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How To Manage Through A Crisis (with Mike Gibbons from Culture Assassins)

HR and business leader Mike Gibbons talks about how to manage through a crisis that affects your organization by creating a crisis management plan, getting buy-in from stakeholders and learning from past experience.

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Audio Transcription:

Timothy Reitsma

I recall sitting around the table in an executive meeting talking about planning in case there was some sort of crisis, a flood fire, or an economic shutdown. The conversation ended with, well, we have a lot of money in the bank to pay people for a while. So I guess we’ll be fine. Is this your approach to a crisis? Just throw money at it, ignore it, pretend your organization is untouchable. In this episode, I will dig into what is crisis management. Why is it important to have a plan and plan for the unpredictable? And what does the outline for crisis management plan? 

Timothy Reitsma

Thanks for tuning in. I’m Tim Reitsma, the resident host of People Managing People. Welcome to the podcast where people managing people and we want to lead and manage better. We’re owners, founders, entrepreneurs. We’re middle managers. We’re team leaders. We’re managing people. And yes, we do human resources, but we’re not HR, at least not in the traditional sense. We’re on a mission to help people lead and manage their teams and organizations more effectively. So if you want to lead and manage better. If you want to become a better organizational leader and a more effective people manager, then join us. Cupolas into the podcast to find the tips, tricks, and tools you need to recruit, retain, manage, and lead your people and organization more effectively. And while listening to the show, please subscribe and join our mailing list on peoplemanagingpeople.com To stay up to date with all that’s going on. 

Timothy Reitsma

Mike Gibbons, the co-founder of Culture Assassins‘ Media Company and a previous GM in the division of a Fortune 500 company, has led through a few crises in his career, navigating component shortages due to an earthquake to rebuilding an executive team. 

Timothy Reitsma

He’s a wealth of knowledge to share. On today’s topic, he’s also a contributor to people managing people and has written a few articles. Human Resources in Crisis Management. What HR Managers Should Do. Being one of them. So welcome, Mike. 

Mike Gibbons

Thanks, Tim. Nice to be here. 

Timothy Reitsma

Yeah. First things first. You know, I’d love to introduce our listeners to our guests in a little bit of a different way. So I came up with five questions, kind of a rapid-fire Q&A. 

Timothy Reitsma

And so I’ll ask, is your answer are clear and brief. So let’s see if we can debate, see if we can do that. 

Mike Gibbons

They need to be honest as well. 

Timothy Reitsma

That’s up to you. I’ll leave that up to you. I think our next podcasts will be on honesty and trusting guys. 

Mike Gibbons

Okay. Well, then, in the effort of building that honesty or that trust, I will be honest. So go ahead. 

Timothy Reitsma

All right. So first question. What is one thing that excites you around people management? 

Mike Gibbons

I think probably just understanding what people do and learning from them. 

Mike Gibbons

Right. So I think that the particular style of people management that I’ve always ascribed to is by more along the lines of servant leadership. And so, yeah, just just just learning from people and benefiting from their the wealth of their knowledge. 

Timothy Reitsma

It’s great. Next question. Yes. Favorite ice cream flavor. 

Mike Gibbons

Oh, Tigertail. You know, that’s less so. So I had the black licorice, an orange one. I did. It’s a weird one. My family just doesn’t understand why. But I love it. It’s so good. 

Timothy Reitsma

Well, that brought me back to the 80s. Exactly. What book are you currently reading and why? 

Mike Gibbons

I am reading. So I’m not a big business book person. 

Mike Gibbons

More science fiction fantasy. And I am reading a book called The Last Emperor. And it’s by John Sculley, who I think is probably one of the best sci-fi writers of our modern age. He’s awesome, entertaining. And so that’s why I’m reading a book. 

Timothy Reitsma

What is one hobby you would you have that you think everyone should be doing? 

