3 critical steps to lead effectively through a crisis

While COVID-19 is the latest crisis disrupting operations across the globe, the truth is, it’s not the first, nor will it be the last. Yesterday’s crisis may have been a natural disaster; tomorrow’s might be a security threat or new regulation that upends your strategy. Regardless of what it is, you have a choice: you can manage the crisis or it will manage you.

During a crisis, every leader wants reassurance that they’re doing exactly what they should be doing. Much of what you should be doing, however, relies on true leadership—behaviors and mindsets—and plans you previously put in place to help you guide your team through a variety of challenges and setbacks. Here are three steps you can take to become the trusted and strategic leader your team and organization needs.

Step 1: Create and test a disaster recovery plan

In a time of crisis, one of the best tools at your disposal is a familiarity with procedures. As a team, you should develop a common language, set of roles and responsibilities and a line of command. A helpful framework is addressing the who, what, when, where and how of a disaster recovery plan.

Who: Make sure everyone has a role on the team. Who is in charge? Is it you, the leader? Or is someone else tasked with this? Who is responsible for communicating decisions? Who checks applications and servers to find out what is still working and what is broken? Your team will be more efficient and prepared when everyone has a role. 

What: What applications and servers do you need to check and fix in a disaster or crisis? To save time, group your applications into tiers. The first tier is most critical and should be given the most attention during a crisis. The second tier consists of applications which are important but can wait a little bit. The third tier is low priority.

When: Even if your priorities are clear concerning what to check and fix, without deciding a timeline, chaos can still ensue. As you think about application tiers, decide when you’ll fix issues. Perhaps a tier 1 fix requires you to drop everything or work through a weekend. You might decide a tier 2 or 3 application problem can wait a day or survive a weekend. Allocate your most important resource, your time, in a systematic way.

Where: The most important question here is where you store backups. If your server goes down, you need the ability to spin up new ones quickly. Don’t store backups in the same building. If something happens to your office, your backup files would be lost along with your servers.

How: During and after the crisis, how do you get everything back to normal? These are the detailed and ordered steps to get your systems back up and running, and will likely take up 90% of your disaster recovery plan. Your plan should be drafted, reviewed so you can remove any ambiguity, and tested and identify inaccuracies and missing steps.

Finally, here’s a small tip to make your disaster recovery testing a little less repetitive. During the test, tell one or two of your team members that they are totally unavailable. All of the sudden, the team has lost a critical member and must take on their responsibility and figure out how to cope with a smaller group. Throwing in a curveball like this is also realistic. You never know when someone will be totally unresponsive in a crisis due to health, impact from a natural disaster or maybe even different time zones.

Step 2: Communicate effectively with your team

The first question to address in communication is channels. Deciding which channels to communicate on should be simple, but with a growing set of available tools, the choice is getting harder. You’ll have some team members who appreciate calls and video chats while others want to stick to Slack or text messages.

It may be helpful to also think of your communication in tiers. For the most critical emergencies and updates, use phone calls and video chats. They allow for the clearest direction and let your team see you face to face. For less critical updates, choose a text-based tool like email, Slack or text messages. Regardless of what you choose, make sure everyone is on board and equipped with the access now—before a crisis starts.

As you communicate, be sensitive to other people’s time. With the work from home shift introduced by COVID-19, you’ve probably seen that some coworkers with children are less accessible during the day and more accessible at night. Or a developer who’s always been a night owl suddenly finds it easy to work at totally random hours that conflict with the rest of the team's schedule. A best practice is to decide on a flexible schedule, and then don’t intervene.

Step 3: Show up in interactions with your team

What does it mean to show up? It means to be present. If you're on a call, don’t try to work in the background, even if it’s a group call. Give your full attention to the current situation. 

Showing up can also mean knowing when to step back. As a leader, you’re just as human as the rest of the team. If you’re not able to lead, either mentally or emotionally, that’s okay. Know when to delegate and trust others. Ensure you have mentors and clear communication with those above you in the organization. 

Finally, empathy in a crisis will be one of your most important attributes as a leader. Why? In a crisis, people will fall back on their core personality and potentially negative habits. Don’t be surprised if someone on your team stops progressing or seems to go backwards. Others may become more unorganized, impatient or apathetic. The same may happen to you. Are you controlling? It will probably come off stronger in a crisis. Understand that your behavior may change and so will your teams’. You can show up with patience and compassion. Ask how people are doing; never assume they’re feeling the same as you.

Want more details on how to ready yourself to lead through a crisis? Check out our on-demand webinar, Managing IT: leading in times of crisis.