As any HR leader can 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?
Hi Rachel, welcome to the series! Before we dive in, we’d love to get to know you a little better. What brought you to this specific career path?
Finding my way to working for John [Kotter] was actually very unplanned. If you’d told me 15 years ago that I would be working at a consulting firm, I would have laughed you out of the room… but here we are.
When I began working for John, he had recently retired from Harvard Business School and had transitioned into teaching executive education courses, researching, writing, and speaking.
One of my “onboarding” tasks was to sit in on one of his executive classes at HBS. I had come from owning my own (very) small business and had never been to business school, so I didn’t know what to expect.
But John’s class had me on the edge of my seat. I remember laughing, crying, and questioning a lot of my own assumptions in those short eight hours.
As I have immersed myself more deeply into our work over the years, I am more and more motivated by what the ability to manage change can do for people.
My focus now is to do what I can to help as many people experience what I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of so we can create more leadership in more people and help us all keep forward momentum as we wade through this changing world together.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now?
One of the most fun things about my job is getting to play in all sorts of industries and help tackle all sorts of challenges. It means we always have exciting projects going on.
From a client side, I’m working with non-profits who are shifting the tides of tradition to evolve into 21st century organizations. Two are focused on serving families and children, so the impact is real, visible, and immediate.
Another client project is helping a large utility lead the efforts in climate change by transitioning the way we think about, produce, and consume energy. Obviously, that one has very real implications for the future of our planet.
The other exciting project I’ve been working on, which is a new frontier for Kotter, is the launch of our Certification Program.
For years, people have asked how they can get certified in Kotter’s change methodology. I can't tell you how many times people have asked for an online learning program to elevate their leadership and change management skills. With this new program, we can finally say yes, and people around the world can access the tools and skills to better lead change.
None of us achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are?
Oh, there are so many people who have helped me see myself differently and take new perspectives. But I’m going to have to go with the cheesy answer and say my parents. Specifically, when I was in my early 20s, I had everything mapped out to get my MBA and then start a business.
I’m a planner by nature, and people who know me well are usually hesitant to challenge me because they know how committed I am to a plan.
Two weeks before business school decisions were due, my parents sat me down and advised me not to go. They pointed out that I had seen an opening in the market for the business I wanted to start, and they told me they believed the better investment was in starting my business.
They said I could start the business now and, if it didn’t work, I could always go back to school. But I would never be able to get back the opportunity to start the business in this market if someone else stepped in to fill the need while I was in school.
I ended up not going to business school and not getting my MBA. I won’t lie… it took a long time to come to terms with it, but it was the best advice I’ve ever gotten. It changed the course of my career and my life, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
Can you share your story of when an organization you’ve worked at entered into a crisis? What happened? What did you do?
I would first ask what constitutes a “crisis.” Yes, there are some indisputable ones like financial meltdowns, wars, tsunamis, pandemics, but challenges come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of severity.
I think so much of what makes something a crisis is our labeling it as one. That label has resulted from a sense that an organization, or people within it, have been thrown into survival mode.
So, when have I seen an organization thrown into survival mode?
A company we worked with a while back had made many acquisitions over the years. Over time, they successfully optimized their supply chain to the point where they had far more manufacturing plants than they needed, and there was simply no justification to keep them all in operation.
Closing plants meant people were going to inevitably lose their jobs. It was a “crisis” the leadership team could see coming. To the credit of the organization’s leaders, they did not submit to the panic of how inevitable the closure of their excess plants was.
What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?
The leaders knew that they needed to approach communication with deep, deep empathy, which they did.
They showed up in person and spent hours in face-to-face conversations with everyone at the plants, shared the information they had, were honest about the information they didn’t have yet, and listened to everyone’s questions.
They also knew they needed to let the people who would be most impacted have a say in how the process would play out if they were going to keep morale up.
This company had the advantage of having had practiced these skills during less dire circumstances. They knew how to bring people in as not just recipients of change but also as agents of change. And their leaders had built confidence and trust in their people over time to feel prepared to tackle big challenges.
The forming of this muscle allowed them to approach their problem in a very non-traditional way that allowed them to avoid the situation becoming a crisis from the start.
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?
Because this company had built such confidence and trust in their workforce over time, they were able to go through this process in a way that might make many leaders uncomfortable.
Instead of laying out a plan for each plant’s closure, the leadership team shared the closure dates and then left it up to the team at each plant to determine their own closure process.
The affected plants got together and found that everyone wanted three main things out of the process: to feel they had been cared for; feel confident in their next step; and to show the company that they could do this without losing productivity.
The plants worked through exit plans for each employee based on role, tenure, and desire (some were happy to be the first ones out, and others wanted to stay until the last day).
They set up career counseling services and peer mentoring, and they continued their drive to show the executives what they were capable of.
On the day the plants closed, about 18 months later, nearly everyone said they felt supported and excited about their next step, and some of the plants even reported higher productivity than they had the day before the plant closures were announced.
This case was really an inspiring story of turning what we would all expect to be a time of crisis into one of possibility and opportunity.
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?
1. Support executives to lead through the uncertainty
As I mentioned earlier, executives should be building their change muscles before a crisis hits instead of trying to create those skills in the midst of one.
As leadership manages through challenges, both big and small, they will need support that allows them to navigate both their personal responses to the situation and the responses of everyone else in their organization while still keeping business priorities in line.
HR leaders can be well-positioned to influence and support executives in these moments.
This support can take a variety of forms, such as coaching or team sessions and should be tailored to the culture of the executive team.