Mike Gibbons

I’m going to say yoga. I think everyone should do yoga. It’s it. It’s not only good for your body. But I think it’s good for your mind and generates mindfulness and all those good things that help. 

Timothy Reitsma

Love it. Coffee or tea. 

Mike Gibbons

And what on earth is that? Even a question. Coffee every day of the week. Yes, four times a day. 

Timothy Reitsma

For those who are listening. Mike and I actually go way back, you know, back. Go back. 

Mike Gibbons

He’s working my coffee by the way. 

Timothy Reitsma

I actually reported to Mike way back in the day. We worked at the same company for many years and we actually are co-founders and culture assassins’ media companies. But for today, you know, I get the opportunity to interview Mike on the topic of the resource, human resources, and crisis management. So I’d love to just jump right into the article. So the article was found on peoplemanagingpeople.com. And it’s a good read and it really just outlines what is crisis and goes through the whole process and even provides an outline of creating a crisis management plan. So for just for my sake, what is a crisis in crisis management? 

Mike Gibbons

OK, so it’s a crisis basically is anything that poses a serious threat to the health and future of businesses, operations, finances, reputation, people, you know, any combination of any of those kinds of things. You know, a lot of the articles written in the context of the current pandemic with COVID 19, which is, you know, the definition of crisis, it’s affecting businesses are all around the world and affecting the health of those businesses. Kind of a few key characteristics of a crisis.

Typically, they’re going to be very high impact. Now, the kind of empathy level of impact is subjective. You know, you fire in a stockroom of a small business might be catastrophic versus, you know, a fire in a stock room of a large multinational might not be considered a crisis. It’s going to be a low probability. Right. So it’s not every day that an earthquake would that could collapse or building site. Every day that there is a global pandemic that shuts down businesses all around the world. 

Mike Gibbons

It’s gonna be unexpected. Right. So so you might be able to plan for kind of the broad strokes of of of a crisis, for example, having kind of an earthquake preparedness plan. But the actual we know when that earthquake is going to hit, no one can necessarily predict. And then the last thing, it’s going to be unique. Right. So every earthquake is going to be unique.

Every hurricane’s going to be unique. Every virus is going to be unique. And the kind of the last point is a crisis isn’t the same as a disaster. It’s actually a really good distinction made by the Louisiana State University. They say a disaster is a crisis with a bad ending. So that’s kind of what a crisis is in a nutshell. 

Timothy Reitsma

Yeah, it’s interesting. When I was reading the article and researching for the podcast, it came to mind as I hear people all the time saying that their life is a crisis. And it seems very dramatic. But you’re saying that you know, a crisis is something that, you know, it doesn’t happen all the time. It’s not something that is as common may actually never happen. 

Mike Gibbons

And so and it’s subjective, too, right. 

Mike Gibbons

So it’s all whatever you what do you whatever you perceive the impact to be. 

Timothy Reitsma

Mm-hmm. Yeah. And so in the intro, I talked about crisis managing through a component shortage. Right. It wasn’t an earthquake in our hometown, but it was an earthquake where a critical component was from. And, you know, did we have a plan around that? We didn’t plan for that to happen. But we had to scramble pretty quick. In order to prevent a terrible outcome from happening. Exactly, exactly. And so, you know, I’m curious, are there any other examples that come to mind from your career or that you’ve come across when researching to write this article? 

Mike Gibbons

I mean, there’s yeah. I mean, loads, loads and loads of examples. I think, you know, the one that’s that you and I were both a part of. And you know, which I touched on in the article and which was an earthquake in Japan that affected supply for our company. That was probably of the biggest ones. But it can also be you know, it can also be crises and leadership. Right. So, for example, you know, for the company that you and I worked for when the former president left the company,

I was that was a crisis, right? That was it was a crisis in leadership. And it had to be kind of managed through. So a crisis doesn’t have to be a natural disaster or a computer ROI virus or whatever. It can just be a threat to the business. That’s hard to predict. Hard to kind of plan for and is going to have had that big impact. 

