Adrian Moorhouse: leading out of a crisis
It is almost a year since I sat down with my colleague Tom Smith to discuss what it takes to lead an organisation through a crisis. Just after the first UK lockdown began, it was a moment of extraordinary uncertainty; I remarked at the time that the pressure of the Olympics was nothing compared to being a business leader in those first few chaotic weeks.
Most companies will have been sent scrambling by the pace of societal and economic change caused by the pandemic. For us, there were two or three hairy months before things stabilised, but different businesses will have reached that stage at different points. This blog is for leaders who have been able to shift their attention from fighting to keep the business alive to looking ahead.
Leading out of a crisis is an unusual kind of transition because you start with a change-fatigued workforce rather than a fresh one. This makes it challenging, but the alternative – keeping your organisation in crisis mode – is far more damaging to your organisation and your people.
The transition out of crisis is also unique because of the tension in what “back to normal” means to different people. In the COVID-19 crisis, conflicting ideas about what work looks like post-pandemic are already appearing between different worldviews: while tech companies talk about never going back to the office, the CEO of Goldman Sachs has called working from home ‘an aberration’.
The reality is that most businesses will fall somewhere in the middle. Leading through that process is going to be fascinating.
of UK employees want to continue working from home some or all of the time after the pandemic (YouGov).1
The typical fall in employee productivity during a large scale change.2
Leading with head and heart
Being a leader is always about trying to find the balance between the needs of your people and the needs of the organisation, but this is especially true when leading out of a crisis.
At the beginning of the pandemic, employees understood that decisions had to be made urgently and often without consultation. But, when you are laying out a crisis exit strategy that might take months, how do you demonstrate empathy and get buy-in from your people?
This is one of our five paradoxical leadership mindsets: ruthlessly caring.
Let’s use the office example again: a leader has a responsibility to lay out the reality of what’s going to happen in an organisation. You can’t lead and be woolly at the same time. So, when the CEO of Goldman Sachs says that, in his organisation, working from home is not going to last beyond the pandemic, he is at least being very clear.
However, you must be aware of your own biases or myopia before you set that clear direction; if you push very hard based on your own feelings without listening to others who might feel differently, you’ll risk embedding structural flaws in your post-crisis organisation.
Freedom in a framework
Leading out of a crisis is about listening to people while still being clear about expectation. What does this look like in practice? I like to approach it as “freedom in a framework”: you (as a leader) set the boundaries but within them you (as an empathetic human) allow flexibility.
To define the new normal, leaders will have to put a belief in place and accept that not everyone will agree with it – that’s leadership. So for me, I believe that part of the fabric of my company is social and requires physical interaction. But what does that mean for that framework? Do I say “a minimum of two days a week” in the office? Can people choose which days?
As a leader, you have to be able to empathise with those people who approach the question in a very different way. Ultimately, however, you need to build that framework.
Organisational relevance is organisational resilience
There are two parts to leadership: setting the culture of your organisation and setting the strategy and goals. You can’t do one without the other: even if you create an amazing environment and are the best boss ever, if you make bad strategic choices your business will die and nobody will have that great job.
So, when it comes to leading out of a crisis, the real challenge is to make sure that your strategy is fit for purpose. I’m willing to bet that the strategy you had in January 2020 is more fit for a museum than the marketplace now. Take Lane4: we can’t rely on the majority of our revenue coming from face-to-face learning and development anymore, and if we insisted that we were still going to only do face-to-face the company would have collapsed.
Once your organisation has stabilised within the broader crisis and is no longer at imminent risk of failure, you’re ready to look around you and try to predict what’s coming next. The goal is to ensure that your business will be relevant in the short and medium term: I call it foresight and farsight.
Foresight in the context of the pandemic is saying, ok, if things will be like this for a certain amount of time to come, how do we make the best of that? Farsight is more about how you can set yourself up to press the advantage when the crisis really ends (i.e., when restrictions are fully eased).
You can create an amazing environment and be the best boss ever, but if you make bad strategic choices your business will die and nobody will have that great job.
Communicating the strategy
Once you’ve listened to the varying opinions within the organisation and designed your strategy, what leadership behaviours should you display?
Create a story of where the organisation is going
Storytelling is a powerful tool for leaders during change. When leading out of a crisis, the goal is to communicate cautious optimism to your people and building a narrative can help here. You need to acknowledge the hardship that your people have been through during the crisis to create a sense of ‘turning a corner’. It’s the classic ‘hero’s journey’ story in many ways: things are good, disaster strikes, obstacles are overcome through courage and, finally, things end up even better than they were before.
Utilise managers and team leaders
This narrative can’t just come from you and the senior leadership team, however; the way that team leaders behave matters because your people see much more of their team than they do of you!
You need to engage your team leaders with the narrative and the whole journey out of crisis. Work to create psychological safety so that people move beyond thinking “Is the company safe? Is my job safe?” to “How can I be a part of the return to normal?” This will ensure that your managers are focused on their teams rather than their own stability.
Build psychological momentum
Psychological momentum refers to the psychological sensation performers and teams experience when they feel like things are going unstoppably their way. Teams with momentum are able to perform at a level not normally possible because this ‘psychological power’ heightens their sense of confidence, control, competence and, importantly, their belief that they can succeed.
If you can kick off your crisis exit strategy with a quick win that gets attributed to company performance (rather than external factors), you will generate psychological momentum and give people confidence in the plan.
I want people at Lane4 to feel safe and bring the best of themselves to work. That’s hard during a crisis, but as a leader it’s my job to make it happen. Fortunately, if I can do it, the organisation will benefit as well as the people. It’s finding solutions that serve both the needs of your people and the needs of your business that makes leading out of a crisis so challenging, but also so exciting.
 YouGov survey results. Retrieved from yougov.co.uk.
Tetenbaum, T. (1999). Seven Key Practices that Improve the Chance for Expected Integration and Synergies, Organizational Dynamics, 28,22-36