Agility in Adversity

How you can handle a crisis with a clear head and a can-do approach.

Clare Boothe Luce, writer, editor, diplomat and wife of Time magazine founder Henry Luce, once said: "There are no hopeless situations; there are only men who have grown helpless about them." Learning to deal with adversity in your company, your career and your life is an essential element of effective leadership.

Many times you succeed not by what you do when things are going well, but by what you do when they are not. Just as an agile company more easily retains its competitive edge, strong, agile leaders have a knack for turning problems into opportunities and for bouncing back from adversity.

I once had a job with a division of an oil company, which had assigned me to manage its regional technology operations in the US Southwest. Less than a year after my move across country, the company divested this division. The next thing I knew I was working for the company's exploration and production division. Here I was: a woman, a non-engineer and an Easterner to boot. Definitely not a prescription for success!

I could have moaned about the unfairness of life or quit and run away, but instead I mourned my loss for about 30 seconds and then looked for opportunities. I ended up leading an upgrade of the company's scientific computing and data environment - to the delight of the geologists and engineers. This period turned out to be one of growth, during which I built relationships and expanded my knowledge of a challenging business. The experience enhanced my credentials as a leader.

Crisis Mismanagement

It's tempting to try to get out of a jam by whining, pointing fingers or covering up the problem. But such responses undermine your credibility and strength as a leader. Let's take a look at some responses to adversity that you should avoid.

The "It's not fair" whine. It may be comforting to wallow in self-pity, but whining about the unfairness of life is a waste of time. If, at this stage in life, you still harbour expectations of fairness then you must have led a charmed existence. Welcome to the real world! Failing to deal with what is while lamenting what you wish would be also sets a poor example. If your staff responds this way when faced with setbacks at their level, the organization's problem-solving muscles will atrophy.

Faultfinding. While knowing who is at fault in a crisis may be useful for coaching that individual to avoid future mishaps, finger-pointing distracts from the task of dealing with the problem. It will drive your staff to defend their actions rather than to focus on solutions, wasting vital energy. Faultfinding also has a deleterious effect in the long run, because people avoid risks in order to avoid the wrath of a blame-seeking leader.

The cover-up. Fear of the consequences of a mistake may tempt you to try to hide it, especially if you are culpable in any way. Recent headlines should dissuade you from taking this path. Burying a problem or ignoring it will likely make it worse. Other people will see your problem festering and question your lack of action. This will undermine your credibility.

The above responses aren't agile because they take the focus off the problem rather than lead to a quick resolution.

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Agility in Adversity

The better approach is to understand that despite your best efforts negative things will happen - and when they do, you need an agile response. An agile response will be speedy and action-oriented and will rally support from your organization for what may involve significant change. Having an agile crisis management process is a distinct advantage for you as a leader. It will enable you to zig and zag down the path to success.

Start with a positive attitude to inspire confidence within your organization. Then follow these five steps to recover from a crisis. You will emerge from adversity in a position of strength.

1. See. Perhaps the biggest contributor to dealing with a crisis successfully is to see it coming or at least acknowledge it when it arrives. Being quick to see clearly will get your recovery off to a fast start. Avoid putting on the blinders that will keep you in the dark about the mistakes - maybe yours - that generated the crisis.

2. Think. Analyze the problem and develop a plan of action. This is probably the easiest step for those of us in the technical field because we are accustomed to thinking about multiple, innovative solutions to problems. In a crisis, think aggressively to create several alternative paths of action. You will need to prepare a response because your organization will likely be affected even if the critical event is focused at the corporate level.

3. Tell. Communicate with all constituencies, and tell as much as you are able to reveal. You have a responsibility to keep your people informed because their lives may be affected. Furthermore, without accurate information people will speculate - and reach conclusions that are usually much worse than the actual situation. Your demeanour should be one of calm control: If you seem panicked, you do not look strong.

As you communicate with your staff, accept accountability for your own errors. Years ago I learned from a study on upwardly mobile leaders that only the mediocre ones do not acknowledge their own mistakes. Honesty is the best policy because it engenders trust. People will deliver incredible performance for trusted leaders, and that performance is what will enable your recovery.

4. Do. Act with a laser-like focus. Make recovering from the crisis your top priority and do not be distracted by the bump in the road. The strengths that got you where you are today will help you drive to a result. Remember that persistence, resilience and courage to take on big risks will be key factors in your ability to withstand the ever-present crises.

5. Review. When the crisis is under control, review the lessons learned. Elements of your review should include how you could have seen the situation coming faster, how you can avoid it in the future and the effectiveness of your response. To ensure the review focuses on improvement, avoid the blame game. Otherwise, you lose the ability to get the level of candour that will fuel improvements to processes or operations.

Tried-and-True Approach

I have used this agile approach to crisis management successfully many times. Whether I faced budget miscalculations that upset my organization's plans, abrupt business reversals that required cancellation of infrastructure projects or personal crises that demanded a reordering of my priorities, having an agile approach has helped me handle the adversities of life.

Whether your life is relatively smooth or a series of roller-coaster rides, it is comforting to know that you have a tried-and-true approach to dealing with adversity. With these steps to guide you, you can develop a grace under fire that will enable you to keep your cool and your perspective during the small excitements of corporate life as well as those devastating crises that may impose themselves on your company. Just remember that old homily: Leaders are like teabags. The longer they are in hot water, the stronger they get!

Before retiring in 1999, Patricia Wallington was corporate vice president and CIO at Xerox. She is now president of Florida-based CIO Associates

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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