Timothy Reitsma

So hard to predict. Hard to plan for but have a big impact. And so can you have a plan for any possible potential crisis that could come up? Is it worth to just sit there and brainstorm, you know, 100 different things and have 100 different plans or? 

Mike Gibbons

Yeah, I know it’s hard, it’s a hard one. So, so I think kind of the core of crisis management is. Yeah. You do, you do need to spend when it comes to the planning phase, you do need to spend a bit of time looking at the possible or likely scenario. So for example, you know, we’re in Vancouver. The company you and I worked for, the main facility manufacturing facility was is in Richmond, BC. And there is a fault line somewhere, right on a fault line. And so, you know, having some plans and having some level of preparation around an earthquake, for example, probably makes sense. 

Mike Gibbons

The same thing is if your, if you’re a business in Florida, in your main operations, are in Florida and there are lots of hurricanes that hit Florida, probably a smart idea to have some plans in place for handling a hurricane vs. you know, maybe earthquakes aren’t as you know, you don’t really need to worry too much about earthquakes because they’re just so unlikely, you know, it’s just not going to happen. I would be very surprised if there is an organization, you know, in the world that had a plan for COVID 19. All right.

I think, you know, having a plan in place for a global pandemic is probably along the lines of planning for the zombie apocalypse right here. You can maybe you can brainstorm no end to the potential crises that can come into play. But you need to kind of whittle it down just for the management or to be able that make it manageable to those that small subset of ones that you think could actually take place. 

Timothy Reitsma

I think that’s great. And I think we’ll touch on that a little bit later. You don’t necessarily have to go into the finite details of a plan. But, you know, we’ve seen most organizations within a couple of days have to go from, you know, working in an office to working remotely

Mike Gibbons

Exactly. 

Timothy Reitsma

And there are so many success stories that are coming out right now of companies being able to do that. So I’m curious, this is articles written about human resources and crisis management. So is it specifically for an H.R. person to implement and lead or what if there is no HR person? So is that then, you know, the leader or you just rock, paper, scissors to figure out who’s who takes us on or, you know, let’s walk through that a little bit. 

Mike Gibbons

So it’s I mean, in general, the articles on people managing people are they’re really aimed at anyone in a leadership position. A lot of it is geared towards, say, human resources professionals. But it’s also just in general, a general generally useful for leaders. So you imagine a lot of early-stage or startup organizations they might not even have an HR person, in which case it’s down to the founder or other leaders in the team to actually kind of champion this. You know, when when you talk about crisis management, crisis management really is about creating the plans and processes and the systems to handle a crisis and to, you know, ultimately to prevent the crisis from becoming a disaster, which is that crisis with a bad ending.

But also to really the goal of crisis management is to get the business back to normal operations as quickly and as efficiently as possible. And there’s a number of frameworks kind of out there on how that kind of happens prior. One of the most popular is from a guy named Ian Mitroff and he kind of outlines six stages, which is, you know, essentially detection of crisis preparation, containment, recovery from the crisis. And then he emphasizes a big part of it is the learning stage and can no-fault learning. 

Mike Gibbons

Okay, so we’ve gotten through the crisis. Let’s look back at it. Let’s not place blame and try to learn from it. And then from there, you start to redesign the crisis management plan. So when it comes to HR’s role in that in that crisis management planning, you know, they do a lot of the typical stuff that the HR does, which is, OK, let’s draw up a crisis management plan. HR will be the repository for that. They’ll typically handle a lot of individuals, coordinate a lot of the training and development that happens.

So, you know, if there’s first aid training, that needs to happen to be prepared for a crisis, what have you. And then they’ll also do things like talent succession planning. Right. So a lot of crises, unfortunately, and with no loss of life for or, you know, people being hurt and not able to do their job, in which case, OK, you need to have a succession plan and B, be prepared to kind of fill those holes and human resources, as is often the place of the team that does that. So in an organization that doesn’t have HR, yeah. It’s down to the leader or someone that they might designate as the leader of that kind of initiative. 

