Hi, I’m Nathan Magnuson. I’m a corporate consultant, coach and trainer on organizational leadership development. I write on topics that apply to leadership situations you are likely to encounter on an everyday basis. My aim is to make leadership seem easier, less complicated and more fun.
What happens when you find yourself in the midst of a crisis situation? Do you freeze up? Jump into action? Sit down to create a plan? What if you’re the person in charge?
It’s the leader’s job recognize when stakes are high and respond appropriately. We don’t need to look far to see harsh criticisms of leaders with underwhelming responses to crises that occurred on their watch.
If you find yourself in the midst of a crisis you didn’t create, welcome to leadership. How you respond may make all the difference.
These nine questions will help you plan your response.
What is the worst possible outcome?
When leaders underestimate the stakes of the crisis they’ve encountered, the battle is already half lost. If the worst possible outcome is devastating or irreversible, the response ought to be overwhelming.
How urgent is the situation?
Some leaders need a slap in the face to realize the urgency of a crisis situation. Unfortunately, managing from “crisis to crisis” is the status quo for many leaders. But if everything is a crisis, then nothing is. The urgency of true crises ought to take priority.
Are you the one responsible for the outcome? If not, who is?
Leaders who take exclusive responsibility to solve a crisis situation that is wholly (or partially) the responsibility of others can quickly make a situation worse and more complicated.
How qualified are you to address the crisis?
Low responsibility leaders are hesitant to take initiative in crisis situations. High responsibility leaders may take too much responsibility. Just because you are the leader does not mean you are competent to handle any given situation. You can still be the leader and rely on those with specific expertise in the situation you’re facing.
Who can help you make the tough decisions?
Just because you are solely responsible for navigating a crisis doesn’t mean you should go it alone. In the fog of the moment, it’s best to reach out to someone outside of the situation who has a clear head, especially if they’ve been through this type of situation before.
What is the immediate next step you should take?
It is likely impossible to solve a crisis on the spot, but inaction accomplishes nothing. At the very least, be prepared to respond decision-by-decision and action-by-action, starting with the first one.
How should you assess the situation moving forward?
As a crisis begins to stabilize, a sense of relief can be natural but also premature. It’s important to identify which factors are most likely to maintain stability.
What criteria should trigger additional action?
Whether stable or not, it’s important to set clear escalation criteria.
What could solve the entire crisis right now?
Occasionally, it’s possible to solve the crisis situation with one single action. It may not be the easiest, cheapest, preferred or beneficial long-term. But if it represents an immediate solution, it should be on the table.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.” You haven’t led until you have a crisis or two under your belt. There will be more. Your leadership under stress IS your leadership – and crisis brings it out in a way ordinary circumstances can’t match. Respond poorly and your opportunity to lead may be compromised. Respond well and you’ll likely receive greater opportunities in the future.
Winston Churchill declared, “Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
He wasn’t the only leader who recognized the reality of failure on the journey to success. Late Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy admitted, “When you fail, you have to start all over again from a lesser position.” Before discovering a major breakthrough, inventor Thomas Edison insisted, “I have not failed. I’ve found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Alexander Pope imparted, “To err is human.”
Ultimately, the only way to avoid failure is to never attempt anything new – which can prove the greatest failure of all in times of change. Failure should never be the goal, but it should be a tool. After all, not all failures are equal.
Since we’re all sentenced to fail periodically along the way, let’s be proactive about the types of failure we leverage in our pursuit of success.
You’ve heard about the importance of quick wins before. They produce visible results and generate positive momentum. But what about quick failures? If your new idea or solution is doomed from the start, the quickest way to get to success is to fail fast.
Consider this scenario: Your team comes up with an innovative solution to solve a complex problem in a new way. Because it’s new, it requires significant time to analyze and design. Implementation is a complicated mix of communication, coordination and change management as well. You’re well past the point of no return when you finally come to the realization that the project has been a mistake all along. Now what?
When you fail fast, you can redirect fast. Each iteration (and reiteration) brings success closer and quicker than playing the slow game.
Money doesn’t grow on trees, as they say. Not only does it hurt to discover you’ve made a mistake after investing substantial time and effort into a project. If you’ve already sunk a significant amount of funding, you’re left with a real conundrum: stay the course in hopes of recouping a portion of your investment? Or cut ties and incur the wrath of the executive sponsors and finance department
These don’t have to be your only two options. If your project may fail, design it in a way so that you will find out while the level of investment is still low – before you incur significant cost.
Fail on a Small Scale
Perhaps the worst failure scenario is to wait until you make it to the grand stage of a major deployment to discover your solution won’t work. It’s hard to recover credibility after a public blunder delivered at full scale. In their book Decisive, Chip Heath and Dan Heath recommend a way to reality test your assumptions using a method they call “ooch.” To “ooch” is simply to deploy a big idea on a small scale upfront. Use a test market or a pilot group. Create a pilot for a pilot, if you can. Be obnoxious in soliciting feedback each step of the way, especially negative feedback so you can incorporate it into the large scale, fully-tested version.
Failure shouldn’t be celebrated, but it should accepted as a reality of the growth process. The best leaders capitalize on their mistakes – or as Dale Carnegie put it, they profit from their losses. Ultimately, no failure is productive unless we learn from it.
Have you ever received the good fortune of being promoted to the new leader of your team, only to find that life got complicated and edgy the moment you started? All of a sudden, your peers knew you as “boss” and not just their buddy. There’s a vast difference between the two.
What did you do in that situation? What should you do? Many leaders of former peers struggle at first. Some even go so far as to request a demotion in order to return to the way things were. There has to be a better way.
If you find yourself leading former peers, here are some steps you can take.
Address the Elephant in the Room
When you get promoted to the new boss, it’s a cause for celebration. But it’s also a cause for concern. Your old pals want special treatment. The rest want to be treated as equals. They probably doubt your ability to stay objective. Everyone will be waiting to see what happens.
The easiest way to address this situation is head on – in one of your first team meetings.
“I’d like take a minute to address the elephant in the room. I went from a peer to the boss. This means my level of responsibility has changed. It’s been a privilege to work along side of you and I’m excited to play a bigger role on this team.”
Acknowledge Prior Relationships
The quickest way to diffuse a tense situation is to acknowledge it directly. Your doubters will be forced to agree with you. So acknowledge your prior relationships in a positive way. Share how important they’ve been to you and how much you value them.
“It’s true that I’ve developed some strong relationships on this team over the time we’ve worked together. I wouldn’t be the professional I am today without your support. On a personal level, I value our relationship and the camaraderie we’ve enjoyed. I’m excited to be your leader, even though it means our interactions will need to be more inclusive of the rest of the team.”
Develop Relationships with New Team Members
Make it a strong point to reach out and get to know members of the team you have less of a connection with. Schedule group or 1:1 meetings. Make it a high priority to elicit their input. Find out what they are working on and ask specifically for their recommendations, concerns and personal aspirations.
“For those of you I haven’t worked with as closely, I need to tell you that you are as much a part of this team as everyone else and I value your contribution. I’m going to make it a point to get understand your work, recommendations, concerns and aspirations so I can be the leader you deserve.”
Set Clear Expectations for Everyone
Let everyone know what you expect from a relationship commitment standpoint – what you expect from them and what they should expect from you.
“I’m committed to working with each of you and supporting you regardless of how much we’ve worked together in the past. Everyone has equal “say” here and everyone will be held to the same standard.”
Ask for Input
It’s one thing to make a declaration, but in reality, that is only one-way communication. Teammates communicate with each other differently than they do with “management.” Go the extra mile to encourage two-way communication with your team. The moment they stop communicating with you, you’ve lost them.
“This is a big deal to me, which is why I bring this up today. But I want our ability to work together to be an open, ongoing discussion. If you ever feel that I’m not supporting you the way you need, will you let me know? We can fix anything if we’re open with each other.”
Repeat and Reinforce
It’d be nice if one interaction set the tone for the rest of time, but that’s rarely the case. What’s important must be repeated – often. Significant doubts often require multiple interactions to quell.
Of course, the most critical component is for your actions to match your message. This may mean saying no to happy hour with your buddies and insisting on a team event instead. It means being intentional about building new relationships. It definitely means listening and asking questions.
It’s never easy to lead former peers. But your organization wants (and needs) you to succeed. You were their choice to lead the team. The last thing they want is for you fail. But regardless of how supported you feel by your leadership team (they are busy, stressed and imperfect, just like you are!), your commitment to your new team is your responsibility.
Are you an idea person? Do you find yourself coming up with new business ideas, branding concepts or process improvements? Does careful project management sometimes stifle your creativity? Do people ever give you that look that implies you ought to focus on the task at hand instead of daydreaming?
If so, you’re not alone. I’m right there with you! And the good news is, you have a special and significant gift. Change is always preceded by thought. As Robin Sharma said, “Everything is created twice, first in the mind and then in reality.”
Some of us are naturally wired to generate ideas easily. But I also believe the ability to ideate is part of all of us. It’s a muscle that grows with stimulation.
If you identify as an idea person – or are looking to better steward the quality and quantity of your ideas – here are some strategies you might consider.
Find a Time and Place to Let Your Ideas Flow
If you are an idea person, your ideas will never stop flowing, but without intentionality, the complexity of daily life (and especially work life) can become an enormous choke point that limits the quantity (and quality) of ideas you can consistently generate. One way to give your ideas an outlet is to have a time and place to let them flow. You might take walks or block a certain time during the week. I’ve discovered my best ideas come when I’m mowing the lawn.
Record Your Ideas
A mental note is worth something but an actual note not only provides your idea with a reference point, it forces you to better articulate the thought itself. You might place a journal on your desk or by your bed. Or an electronic notebook on your phone. It’s amazing how periodically reading through old ideas can help you generate new ones.
Set Idea Goals
In college, I asked a classmate turned musician how he was able to write so many songs. He replied that he had a goal of writing one song per week. Some were crummy but some were good. You might set a goal of one new idea per day. Or a number of them per week or month. Having a goal can also help you evaluate whether your circumstances are enhancing or stifling your creative flow.
Let Your Ideas Go
Practical folks will tell you your ideas aren’t feasible. And many times they are correct! But that’s not the point of generating ideas. Often, you need to get through many impractical ideas in order to find the inspired ones. True idea people generate many more ideas than they could ever act upon. So don’t be afraid to generate a new idea, give it a mental high five and then leave it as you move on.
Pick Your Ideas Carefully
In order to execute your ideas effectively, as your creativity grows, so must your critical thinking. You cannot possibly execute on all your ideas. You must choose the few with the most promise. This means selecting the ones that increase your effectiveness, lead to a new breakthrough, or enable you to “fail forward” if they do not work out.
Share with the Right People
Not everyone appreciates a hearing a spontaneous new idea. But at some point your ideas may benefit from:
Fellow Idea People: They help brainstorm and generate new ideas with you.
Cheerleaders: They cheer you on for most (if not all) ideas you share with them, even if they are not involved.
Critical Thinkers: They help you evaluate the quality of your idea for the purpose of execution.
Teammates: They help you execute on the idea.
Don’t confuse one group with another. And if your confidence or self-assurance is shaky, be careful who you share your best ideas with.
Separate Your Ideas from Your Identity
You are not your idea. So if someone trashes your idea, or if your idea doesn’t work, you can simply reply, “Well, it was just an idea” and move on to the next one.
