Most of the time, crises blindside leaders: You first learn there’s a problem when someone stops you in the cafeteria to ask a perplexing “Did you hear?” kind of question, or you receive an email about a possible “irregularity”, or there’s an unexpected phone call at an odd hour.
Now, sometimes a crisis erupts with a single event—for example, when Johnson and Johnson suddenly discovered that someone was tampering with bottles of Tylenol. But more often, a crisis will emerge in fits and starts, picking up weight and speed like a snowball rolling down a mountain. You can never be entirely sure where its path will end.
You can be sure, however, that it will end. The trip to the bottom of the mountain will probably be unpleasant, but eventually it will be over and normal life resumes. That is, until another crisis emerges.
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In times of crisis, there are five assumptions a leader should keep in mind:
1. The problem is worse than it appears.
The majority of crises are bigger in scope than you could ever imagine. More people will be involved than you first estimated, more lawyers will poke their noses in than you’d ever imagined possible, and the terrible things that will be said and published will exceed your worst nightmares.
So, adjust your mindset early on. Go into every crisis assuming that the absolute worst has occurred somewhere in your organization and, just as important, that you completely own the problem. In other words, get into a worst-case scenario mindset and start digging for the facts.
2. There are no secrets in the world, and everyone will eventually find out everything.
You can be sure that if you try to suppress information during a crisis, it will eventually be disseminated, and as it spreads, it will certainly morph, twist, and darken. The only way to prevent that is to expose the problem yourself. If you don’t, someone will do it for you.
Your lawyers will tell you to say as little as possible; push them to let you say as much as possible. Just make sure what you do say is the whole truth, with no shades of gray.
Johnson and Johnson probably set the gold standard for full disclosure with its handling of the Tylenol crisis in the 1980s. It held press conferences every day, opened its packaging factories to scrutiny and kept the public posted on its investigation and its recall efforts. It was the company's transparency that saved its credibility.
This holds true during any crisis. The more you speak about the problem openly, the more trust you will earn—inside the organization and out.
3. You and your organization's handling of the crisis will be portrayed in the worst possible light.
No matter how much positive media coverage you’ve received over the course of your career, all bets are off during a crisis. You and your organization will be portrayed so negatively that you won’t recognize yourselves. Don’t hunker down—you’ve got to stand up and define your position before someone else does. If you don’t, your silence will be taken as an admission of guilt.
Now, not all organizational crises generate public scrutiny, but even if the media has no interest, your people will. Openly discuss the situation, define your position, and explain why the problem happened and how you're handling it.
And just as with big, public crises, don’t ever forget that you have a business to run. Make sure you’re running it.
4. There will be changes in processes and staffing. Almost no crisis ends without blood on the floor.
Most crises officially end with a settlement of some kind—financial, legal or otherwise. Then comes the cleanup, and cleanups mean change.
Processes usually get overhauled first. Sometimes, this fix is enough. Usually not. That’s because the people affected by the crisis, or sometimes those just watching it, will demand that someone be held responsible. This will not be easy or pleasant. But sadly, it is often necessary so the company can move forward again.
5. The organization will survive, ultimately stronger for what happened.
After a crisis is over, there’s the tendency to want to forget about it. Don’t. Use a crisis for all it’s worth: Teach its lessons every chance you get. In doing so, you’ll spread the immunity.
When a crisis erupts, it feels like you’re trapped in a house on fire. But try to remember the flames will eventually die down because you’re keeping your head and remembering how to handle the situation. You’re going to face the problem and own its solution, all the while running the business as though there will be a tomorrow.
Then one day, you will realize that tomorrow has arrived and, stepping back, you may be startled by what you discover: The whole place looks better than ever.
Write to Jack & Suzy
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Their latest book is Winning: The Answers: Confronting 74 of the Toughest Questions in Business Today. Mint readers can email them questions at firstname.lastname@example.org Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.
©2009/BY NYT SYNDICATE
Adapted from Winning (HarperBusiness Publishers, 2005) by Jack Welch with Suzy Welch.