Timothy Reitsma

I think that that’s a great summary of HR’s role. It’s you know, they’re collecting data, maybe spearheading the planning process, and without a dedicated HR person, it’s up to the leadership of an organization. You know, again, it’s not like, oh, let’s create a plan and just put it in the closet beside the emergency kit and never look at it again. I think of the emergency kit, my house, and I opened it up a few days ago and realized, you know, all the food and water has expired years ago. So it’s just like here, your plan, you need to revisit it. You just don’t put it aside and forget about it. 

Mike Gibbons

No, it’s exactly right. 

Timothy Reitsma

Yeah. And so you kind of touched on the model that you’ve highlighted in the article and in my trough, you know, the sixth stage model. So, you know, is that really the kind of a standard model to look at when you’re putting together a good plan? 

Mike Gibbons

Yeah, no, I think I think it is just because I mean when you kind of think about it, it just makes sense. Right. And when you kind of look at it, I read that again, it’s a cycle, right. It’s you’re kind of starts of detection and ends at that redesign of whatever your plans that you have in place are. And so it’s a continuous cycle of doing that. Now, as as you said, though, you don’t want to just wait for a crisis to happen before you maybe redesign your crisis management system and plans.

Right? You do want to make that part of a part of a regular review, whether it’s annually or quarterly or whatever it is that you do. But you do need to make sure that they are in place. Right. I mean, the crises of, you know, natural disasters aside, the crises that businesses faced 50 years ago, there’s going to be some different ones that are facing businesses today. Right. You know, you’ve got things like computer viruses and those kinds of things. And so if you just kind of develop one and let it sit, sit for years on end.

The other odds are that they’re not going to be as relevant anymore. Yeah. And so. And then that’s. And that is part of HRs. You know, typically part of HR’s role is as the kind of repository for these types of plans to drive that kind of reexamination of the plans that you have. But the one thing I will say, though, is, you know, as any HR professional knows who’s listening to this, you’re not gonna get very far if you don’t have the support of the top, top leadership in the organization.

Right. So you might have a bright idea, you know, after listening to this awesome podcast here. And we should maybe do a crisis management plan, but you’re not going to get very far unless you’ve got senior leadership to buy in to actually do that because you need them to make it not only to draft the plans, but you need them when the crisis actually hits. Right. You need them to be actually doing what they need to be doing. 

Timothy Reitsma

Yeah, I agree. And I just think of organizations who they appoint a team to spearhead it. And it doesn’t mean the team needs to work in a vacuum in a silo on their own and brainstorm. It’s going to other leaders in the organization and thinks, okay, well, you know what? What would really hurt your aspect of the business or what should we be planning for? Right. So, you know, I led a global sales team. And if everyone on the team left quit overnight, that would be a crisis.

So who wouldn’t be able to take orders, process orders, service our customers? I plan for that. We need to plan. OK, well, OK. Maybe I should check the health of the organization. We need to be planning for training and development and have a healthy pipeline of up and comers. So does that signal detection and then the crisis preparation prepare for something? And, you know, we never like to plan for the worst. But, you know, I think one thing that’s come out of this global pandemic crisis is, is an increase of people creating wills right there. They’re planning for a crisis. 

Mike Gibbons

There’s a need for disaster. Yeah. Which is why that had a bad ending. 

Timothy Reitsma

And it’s there’s no likely there’s a very slim likelihood of anything happening, but it’s getting prepared. And then the containment of it. Are we are containing that crisis or is it going to affect all parts of the business and how we’re going to recover? But number five is No-Fault learning. And I think that’s key. I’ve been part of teams and organizations where, you know, there’s fingers pointing and somebody has to head has to be chopped off.