As a team, they may need to focus on achieving unity around their vision for what a successful outcome looks like (not just “putting out the fire”); they may need to open their aperture to new ways of thinking about a problem (not attacking it “the ways we always have”); or they may need to be pressed to bring people on board earlier (not withholding information until plans are set in stone).
2. Provide tools for people to regulate their “Survive channel” and better access their “Thrive channel.”
Our most recent research at Kotter has focused on the neuroscience of change and the two radar systems that are constantly scanning the environment for threats and opportunities.
The radar system that detects threats (our Survive channel) is much more powerful than the system that detects opportunities (our Thrive channel). It’s easy for our Survive channel to become overactivated with all the change happening around us constantly. People need a new set of skills today to be able to keep their survive responses at healthy levels.
There are a number of ways to build this capability over time but, in moments of crisis, simple practices can help reframe the situation.
For example, when you bring small groups together in an informal setting, it can foster empathy through the sharing of their reactions to change, which facilitates a brainstorm of what outcomes are possible if they band together to get through the change.
3. Encourage empathy and transparency in communications.
There are two surefire ways to prevent people from seeing opportunity in crisis: allowing them to believe they are not being seen or heard and leaving a void of information that leads them to fill in the narrative.
In order for people to see an opportunity and feel they can contribute to something positive, especially in times of uncertainty, they need to feel valued and trusted.
Empathy means not just sending broad communications that state, “We know this is a difficult time for all of you.”
Instead, empathy requires taking the time to make connections, ask questions, and truly listen so those communications can be more meaningful and personal. HR leaders can use their unique knowledge of an organization’s overarching story to connect to employees and create a sense of togetherness that is critical in reframing a crisis.
Transparency requires frequent, honest, and open communication. During COVID, some of the most effective leaders held regular (sometimes daily) all-staff calls with updates to share the essentials of: “Here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know yet, and here are decisions we are making.”
Occasionally, there was nothing new to share, but they still got everyone together and gave people the chance to ask questions. This is just one example of a practice that can keep people moving forward together.
4. Invite people to participate in solving the problem
People have a default reaction to sense change is something that is being done to them and then shut down or reject it altogether.
However, if they feel like they can be part of solving the problem, they are far more likely to find energy to see what is possible rather than everything devolving into “us versus them.”
Instead of a small group at the top devising a mitigation plan and imposing that plan on the organization unilaterally (which sounds harsh, but how many of us have seen this again and again?), leaders can frame the opportunity that exists amidst a sense of crisis and rally people to go after those opportunities together.
Following through with giving people avenues to contributing to how a challenge gets tackled is key. It can’t just be a suggestion box that leads to a black hole. Leaders need to give people the chance to try new things and operate differently.
The great news is most of us have very personal, specific, and recent examples of seeing in practice during COVID, and we can use those stories as proof to convince leaders who may be hesitant to “unleash the troops” when so much seems to be at risk.
5. Use the challenge as an opportunity to innovate
Turning a crisis into an opportunity isn’t just about “finding a silver lining” in an otherwise dire situation. It’s about tapping into creativity and innovation to come out not just intact but ahead a workforce that still has plenty of gas in the tank to keep going.
Keep in mind that “simple” is not always “easy.” This can be as simple as creating forums to ask questions that often don’t get asked out loud, like “Why have we always done it this way?” or “What if we tried this instead?” or “What’s stopping us from doing that?”
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?
When a major challenge arises, leaders behave like any of us would when in survival mode. Their human fight, flight, or freeze instincts kick in, and they make decisions that are intended to protect their business and people.
What this ends up looking like is a lot of closed-door meetings where big decisions are made, followed by a big announcement or cascaded communications. It’s hard to blame them – this is how we were all conditioned through years and decades of how their respective industry believes business should be done.
Leaders need to be careful, though, because what can be meant to protect people can inadvertently overheat a survive response across the entire company. And that’s not good.
While some decisions need to be made by a small group of senior leaders, the need to keep things overly “close to the chest” can be left behind.
We can look to the example I gave earlier of the company with the plant closures. Was everyone involved in the decision to close the plants? Definitely not. But the leaders of that company were transparent about the situation, they were open about what they knew and what they didn’t know, and they invited people in early to help design and execute how they would tackle the challenge.
What advice would you give to HR leaders and organizations who have yet to hit their first real crisis?
Practice the skills you will need to lead an adaptable organization now – don’t wait around for a crisis.
Build and exercise the muscle you need to be able to adapt to change so your organization can tap into that muscle’s memory when people may find drawing on their natural survival instincts more comfortable, though not always the best choice.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
There are so many people out in the world doing great things, so the movements I would want to inspire are already well underway.
If you ask me which I care most about contributing to that help the most amount of people, I’d have to say education.
Our educational model has relied on its deep roots that grew in the early 20th century and those roots don’t serve the diverse, fast-moving needs of our society today.
It’s a herculean undertaking to turn this ship from a course it's been on for decades, and it will take a lot of people aligned and activated around a unified vision to make a difference.
Right now, there are a lot of people and groups working independently of one another to try to change the system. If I could wave a magic wand, I’d figure out a way to bring them all together under one common vision.
Thanks Rachel, great insights! How can our readers continue to follow your work?
Following Kotter is such a great way to keep up with the latest in what the firm and I are doing. You’ll find updates on the latest thinking around the science of change, articles to help you move through uncertainty, and plenty of ways to help your teams upskill and be prepared for the next set of challenges and opportunities.
Further insights from the series: