The Tough Times Playbook – A CEO’s Guide to Navigating Through Crisis

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Written By: Brendan P. Keegan, Chairman, CEO & President

Tough Times PlaybookMany that know me would describe me as pragmatic, outgoing, and enthusiastic. I love being a leader and a mentor. Coaching and sharing with others who are also in leadership or hope to be, are just a couple of my passions. As positive as I try to be, being in a leadership role can be tough. Add in COVID-19 and the word leadership takes on a whole new meaning. As the CEO of a large corporation, I am relied upon for emotional intelligence, quick decision making and well, leadership.

Throughout my career, I have been at the helm of large corporations when crises have struck, so this is not entirely new territory for me. What I have found is that it does not matter how often you have been there; it is never a happy place to be.

I always work best with a plan, so it was important for me to find a way to communicate with the leadership team, the employees and the clients that would resonate, make sense and hopefully allow for some comfort in a time that feels uncomfortable. The Tough Times Playbook has been an anchor for me at the onset of a crisis, and my hope is that you too, will find something useful in what I share. Although I have had to shift some of the finer points throughout the years, the message has remained the same.

Here is the Tough Times Playbook.

Play 1 – Don’t Hide, Be Transparent

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  • Know what you know
  • Know what you don’t
  • Don’t be afraid to say I don’t know

When you think about organizations that rise above in crisis situations, you probably think about companies like Southwest and Tylenol . Southwest implemented a well-designed crisis response plan, offering complete transparency in the aftermath of a horrific tragedy to remain one of America’s most loved airlines. Tylenol has been a trusted brand for pain relief for decades and in 1982 when disaster struck, Johnson & Johnson reacted immediately, putting customers before profit, ultimately leaving Tylenol as a trusted brand.

When companies are not responsive and hide behind the crisis, the outcome can be crippling. Domino’s was one of the first corporations to face scandal because of social media and video streaming. Rather than responding immediately and doing damage repair, Domino’s waited, ultimately causing their reputation to suffer for years.

How a leader of a company chooses to respond during a crisis to their employees, the public, and their clients is what defines them as a CEO and a corporation for years to come. When times are uncertain, employees and clients want to know what is happening, they want to feel safe and secure, and they want to receive this message from leadership.

Transparency is the most important play any leader or CEO can make at the onset of a crisis or major shift within an organization. You are piloting the plane and need to be the voice of clarity.  Talk about the crisis, be honest, admit what you know and admit what you don’t know.

Play 2 – Develop a Clear Action Plan

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  • Think Proactively
  • Know What You Are Going to Do
  • Act Proactively

All CEOs and corporations should have a “what if” plan. Crisis management is a critical piece to all business, but inside of that plan should live an action plan. The action plan is developed within the crisis and speaks directly to the needs and action items of that crisis. The action plan is useful and helpful to outline the basic steps to take when additional planning is needed outside of a company’s strategic or crisis plan.

Without a clear plan, there is no focus. Being proactive and trying to stay ahead of any unknowns that are about to come is a key play in the Playbook. Creating an action plan for the various outcomes allows you to be proactive, instead of reactive in your response. Great decisions are rarely made in a reactive state.

It can be challenging to sit down and think of the unknowns you might be faced with when you are in the middle of a crisis, but taking this time for thinking and planning allows you to get ahead of questions and situations before they become real and also give you the direction needed to navigate the employees and clients through the storm.

When thinking proactively and deciding on the next actions you need to take, ask yourself a few key questions to ensure you are in line and positioned the way you would like to be:

  • Does my message match the mission?
  • Am I articulating the problem?
  • Am I open to feedback and questions?
  • Have I anticipated various reactions?
  • Do I have a clear plan to move forward?

Once you have developed your thoughts about your action steps needed, you know what you’re going to do and how you are going to do it, and you have strategized on the ways you will react, if needed – you are ready to move forward to Step 3 in the Tough Times Playbook.

Play 3 – Focus on Employees First

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  • Ensure Health & Safety
  • Minimize Short Term Disruption
  • Protect Long-Term Employment

Employees are always at the forefront of my mind in any crisis. Ensuring employees are healthy and safe in crisis is priority number one. Priority number two refers back to Play 1 – transparency. Employees need open communication channels and they want and need to hear from you, and often.

