Time to Panic: 10 Best Practices for navigating through a crisis

Pete Ryan leading thru crisis illustration

In the February 2014 Strategy Session (Alberta Venture), I say the D word, the B word and allude to the R word. And then just use the C word CONSTANTLY.

Mostly, I tell you how to lead through a crisis (that’s the C word. What where you thinking?), with the help of Angela Pedrini, CMC, partner with Chemotti Consulting Group Inc. and Gary Guidry, the former CEO of Griffiths Energy, now with Glencore.  (Let me step out of character for 30 seconds and just say how blown away I was by Gary–his accessibility, honesty, clarity? And I’m jaded, cynical and not that easy to impress.)

Anyway. 10 best practices for leading through the C word:

Full text at Alberta Venture: Strategy Session: Time to Panic: 10 Best Practices for navigating through a crisis

Unedited text below.

Leading through a crisis

(I fully concede, btw, loves, that my AV editors always give my pieces better titles than I give them myself)

by Marzena Czarnecka

Knock, knock.

Knock, knock?

BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM! Dude, I know you’re in there! I need you to open the door and talk to me. Now. Look, I know you’re scared—are you breathing into a paper bag again? That’s fine. A few more breaths. Now, stop hyperventilating and hiding. Open the door. We’ve got to deal with this.

I know you don’t want to listen to me. I’m sorry. I hate to be the bearer of bad news—except I’m not, am I? The bad news is here. It’s arrived. And we’ve got to get a handle on it NOW. Come on. The clock’s ticking, employees are gossiping and shareholders are panicking. Ready?

No? Too bad. This is not a drill, baby doll. We’re heading into a crisis that will make 2008 look like a block party, and your company’s life is on the line—and you’re the one who’s going to make the decisions that make it or break it. So let’s get moving. Ten best practices for leading through a crisis. Hurry. Did I mention? We’re already behind…

1. Dump the euphemisms. Names have power. Boom, bust, downturn, recession, depression. Power in the words, for sure. But don’t be scared of calling the beast by its right name. Don’t call it a slow-down, a hiccup, a stall. Don’t wait for CNN, HBR LSE or The Economist to coin its label. For you, right now, this is a crisis. Name it. Face it. (Deep breaths, darling. Come on… in… and out… there you go.)

2. Fight the urge to entrench. That thing, you were doing right now? Hiding in the office? Natural—“Senior leaders entrench. I’ve seen this with so many organizations that I’ve worked with,” says Angela Pedrini, CMC, partner with Chemotti Consulting Group Inc. You’re not gonna. You are going to wash your dirty laundry in public and you’re going to talk about how that red rag got in with the white shirts—and what you’re doing about it. To. Everyone.

3. Panic. No, seriously. Panic. Do it privately, quickly, with trusted advisors. Dredge up all the worst case scenarios. Every. Single. One. What? Ok, the reason I interrupted you and dragged you out of your office is that you were panicking unproductively, alone and to no purpose. I want you to panic productively, collaboratively—with your management team, your board, your financial and legal advisors—and to a purpose. That purpose being—how to lead, how to deal, how to survive (or, you know, maybe how to pull the plug—that’s an option too).

Oh, and ideally? Panic in advance of the real thing. I mean, it’s too late for us now—but if we were doing this by the crisis playbook—you should panic and look at worst case scenarios on a quarterly—at the very least annual—basis. “My most successful clients, the 20 per cent who really get planning and leadership? They’re looking at worst case scenarios all the time,” says Pedrini.

4. Get your mug and mouth out there. (I was going to say—get in front of the firing squad… but that’s not the right metaphor and I don’t want to scare… Breathe, darling. Breathe!) “Communicate early, communicate often,” says Pedrini. Stupid obvious, right? But you don’t want to, because… Yeah. You don’t have all the information. You don’t think you have enough information to make a worthwhile statement. Don’t matter. Lack of facts has never yet stopped the public (and your shareholders) from speculating—and this was true long before the Internet and Twitter. So. Get out there. Name the beast. Say you’re working on it. Give the expected timeline of your next communication. Repeat. (For more tips on how to communicate, see Strategy Session: Surviving a public relations disaster.)

5. Work on it. Set up a special committee, team, whatever you need. (But see how first—you named the problem? And started talking about it before you started working on it?) Pull in experts if you need them. Set up lines of communication within the crisis team. Do all the things. And then—yeah, precisely, you’re listening! That’s exactly what I was going to say: talk to everyone about what you’re doing. Repeat.

