Five Essential Reminders if you are Managing a Crisis

Written by Larry Sharp

I was responsible for matters related to a crisis for many years as the VP of a mid-sized mission agency. During that time I faced the challenge of evacuating an unconscious child from a high-risk country, rescuing an imprisoned employee in East Asia, a mega-earthquake in Haiti, famine in Africa, automobile death of an employee in France, child abuse situations, among other similar critical incidents.

Our English word crisis comes from the Greek krisis which was defined as a “separating, distinguishing, discrimination, decision, judgment”. The sense of “decisive moment” in reference to crisis is first recorded in English in 1627 as a figurative extension of the original medical meaning. Crisis historically signified “a turning point in a disease; a sudden change for better or worse.”1

The COVID-19 crisis of 2020, as with all crises, indicates a sudden change and a turning point and has many components; however, only one is treated in this article. A crisis is dependent on company policies, risk assessments, and continency training and planning, all of which prepare one for the actual crisis. Once the crisis “hits” comes the actual management with functional team roles to include the crisis manager, information officer, financial officer, consultants, and others. So then, when it comes to managing a crisis such as COVID-19, what are the managerial components, especially in light of the “decisive moment” for all of us?

  1. CONFIDENCE comes through Recognition and Acknowledgement

In many crises, there is a hesitancy of management to deny there even is a crisis. There may be the tendency to become the “frog in the kettle”, or perhaps there is a dependency on earlier risk assessments and mitigation steps which cause management to feel safe. If appropriate training has taken place, specific “trigger points” will give an early recognition of a problem as things start to happen.

Trigger points are usually connected to “If this … then that” considerations. For example, when tires were being burned in the streets of Haiti and workers missed a pre-planned radio contact, it triggered a threshold which activated a plan. Such plans with faithful followup indicate to everyone in and outside the company that leadership is competent and can be trusted. When the trigger points happen there is no time for denial.

A terrible example of denial was the failure of mission agencies to admit to child abuse in many MK boarding homes in various countries. This colossal failure to recognize a problem with an “it couldn’t happen to us” mentality resulted in a loss of credibility and worse, it resulted in continued injury to innocent youth.

In these months of COVID-19, the stage of trigger point response has now passed and admittedly, this crisis does seem to have been very difficult to prepare for. In the future debrief as we develop “lessons learned”, hopefully, we can be stronger as a BAM company in coming years, and more prepared for the unknown.

  1. COMMUNITY with a team of advisors and skilled partners

The entire world is reckoning with this crisis and most of our BAM companies are adversely affected. But it may not be too late to build a team to respond to the crisis. It is critical to realize that no crisis can be resolved by one person alone. It is common wisdom that in a business of several employees, it is best that the CEO does not manage the crisis. He or she needs to respond to the normal activities of running the company and support the crisis manager in daily briefings.

Two-year-old Evan fell from a 6th story window to the pavement below and was in a Kiev, Ukraine hospital when I got the call. He was unconscious and doctors knew they did not have the necessary medical resources locally. What should we do? I soon knew I had to medivac him to a better hospital in Europe and we settled on Vienna, but how? I turned to my CFO, Phil who had a robust business career and contacts. This resulted in hiring a medically equipped leer jet in Moscow to fly to Kiev, pick him up and get him to Vienna. I could never have come up with or executed the plan by myself.

Similarly, when the January 2010 earthquake hit Haiti, I turned to my friend Bob, an expert in crisis issues. He agreed to fly from Colorado to the country, stay a week for assessment purposes and fly to my office in Philadelphia and help me develop a plan for 19 workers we had in Haiti at the time. A crisis manager always needs access to others for specialized tasks.

During the COVID-19 crisis a manager must turn to others on their team to join her in managing the crisis. It may be a production manager with good analytical skills; it may be someone skilled in the national language with good contacts in the community; it may be a person with advanced computer skills that can be applied to on-line work.

Every business owner needs coaching, consulting, or subject-matter expertise – all the time for some things; and occasionally for others like in a time of crisis. Bob, in the case of the Haiti example, was a consultant-coach for me. These days IBEC has provided coaches to businesses to help managers analyze the situation, calmly outline options, and seek solutions for containment and resolution.