Treat Detail People Like Royalty
It’s a beautiful (and maddening) reality of life that people with opposite strengths need each other in order to be effective. Without detail people to organize ideas into actionable tasks, idea people would be lost. It’s crucial to appreciate the skills and involvement of the people who help you execute. After all, if it weren’t for them, you’d be stuck.
Accept the Responsibility to Lead
Another simple reality of life is that if enough of your ideas are good ones, you will eventually be invited into a formal leadership role. Why? Because vision precedes action – and vision can’t be outsourced. But if your leadership skills don’t match the quality of your ideas, it won’t be a fun experience, either for your or your followers. So invest in growing your leadership skills at the same time as you develop your idea skills.
Victor Hugo once famously stated, “Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.” I believe it is easier in this day in age for any person to contribute an idea that changes the course of history than ever before. Who is to say the next great idea can’t be yours?
Recently I had an idea for one of my corporate leadership programs that has over 6,000 leaders enrolled. In an attempt to make the program communications more personal, I included an insightful reflection one of the participants “Mark” had shared at the bottom of the email message. I didn’t have to wait long for a response, but I was surprised who it came from. Within minutes an email reply appeared from our company president. He had cc’d me in a reply directly to Mark and included Mark’s entire executive chain of command. Our president began by thanking him for his engagement in the program and leadership in his function and ended with a “proud to have you on the team!”
I don’t know anyone busier than our company president, but he still found time to give a personal kudos. I don’t know Mark personally, but I bet he went home walking on air with a story to share with his family over dinner. “That was really fun to be a part of,” I thought. “I want to do this again.”
One of my favorite quotes of all-time comes from the 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson, who observed, “The applause of a single human being is of great consequence.”
Each of us are “single human beings.” We qualify. Your applause is of great consequence, and so is mine.
Celebrating the success of others is definitely a “nice” thing to do, but if we think a little deeper, it has some real benefits for us as well.
Engage Them and Retain Them
According to a recent Gallup report, only one in three American workers reported receiving recognition or praise from their boss within the last week. Not only that, under-recognized employees are twice as likely to actively seek outside employment. It’s no wonder Dale Carnegie was so emphatic about “giving honest, sincere appreciation.” It’s much harder for employees to leave a boss who heaps appreciation their way.
Become More Aware of Others’ Contributions
You’ve heard the old adage that “what you see is what you get.” Need proof? Do you remember your last vehicle purchase? All of a sudden it probably seemed half the other drivers on the road had the same idea as you. You spotted the car everywhere. Of course the number of cars didn’t change, your awareness did. Become a good-finder and you may be surprised how much there is to notice.
Win Hearts… and Minds
How do you determine whether you trust someone? Is it because of logic or because of emotion? So often, we try to convince our followers and colleagues of the rationale for following our ideas when an emotional appeal would do a better job. When you win someone’s heart, they will often give you their mind as well. The opposite is not always the case.
Showing honest and sincere appreciation is a sure fire way to appeal to the heart. Do this, and it will be much easier to sell your ideas as well.
Change the Culture
Have you ever been part of a “gotcha” culture? Unfortunately some people find fault like there is a reward for it. What if the “gotcha” was for doing something right, instead of wrong?
In Whale Done! Ken Blanchard observes that sea world trainers have learned the best way to turn an animal into a top performer is through constant and positive, rather than negative, reinforcement. It’s the same with people. Not only that, when enough leaders jump on board, the entire culture can shift.
It’s a Ton of Fun!
When our president’s email reply came through, I’ll admit I didn’t even read it right away. As soon as I realized what it was, I had to find a colleague to share it with. Even though I was an observer, it was the highlight of my day. We all have the ability to make someone else’s day – and by extension, our own. Words and gestures matter. Even if you have a reputation for being gruff, the invitation is open. You’ll be the one who benefits most.
Speaking of celebrating the success of others, I gave it a shot a couple weeks ago when a colleague Ann was promoted to a new facility CEO. Check out her leadership profile here – you’ll be inspired.