When everything goes wrong, whether it’s an internal situation or a national or global tragedy, employees look to their leaders for guidance.
This has never been truer than the current pandemic, which has stopped much of the world in its tracks. Employees are being forced to work from home and some face shelter-in-place orders. As the coronavirus continues to spread, workers are unsure of when they will be able to return to their normal routines.
Bob Rogers is the former president of DDI, a global leadership consulting firm, and a current executive coach. Having guided the company through many crises over his 25 years as president, Bob recently sat down for an interview to share his insights on how executives should lead through a crisis. He shared how a past crisis like 9/11 and the recession shape your legacy as an executive.
“It’s the crisis that defines real leadership,” Rogers said. “You’ve got to stay calm – it doesn’t matter how nervous you are on the inside; you must project a calmness. You got to be visible and be out there talking to people.”
Question: Crises come with difficult team conversations, especially when it’s a tragedy of such epic proportions like 9-11. How did you show leadership in that time?
Bob Rogers: This would apply to any leader in any major crisis. I immediately called an Executive Committee meeting and planned a few things we could do right away. For example, cut all travel and implemented a hiring freeze.
We knew our business was going to go down, and we lost a third of our revenue in a couple of months. We canceled 65 workshops in October, 2001, alone, which cost us quite a bit of revenue. As an executive committee, we came up with additional courses of action. Executives took a 10% pay cut. Bonuses were non-discretionary, so the bonuses went away for the year.
We increased research and development on virtual classrooms, so people could take our courses without traveling. We then had an all-leaders communication meeting and gave them some talking points about how to talk to the people about this and the impact it would have on our financial state. After talking to leaders, I held town talks for all our employees to communicate in terms of the actions that we would take and to try to mitigate their fears.
We were all fearful, but I was trying to stay calm and to dispel rumors because the rumor mill becomes very active. It’s impossible to kill the rumor mill, but the job of senior leaders is to make it accurate. Communication is extremely important.
The senior executives were visible and out in front, remaining calm and plotting a course of action to help frontline leaders with their communication to their people.
Question: During a crisis, emotions are high. People are dealing with trauma and true shock, and that’s the moment when the conversation that you have with those leaders is critical. It sets the tone for everything moving forward. How should leaders handle those conversations with individuals?
Bob Rogers: The key is the emotional state of your employees. And as a leader, you must connect with that emotional state. That includes listening and responding with empathy. It is a key emotional intelligence behavior that executives really need to hone in on as a crisis is occurring. Employees want to hear that leaders understand the frustration and fear they have.
It’s not as important about you, but you can share your thoughts, feelings, and rationale too, in a leadership vein about what’s going to happen to the company, what’s going to happen to employees. Leaders must be positive and calm and connect with employees’ emotional state. DDI advocates listening and responding with empathy.
Leaders should acknowledge their own thoughts, feelings and rationale to build a bond between themselves and their employees. Don’t tell them what to do but ask questions about how they can help the company get past a period of crisis. That makes people feel more comfortable – knowing that company leadership understands their fears. That’s probably the most critical thing you can do for your people after a major crisis.
Question: It’s always tough to face an internal crisis, such as the unexpected death of a coworker or another internal issue. How have you handled those types of experiences? How did you help your team through that process?
Bob Rogers: No matter what the situation is, people to have confidence in their leaders and to look towards the future.Times of crisis are when leaders show their true character, not in the easy times, but in the hard times. Whether it’s a death, terrorist attack, financial recession or pandemic, that’s when leaders got to step up and show their character.
Question: During a crisis, rumors start to circulate and are hard to stop. How do leaders prevent the rumor mill from going crazy?
Bob Rogers: The rumor mill is one of the most destructive things in a company, and you can’t get rid of it. Leaders need to make the rumor mill accurate by sharing information and ensuring regular, almost continuous, communication.
Think of our current crisis and how much we’re hearing from our government leaders. Ambiguity causes bad things in organizations, so leaders must be communicating. You can never over-communicate, and that is particularly true in a crisis.
Preparing communications for every level of leadership is important. I was not afraid to address rumors that I had heard. If there was an untrue rumor out there, I jumped on it right away or had my leaders jump on it right away. Employees don’t want ambiguity or inaccurate things going on because the rumor mill has spread. Rumors tend to get worse as they spread.
Question: Do you have any final words of advice for people dealing with the coronavirus pandemic or other crises?
Bob Rogers: It’s important to remember to stay calm and take charge, continually communicate and address rumors, focus on the future, and inspire confidence that the organization’s future is still good.
The more leaders focus teams on the future and use their expertise, the more people will go back to work with purpose in their mind.
Stress is caused when you feel like you don’t have any control of things. So, as a leader, give your other leaders degrees of freedom to take action. This is even more important in a crisis because with stress and ambiguity levels up, leaders must address those feelings through their decisions and interactions.
It’s all about taking charge, staying calm, communicating and focusing on the future.
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