  1. CONTINUOUSLY seek updated information and multiple viewpoints

Ben, one of our workers in East Asia was arrested and held without due process in a pathetic rustic jail cell. I had never faced this before, so I had to seek help (see #2 above) but also continuously keep myself updated on what was going on and get various viewpoints. There is a risk with this important point because it can be confusing and ultimately you will be dependent on your common sense, capacity to analyze, and ability to make a wise decision.  

In this example, I received advice ranging from sending in a Rambo-like mercenary group to get him out to having all-night prayer meetings and waiting on God. The prisoner did not see the light of day for five months and information and viewpoints for me came from news reports, state department officials, a Virginia senator, pastor of his home church, crisis manager in the country in Asia, a politician on site, and the USA Ambassador to the country. I was glad to have perspectives and help from so many sources, even though it was frustrating at times.

“One of the most important things for any crisis leader is to identify what the crisis is and to constantly look at that identification every couple of hours, days, and weeks because crises can change and they can become multiple events.”2 Things constantly change and it is important to frame and reframe the crisis parameters and then use your ability to assess on a continuous basis with a consistent process for doing so. 

During COVID-19 we have experienced the importance of this in the United States where advice relative to social distance, the use of PPE, lockdown, and closures changed often in the early days, and in recent times, different states and countries have approached things differently and for different reasons. Much of it may have been legitimate but keeping up on the changes is very important. Managers and their team members need to stay on top of the news, not only for legal reasons but to be prepared to pivot operations in alignment with their best interests. A positive outcome of the crisis for many of us may provide new opportunities resulting from the “decisive moments” coming from keeping updated and listening to new ideas.

  1. COMMUNICATE early and often

My experience is precisely that as reported in the Wall Street Journal, “During a crisis, it’s important to constantly communicate up to lenders and owners, down to employees and vendors, and outside to the media and public. Control the message by designating a crisis team member to be the sole spokesperson and to be the source of honest, consistent information.”2

At the beginning of the Haiti earthquake crisis, I had constant phone calls from family members, churches, donors, friends and others. That is until I committed myself to a regular, consistent, transparent weekly blog available to all. Afterwards when we facilitated a debrief, I learned how important and appreciated that communication was.

That is not to say that everyone gets the same information, but I found that upwards of 80% of the information was just what common courtesy demanded, and it kept the rumors and gossip to a minimum. Silence is the worst possible thing in emergency times.

In the past two months, my wife and I have contributed to six separate COVID-19 related emergencies. We have not heard anything from three of them while the other three have responded not only with a thank you but with a little helpful information. Silence is rarely a positive thing.

  1. CONDUCT management decisively and quickly

Management of a crisis needs to be centralized and usually, it is not with the CEO, whose role is to lead the company. The crisis manager should report directly to the CEO providing updates of the crisis so that appropriate and informed decisions can be made. Early in the process, there should be clarity on where the crisis manager has jurisdiction for decisions and what must be made by the CEO or the senior management team. And none of this should ever get bogged down with bureaucracy. Decisions must be made decisively and quickly.

I picked up the phone one day to find a sobbing wife on the other end of the line. In a country far away, her husband had been struck dead that morning in a head-on automobile accident. This couple did not report to me directly, but I got the call because that person was not available, and I was the crisis manager. I am not known to be a touchy-feely guy, but I had to immediately ask God for wisdom as to how to comfort this grieving widow. Compassion at a time of crisis is a very important manifestation of leadership. Then other immediate decisions needed to be made about family notification, burial location, finances, legal protection etc. That was not a time for committees or bureaucratic discussions. In all crisis, there needs to be one bottom line and that person needs to be accessible and visible.

When training others on crisis management I often tell managers to think like a junior high science student:

  • Define the problem
  • Analyze the situation
  • Hypothesize a solution
  • Develop a response plan
  • Implement on-going evaluation
  • Conduct a debrief and closure

During the current COVID-19 crisis we have many examples of decisions that were not decisive or quick enough. Jonathan however, is a great example of a business owner making decisions in a decisive and timely manner and as a result, he was ahead of the game. After this story written in the midst of the pandemic, Jonathan told us that his income remained at more than 90% throughout the crisis, because of informed, quick, and decisive action. Read his story here.

Mistakes will always be made and so it is equally important to be willing to be flexible, back up, change course and adjust to the new realities. Of course, it is often difficult to move quickly with a large corporation or a country, but with a startup business, if we have an optimum amount of the correct information, the right people on our team, and decisive managers in the lead, we will usually be better off.

  1.  (Victor H. Mair, 2009)

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