The ability to minimize disruption to employees is the main focus, while the goal is to do all that can possibly be done to keep employees protected in the long term. Knowing that if you do have to make decisions that impact the livelihood or well being of your employees, open dialogue and communication are important.

Taking care of employees during a crisis does not always mean that you are not making tough decisions, but what matters is that you are looking at the short and long term implications and you are considering them in every choice you have to make. What decisions can you make that will have the least amount of impact on your workforce during the crisis and get employees back on track in the fastest, easiest way.

Play 4 – Continue Delivering High-Touch Service

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  • Maintain Service Levels
  • Minimize Short Term Disruption
  • Display Empathy & Human-ness During Crisis

Without clients, there is not a business. Service companies pride themselves on exceptional client service and in crisis, that does not change or falter. Just as we consider our employees in each decision we have to make during a crisis, we also consider our clients. Be aware that every choice you make in this time could have a potential repercussion on your clients as well.

We are thankful for our clients and understand that during a crisis, the way our clients are able to do business with us might change temporarily or in the long term. Being empathetic to client’s needs and changes in their circumstances goes a long way in preserving the trust and relationship that you and your teams have invested time in. Crises will impact each client in different ways, displaying compassion and “human-ness” are the most important service offerings at this time.

Play 5 – Open All Channels of Communication

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  • There is No Such Thing as Over-Communication
  • Be Visible –Email, Text, Con Call, Video Conference, Yammer
  • When in Doubt – ASK – Be Proactive – Please No Victims

During the first couple of weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, employees received at minimum 3 to 5 emails daily, from myself and human resources. In a severe crisis, over communicating is not possible. Once things settle a little, communications can decrease, but should still happen often. This is the same for employees, clients and any other business partner that needs to hear from you and receive your critical business updates.

When in crisis mode, encourage all involved to stay visible, connect with their teams and with you and other leadership team members. Have multiple options for connection and use this time to engage and interact. We currently have a remote workforce and we connect as an entire company through virtual hangouts every Friday. We see each other’s faces, we laugh, and we talk. Social media or other platforms also allow for the conversations to continue throughout the week.

Open door policies are needed more than ever in crisis situations, especially when the workforce is remote. Encourage your employees to ask questions, seek answers and be proactive in the work that needs to take place to keep the company moving forward. And even more vital, is the message that we are all in this together and no one should play the victim.

Play 6 – Markets Shift, Be Flexible

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  • Team Over Individual
  • Be Ready to Do Whatever is Asked
  • Be Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

When times are uncertain, no one can predict how the world or economy is going to respond and something that should be encouraged from all employees is to keep the team mindset over the individual mentality. During a crisis it takes a village, one person cannot make all things happen and keep the needle moving.

Foster an environment for employees to be willing and able to assist with whatever job is the most crucial, even if it is not their job. The ability to take an employee from an existing role that does not have a current need and place them into a job that is required to keep the company going has many benefits, with the most important being that you are able to keep your staff employed.

Crises are unpredictable and they bring with them many unknowns. We need to be comfortable being uncomfortable. It is not comfortable for an employee to learn a new job on the fly, or to wake up each day not knowing what the day will look like or what ball you might have to dodge, but being okay with this new uncomfortable in the interim, will help you pass through the choppy waters.

Play 7 – Think Long Term

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  • Remember This Too Shall Pass
  • Think & Act with Balance
  • Make Today’s Decisions with an Eye to the Future

In time, all good things must end and the same can be said for a crisis. This too shall pass and when it does, things might go back to the way they were or there might be a new normal left in its wake. The key to remember here is how you handled the crisis from the beginning until now will help shape where you are at the end.

Utilizing the Playbook allows you to think cautiously and with intent on each action and can provide balance to some of the more difficult decisions and processes that arise during a crisis. In fact, your thoughts and actions are possibly all that is controllable during this time. Leading a team of almost 500 through uncharted territory is not easy on an average day, add a crisis and your leadership is taken to a new level.

Think about the long-term effects of your choices, put employees and clients at the front of the decisions you are tasked with making and keep your eye on the end of the crisis. The choices you make now will shape how your company, your employees, and your clients come out the other side.

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