindness! If we could have a collective movement on kindness we could impact so much. I genuinely believe if people lead with kindness and always assume positive intent, the world would be a better place.
Thanks so much Paaras! How can our readers continue to follow your work online?