Navigating uncertain times: Expert Q&A on crisis management & leadership
by Sean Oliver, on March 16, 2020
As the coronavirus (COVID-19) rapidly reached pandemic status last week, it became crystal clear that this is no time for a “wait and see” approach to emergency preparedness. With communities all around the world instituting sweeping restrictions and regulations to help slow the spread of infections, every business operator must make swift, informed decisions about how their stores should adapt. But how can you do that when the very nature of a situation like this changes constantly, leaving executives, employees, customers, and partners in a state of massive uncertainty?
Our mission is to help leaders of retail, grocery, food service, hospitality, and other service industries become more communicative, collaborative, and culture-driven. We’re committed to offering resources and solutions that can help. In the midst of a crisis, your frontline employees who interface with customers all day are in dire need of real-time information from leaders. Unfortunately, because of the distributed nature of these large, multi-location businesses, they often feel like they’re the last to know what’s going on.
With this in mind, we asked Alex Budak, a lecturer at University of California, Berkeley’s HaasSchool of Business, and creator of UC Berkeley's popular "Becoming a Changemaker" course, for his expert perspective on how managers and operations executives can communicate effectively and embrace changemaking leadership during emergency situations. Read on for his thoughts.
Crew: What are best practices for executives or managers who need to communicate with their teams during a crisis, while being careful not to spread fear or panic?
Alex Budak: The key here in communicating is practicing empathy — putting yourself in the shoes of your employees as you craft your message specifically for them. Rather than seeing communications through the lens of your own stresses and pressures, communicate with a focus on employees’ concerns. Patti Sanchez found in her research that 50% of executives fail to consider their team’s feelings when it comes to change. Don’t be that type of leader. Instead, be the leader who thinks first about your employees and their perspectives and then creates communications from this place of understanding.
Crew: What are some nuances leaders should consider when reaching out to large, distributed teams across many locations?
Alex Budak: Be aware of biases and blindspots. Culture and context matter greatly, so if your communications are only read and vetted by people in a single office, or a single managerial level before being sent out, you will almost certainly be missing crucial nuance and perspectives.
Build an employee advisory board which is representative of your distributed team and ask them for advice and input. Make communication with them two-way: ask them to share feedback on your communications as well as to raise issues you might not yet be aware of, but which are important to them.
Crew: How can corporate leaders empower frontline employees to handle communications with customers who may have concerns?
Alex Budak: With a rapidly-evolving crisis, specific policies will change (just look at universities and the NBA for examples). But what need not change are values. Make sure frontline employees know what the values are when it comes to customer concerns. Is it customer safety above all else? Customer happiness? Transparency? Flexibility?
There’s no single right answer here — except what is true for your company. Make sure frontline employees know which values to prioritize and then give them space to execute in line with those values. Think of the Zappos employee who knows to prioritize customer happiness above all else (even if it means an hours-long customer support call). Focus on leadership which provides vision and values — not micromanagement — and then trust your frontline team to bring these values to life for your customers.
Crew: How can frontline employees themselves be changemakers during times of uncertainty?
Alex Budak: During crises you have an amazing opportunity in front of you. You can help concerned customers feel heard, valued and respected. You can solve real problems for them. Even seemingly insignificant tasks can have great impact on those you are helping so remember to regularly reconnect with your sense of purpose. Crises provide countless leadership moments — opportunities to step up and help someone. Seize them.
Timely, empathetic communication is more critical than ever in times of crisis. For more on how Crew can help employees and leaders bring the best practices Professor Budak describes above to life, click here.
Photo credit from NBC News