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HR guide to leading in a crisis: 5 ways to survive and thrive

HR guide to leading in a crisis: 5 ways to survive and thrive


As different crises unfold with varying speed and intensity, leaders must tap into the collective wisdom of professional networks, friends, and industry experts, to make sense of bits and pieces of early information flowing in.

Asian leaders continue to deal with perhaps the biggest crisis they have faced in their careers. CXOs not only deal with external leadership crises to keep their businesses afloat, but also deep personal leadership crises within as they dig into their depleting reserves of emotional energy to motivate themselves and their teams.

Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) launched a paper titled Leading In A Crisis: From Survival to Strategic Pivot—based on in-depth interviews with 73 C-suite leaders (CXOs) and board directors across Asia from different countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Cambodia), industries, and organisations.

From this whitepaper, we've picked out five key takeaways for leaders in the line of fire. Read on for your handy crisis leadership guide.

#1 REFLECT: Slow down to go fast

Leaders hate uncertainty; therefore, the first response to a crisis is to look for potential actions—and fast! Interviewees revealed, however, that in any kind of crisis, big or small, leaders must not run for the hot spot in haste, but orient to the situation unfolding around them, and reflect on what will get them, their teams, and the organisation through it successully. As different crises unfold with varying speed and intensity, leaders must also tap into the collective wisdom of stakeholders, professional networks, friends, and industry experts, to make sense of bits and pieces of early information flowing in.

Referring to the current COVID-19 situation, one board director in Singapore advised the following: “This is a Black Swan event; leaders need to look at the realities, recognise consequences, and reflect what their role is and how they can deliver value.” 

#2 ORIENT to find your bearings

To orient optimally in a crisis situation, leaders must focus on the current situation, based only on the information available, however little may be flowing in. While leaders must continually create and tweak potential scenarios, orientation is about focusing on reality, not over-dwelling on a doomsday scenario. They must also be sufficiently self-aware to evolve their mental models as crises evolve, and not remain stuck in their old ways.

One Indian CEO of a global MNC read about the crisis situation early in February 2020. “I could see the pandemic spreading widely in India and predicted a downward spiral of the market,” shared the CEO. He added: “In late February 2020, I was somewhat convinced that the country would go under a lockdown and most of us will know a person who will get infected, and perhaps a person who does not make it past the pandemic, but I did not let that colour business decisions we were making.”

Convinced how the pandemic may play out, and suspecting an impending lockdown, while the CEO spent a few days with his parents, who live in another city, he did not let his gut instinct impact his business decisions. “We wanted to be as real, and data-centric, as possible,” he shared.

#3 SENSE-MAKING through wisdom of the crowds 

One CFO at a Malaysian trading company found himself in a challenging situation when COVID-19 hit the country. With his CEO and the board chairperson laid up with the virus infection, he was obligated to step up to an acting-CEO role. He quickly “snapped” the senior leadership team out of their mental shock and organised a crisis committee with representation from leaders based in different countries across APAC. The committee was replicated at the business and entity level to ensure the leadership team was hearing from all quarters as it made key decisions. The acting CEO also set up a weekly contact with the board to seek the wise counsel of independent directors.

Once a leader orients to a situation, he/she needs to determine the nature and scope of the crisis to the next level of detail, beyond what his/her individual mind or the small core group can process. Sense making is about creating a forum through which key stakeholders can tap into the collective intelligence. The leaders must focus particularly on using the right tool—inquiry or advocacy—as they make the most of group intelligence and dynamics.

#4 Reflect on your EXPERIENCES

Orienting and sense making is as much of an internal reflection journey as it is an external wisdom-gathering exercise. Leaders must draw parallels between the current crisis and crucible experiences they may have lived through in their careers. They must reflect how the current situation is similar to, and different from, what they may have lived through in their careers, and tweak their responses accordingly. The exercise may trigger clever tactics they could deploy, and give leaders confidence and personal conviction that they have dealt with crises before, and will see the other end of the tunnel on the situation at-hand.

Leaders, as they reflect upon their experiences, may attribute their success or failure to their personality (e.g., “I could do it because I was born with the right genes”), to chance (e.g., “I was just plain lucky”), to the difficulty level of the challenge (e.g., “I failed as the task was impossible”), or to their discretionary effort (e.g., “I succeeded because I apply extra effort to being over-prepared”). Apart from discretionary effort, the leader has no control over the rest.

One accomplished CEO of a reputed bank in Sri Lanka shared how he had gained strength reflecting on his past experiences. In the early nineties, the CEO, a young leader then, returned to Sri Lanka from overseas to head the local operations of a global bank. In 1996, he survived the terrorist attack on the Central Bank in Colombo; his office was located near the bombed building. He didn’t even get time to emerge from the shock as he was tasked almost immediately with restarting the bank operations.

He said: “I restarted the bank without any cash, in a borrowed office,” as he drew a parallel with the current crisis his bank was facing. “The fact that this is less of a life and death situation gives me both comfort and confidence in my ability to lead the bank out of the current economic crisis.”  

#5 Understand Your VALUES

Values are often influenced by the context in which the entity operates, so dissonance may occur because what motivates the decision-makers at the headquarters may differ from what motivates the local business units and entities in Asia. Global MNCs need to be aware of this potential dissonance as they make critical decisions impacting operations in Asia.

“Working for a large MNC that has its origins in North America, you can see divergence in value systems globally,” elaborated the Asia-Pacific head of a global MNC. He explained that in ASEAN countries and Japan, for instance, there is a strong sense of collective destiny, shared success, and shared responsibility. This may conflict with strong individualist and “corporate hero”-driven vision in a stereotypical North- American MNC.

“When a business goes through a crisis, the tendency at the headquarters is a bit more individualistic, which can be beneficial for shareholders but not for all stakeholders, employees, and society; this can cause a lot of concern for ASEAN-based operations,” shared the leader. Leaders, however, cautioned that while values may vary from one organisation to another, there are no inherently good or bad values; they are just different.

ALSO READ: Leaders from McDonald's, AstraZeneca, Nomura, and Dell advocate mental wellbeing & empathy at the workplace

The research initiative was led by CCL, in partnership with the Institute of Corporate Directors, Philippines (ICD); the Indonesia Economic Forum (IEF); Center of Excellence in Management Research for Corporate Governance and Behavioral Finance, Sasin School of Management, Thailand; and the Institute of Corporate Directors Malaysia (ICDM).

Photo / 123RF

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