Truth: if you don’t tell them (everyone) what you’re doing? They’re going to assume the worst.

Reality check: in a crisis, all of these steps will overlap. Or happen simultaneously. Out of your preferred order. Deal with it, roll with it. If it was predictable and scriptable, it wouldn’t be a crisis.

6. Work on all the everyday operations, too! “The most important and positive thing we did was to stabilize and separate the business from the issues that we had,” says Gary Guidry, the former CEO of Griffiths Energy, now with Glencore. Remember Griffiths Energy? The company willingly put itself in the media spotlight—and before the courts—when its management discovered evidence of bribery by former officers as the company prepared a major IPO. The company and its leadership did all the things—named and faced the problem, pulled in expert help, set up a communication strategy, etc. (Guidry won’t say he panicked—but, you know he did. He’s human. Of course he did. Productively, and to purpose: that’s what matters.)

The most important thing Griffiths did was to keep on operating, producing, moving. “We kept our operating team focused on the business, and I worked with the board on the challenges,” Guidry says. Do everything else right, and do this piece wrong—and you are so pooched. What happens to productivity and operations when everyone’s in crisis mode? Yeah. Bad, bad things. So. While you’re figuring out and leading (and panicking, productively, to a purpose)—make sure you’ve got people doing all the quotidian things to keep things moving on-course… until you change the course (productively, to a purpose).

7. Act fast. Except when you can’t. Communicate immediately. Panic as quickly as you can and then move on (until the new, now scheduled, panic session). Acquire information at the speed of light—evaluate it as quickly as your neurons allow… but also, accept that some things, you can’t rush. Whether you’re waiting for the commodity price to hit rock bottom (gulp), the regulator to say yes (or no), the Crown prosecutor to come to the table… there are some things in a crisis that you cannot rush. So don’t waste your energy trying to. “It took us 15 months to work through the issue,” Guidry says of Griffiths’ bribery disclosure. “We had to be thorough. We had to be careful. The thing had to take as much time as it needed to take.”

8. Accept that you can’t know everything. For Guidry and Griffiths, that was the most difficult part of the process. “We didn’t know what we would uncover,” he says. “And working with incomplete information is very difficult.” But all business strategy—and in particular strategy crafted during a crisis or for a crisis—is predicated on uncertainty. If it was predictable—it wouldn’t be a crisis. So. Be smart. Do your due diligence. But also—be bold. Make the hard decision, the best call.

9. Carpe diem. Crisis sucks. Let’s not pretend it doesn’t: none of us chooses the economic kidney punch, the political leg sweep. It’s terrifying. But chaos and the end of business-as-usual creates opportunity. You know this. Profits plummeting? Sucks. But an opportunity to get rid of your deadwood (yes, you’ve got some) and to examine your less-than-efficient supply chain. Industry in crisis? Maybe there’s a competitor you can buy. That pipeline you were betting everything on definitely not going to be built? Panic. Productively. To a purpose. Rail cars? Solar energy? Think outside the box. Crisis and chaos are good for that.

10. De-stress. “Any crisis has stress, but in the end, if you’ve gone through it, it makes you stronger,” says Guidry. “Once you’re through it, you realize it wasn’t really all that bad.” But while you’re in it—it takes a massive emotional toll. Especially on the people on the top—and the people doing the heavy lifting. So take care of yourself (eat, sleep, call your therapist) and your people. You’re going to need to be functional once you get to the other side. Actually, you’re going to need to be functional to get to the other side…

Ready to show up? To communicate? To be real? To panic (productively, to purpose)? Because this thing that’s coming down… so ugly. What? Me? Absolutely terrified. But if it doesn’t kill us… we’ll come out stronger. Guidry said so, remember? We’ll be all right. But first—let’s panic. And make a plan…

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business and legal affairs writer. She can be reached at paddleink@gmail.com@paddleink on Twitter, and visited at CalgaryBusinessWriter.com and NothingByTheBook.com.


Leading through a crisis (Harvard Business Press, 2009)

The Wall Street Journal’s Leadership in a Crisis Guide (2009)

10 Tips For Leading Companies OUT of Crisis (Doug Yakola, McKinsey, 2014)

Crisis Leadership: the Top 10 Mistakes Leaders Make and How to Avoid Them by Patrick Ropella (2011)

Crisis Management: Planning for the Inevitable by Steven Fink (2002)

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson et al (2013)

Damage Control, the Essential Lessons of Crisis Management by Eric Denzenhall and John Weber (2011)