But, you know, no-fault learning is really OK. You know, where did we potentially go wrong? What could we have learned to done better? And then. Redesign. And I also think, you know, taking this plan and putting a plan together allows an organization. It allows organizations to pivot. You know, if something happens, let’s say the industry you’re operating in completely changes how in a very short time it could allow you to pivot. 

Mike Gibbons

Exactly. BI, you know what? What is? What do you want to bet that at least one company in the world is now thinking about a crisis management plan for handling a global pandemic? And that’s part of the redesign. right? It might not have been on the radar of a lot of companies, but I’m sure it is now.

Timothy Reitsma

And so, you know, I think it brings up at least an interesting point in my mind that so if, you know, HR or senior leaders can put this together. I’m curious about, you know, the role. So a crisis is happening. What do we then do? 

Mike Gibbons

Right. Right. Right. And so, I mean, that’s we’re kind of having a crisis management plan put together. That’s where that becomes important in a crisis management plan. It’s going to be a bit different than, say, like a disaster recovery plan. Right. Those are those two things that are elements of the kind of a lot of the broader business continuity planning that a lot of organizations do.

With a crisis management plan, really what you’re outlining are a few key things, one is first and foremost is who is the crisis management team? Right. And so these are the individuals who typically or represent kind of core areas of the business, whether it’s human resources, I.T., legal, public relations. What have you? And so and from there, once you’ve got that team, those are the folks who are going to shepherd it along. Right. They’re the ones who are going to do the quarterly or annual reviews.

And really, a really important part of that is you want to have someone on the team, at least one sort of senior leadership executive member on the team. Right. You want to have whether it’s the SEO or SEO or whoever, but you want to have some sort of executive representation on the team. A second big part of a crisis management plan, roles, and responsibilities. OK. So what does each person responsible for, what other teams responsible for? In the midst of a crisis. And then the last thing is what are some of those high-level processes and procedures look like?

Now, this is not you know, you don’t want to say, OK, in the case of an earthquake, here is the forty-five-page manual, step by step on how to deal with this. It’s just not practical. And the reason it’s not practical is that, again, when you look back at what the definition of a crisis is, it’s not only a low probability, but it’s also unique. Right. So every earthquake’s going to be different. Every hurricane’s different.

Every fire, computer virus, whatever it is, is going to be different. And so it doesn’t make sense to document with great detail how to handle each one of those, because ultimately, at the end of the day, every crisis management plan has to allow for adaptability and flexibility in the plan to respond to the unique elements of that crisis.

Timothy Reitsma

I like that. I mean, I, I read and speak and write in bullet point and so very simple picture. 

Mike Gibbons

The pictures are always good. You know, there is, Suzanne, there is one example. I can’t remember the company or what it was, but it was about a company that had it was like a 20 page manual on how to handle a fire or something like that. And they distilled that down to like a two-page infographic with pictures. That was ways here to follow. And, you know, it was way more manageable by people who are who were dealing with the crisis. 

Timothy Reitsma

Yeah. Keep it simple. Know don’t have 16 levels of signing authority that you don’t need to collect all 16 signatures before you move ahead with something. But it can be adaptable. And so, you know, I think a big takeaway for me is, you know, have a plan, you know, don’t necessarily overthink it, but be adaptable to it. So, you know, I think as we look to kind of wrap up, I’m really curious, you know, what’s one piece of advice you can offer to a leader who may be thinking they have it under control. They have everything under control, that it’s a plan. You know, maybe you have a specific example you can share and. And. Yeah. Right. 

Mike Gibbons

Right. Well, I think, you know. Yeah. So a couple of things. One is, you know, depends on who you are and your role in the organization. If you’re the CEO, then you probably have more control than, say, an H.R. manager in a 5000 person organization. So control is going to be really relative to who you are and the level of control you can have in a situation where which can include everything from, hey, I’d get decision making power, I’ve got spending authority, I can I’ve got a budget to spend money in during a crisis.

