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Who is at the eye of the storm when it comes to crisis management?

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‘There cannot be a crisis this week, my diary is already full’ Henry Kissinger once famously said on the topic of crisis handling and availability. The reality is that issues and crises strike when we least expect them to – even if we have prepared well for them – so how we handle them, and how critically individuals behave during them are key elements for surviving them.

The lexicon surrounding the analysis of issues and crises is full of such words: survival; stress; behaviour; psychology, etc. But as we know the impact is felt by people, who stands up and stands out, when it comes to dealing with such matters?  Who is the calmest person – the eye of the proverbial storm – that a crisis team needs to include?  In my view, there are several people that require core qualities for such eventualities and any organisation should identify them as they are key to the handling, and hopefully the successful resolution of, unexpected events.

The norm in crisis management is that a collection of mostly senior, and mostly representative of the key functions (operations, IT, communications, legal, dependent upon sector) will be involved in handling issues and crises. I’m not advocating that should change but I am advocating that any individual involved should be properly prepared – physically and mentally – to deal with such issues. Not every CEO that fronts problems fares so well – think of BP and Talk Talk as two examples in the last few years – nor is everyone senior capable of explaining technical issues such as data breaches. And equally not every situation is capable of straightforward honesty without difficulty. 

The boss at VW tried to explain away why testing was done in the way it was, but no one was fooled and it was clearly wrong as the US emissions authorities found; and as for the executives at United Airlines, how their staff treated ‘awkward’ passengers became an internet sensation of the wrong kind.

What your crisis management team needs

I think that every crisis management team needs people with the following qualities, and responsibilities, and if they are the senior folk in the organisation then you are blessed with some of the right talent. 

First is the ‘traffic cop’, the person who deals with the myriad of issues and queries that usually bedevil the early hours of a crisis. Most of this type have formal titles found in crisis plans, e.g. Incident Management Controller etc, but they are the pivot for the rest of the team. The traffic cop manages the inflow of requests and oversees, with others, the outflow of information. They may have legal training and understanding, because of potential liability or risk, but ultimately, they are the heart of the crisis team.

They are supported by the ‘decision taker’, the person who without any need for upward authorisation can call the action as they see it: call a press conference; close the plant; close off all production; dismiss the person who is responsible, etc etc. They will be senior, but must have a calm disposition; this is the person most resembling that ‘eye of the storm’ character. They will be trained to extreme levels to stand the stress of such situations, with endless simulations to test their resolve, but it is their experience and judgment that is essential, not seniority.

Two other people help the decision maker make big calls: you could call them the angel and the devil, but in essence they resemble caution, and daring. In crises, one needs a degree of polarity to enable the team to think in the round, to assess the risks and measure them quickly.

Both people here challenge that: the cautious person for example advises that a workforce issue needs explaining carefully internally as a priority; the more daring person says while that is right, time dictates that different stakeholders – such as customers or investors – are a more critical audience to be involved early. This ying and yang is critical for the crisis team, and should be indulged. The best talents need to be involved in quick decision taking, so extreme views in my opinion can help create that tension necessary for better decisions to be taken by the group.

And finally, there is what I term the ‘rules master’.  This is the person who understands process, who knows the scenarios inside out because they have helped devise them and they will also have been involved in the stress-testing of them. They are more than likely to be in possession of the corporate history of any organisation, so sadly these people may now be in short supply given the quick turnover of senior people in organisations.

The one characteristic that probably unites these individuals is calmness. They should be unflappable when their emotions suggest the opposite, and they should be neutral, detached and thinking of others, when they are clearly involved and thinking only of themselves and their organisation. This is not easy but better outcomes I believe will come from a collection of those type of people.

Our experience with Crisis Management

Our experience of recent international crises we have worked on is that this desired crisis management team is not always evident. In one recent example responsibility was devolved away from the leadership team leaving a vacuum at times where key decisions could not be taken without due authority. Time does not allow for this in a crisis, and playing catch-up can have serious consequences, so planning and preparation is critical – and that comes down to team selection. Training can help, and simulations can hone the skills necessary for this, but temperament is innate.  These types need to be found, nurtured, and be ready.

Many reading this will say ‘we know this, and these people’ or even perhaps ’we are these people’.  As extracts elsewhere in this newsletter indicate, the most important parts of crisis handling are what has come before – preparation and testing – and what we have learnt from the handling, the de-escalation phase. In our experience if those people are involved in preparing for and developing the response then the handling can be improved.

Ralph is a Partner and Director at Lansons, and has decades of experience in advising on, and handling issues and crises in many different sectors and geographies.

This article is part of our special edition Crisis and Issues Management newsletter.

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