So that’s those are some of the things that are going to impact that control. And if you think you can control every situation. Yeah. No, that’s very unlikely. What you can control is you can control your reactions to the situation. Right. You can control how you’re going to adapt and react to whatever unique crisis life throws your way. Right. And that’s so. So that’s where I would when you think about control. Kind of give up on controlling a crisis from happening necessarily. Because, again, there is a low probability. They’re unexpected. They’re unique. And focus more on, OK, how can we control our actions and reactions when a crisis does actually happen?

Timothy Reitsma

Yeah, its control is such a broad term and proud word, and so so I like that piece of advice. You can control your reaction and how you show up as a leader, whether you are in an H.R. department or whether you’re a solo pioneer who may need to pivot or maybe you’re leading a small team. You can control your reaction. So that’s a great piece of advice. Yeah. 

Mike Gibbons

And we’re. And we’re. And just one last thing. I we’re seeing that, too, with COVID 19. We’re seeing lots of leaders controlling their reactions. Right. A lot of you know, especially for businesses that are having to shut their doors. You know, the instant reaction is, well, we’re not making any money, so we stop spending money. And what we’re seeing is, it is a lot of businesses do the opposite, that which is continuing to spend money continues that the pay their people despite not having that that revenue coming in. And that’s so that’s you know, those are great examples of leaders controlling their reaction to the crisis with the eye again of how do I get my goal as a crisis manager or as a leader is to get us through this.

And back to normal operations as quickly as we can. And a lot of these leaders realize that, well, if we maintain the trust of our people, if we keep our people engaged with the business when we do get through this crisis, we’re gonna be able to get back to normal operations quicker than that, our competitors. You know, I think one of my favorite examples is Delta Airlines CEO. I can recall his name now. He took one hundred percent pay cut. Right. And that was kind of to reflect his solidarity with the people in his organization. And, again, control his reaction to what’s happening. 

Timothy Reitsma

Yeah, it’s you know, I think coming out of a crisis in a global crisis will really shape the landscape of business. And we’re going to reflect back on, you know, how did we handle this in a No-Fault way? And I was reading a post on social media this morning about a young person who is going to be entering the job markets in the next year or so. And she was saying, you know, the question she’s going to be asking in the interview is, how did your company support your people through COVID 19? Great, great. 

Mike Gibbons

That’s awesome. 

Timothy Reitsma

It’s a great question. And it’s a fascinating question. And I think as leaders in business and in organizations, we need to be thinking about this not just from a PR perspective but do we do our actions reflect how we will be getting through this? And are they building trust? 

Mike Gibbons

Exactly. And I mean, and the answer may not be, well, you know, we continue to pay everyone because a lot of businesses can afford to do that. We just can’t afford to do that. But, you know, there are other ways that you can support your people through it. And whether it’s, you know, helping them find other work or, you know, whatever it is. And so I think I think I think that’s a stellar question. That’s something, you know, every person should ask a prospective new employer. Going forward. 

Timothy Reitsma

Yeah, definitely. And I think it’s you know, if you if you’re not looking for a new role and maybe you’re you will be hiring outside of on the other side of this pandemic, think about that question, you know, and reflect on that question. And if you don’t like the answer, then, you know, if this happens again. Right. A crisis isn’t something that is predictable or comes often. But just think about it and think about, you know, how could we have handled things better or differently? Or are we happy with the way we’ve we’ve handled this?

So, you know, with that, I want to thank you, Mike, and I’m sure we’ll have you on again. I think it’s the article found on peoplemanagingpeople.com really outlines the plan. And so head there. Take a look. And also, we’d love to hear your feedback on the article as well as the content that is being curated there. 

Timothy Reitsma

So with that, please subscribe to the podcast and leave a comment. Ask a question. Shoot me a note. We’d love to cover any topic that’s on your mind with regards to managing people. So have a great day and we’ll talk to you soon.

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