Leadership in Times of Crisis

Till Oberhummer

Recently I've had the opportunity to share my views on leadership in times of crisis on the Austrian business news platform Leadersnet.at. My learnings and insights from the GEMBA programme play an important role in shaping my response to the current challenges, and I am pleased to share the English version of my reflections below. 

The current crisis is presenting unprecedented challenges to every single executive

In this type of situation, it is important to know where everyone in the company stands at any given moment. I am not referring to classic KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), but to the question of how the employees feel and how they behave.

No manager is able to master a crisis on his own, you need your team.

In every organisation there is an informal structure in addition to the formal structure, i.e. the Board, team leader and team. This is important for any kind of change management and the current situation requires exactly that. Which people within the company and within the respective team are the go-to people?

These are key people to help you get a better understanding of the employees' true feelings, and they can also serve as an important communication channel between employees and the management.

Being a confident manager in a crisis

As a manager, it is important to think and plan for the medium and long term.

In crisis situations, however, the focus is increasingly on the present and the immediate future. A confident manager ideally finds a balance of both. If we only focus more on the now, we will probably have a problem when the crisis subsides, because nobody has paid attention to the future. The crisis will end but it will leave its mark. Some business areas will disappear, and new ones will be added.

A manager can only be as successful as their team, and therefore he or she must ensure that the team remains functional and can adapt quickly to new situations. For this to succeed, a leader must not isolate themselves. The team must know that they are working with them and not against them or across them.

It must be possible to address problems - in both directions. Especially when, as in this case, it is an obvious crisis, employees must be able to trust the management team.

What makes a good leader

A good leader depends strongly on the individual function. If work is operational or process-oriented, a well-organised crisis manager would be a good leader. This is the heart of the company, so to speak, and if it starts to stutter or, in the worst case, even comes to a complete standstill for some time, this has serious consequences for the rest of the organisation.

But there are also functions where the "big picture" is more important: here a pilot who guides the ship through the stormy sea would also be a good leader.

At the end of the day, a manager should at least understand and master both and know when to use which skills. This also makes cooperation between managers much easier. Both styles are important and correct.

To stick to the analogy with the ship: If there are only pilots on board, the ship will not get off the ground and if everyone is only in the engine room - i.e. everyone is only looking inside - the ship will most likely hit a cliff or an iceberg.

Do's and dont's for managers in crisis mode

Authenticity, open communication and reliability are the most important factors.

Absolute no-gos are to bury your head in the sand and sit out problems. You also shouldn't lose your temper.

Nobody is helped when things get heated and as a manager you should bring calm to the team and not cause additional uncertainty or even fear.

Managing a team remotely

For many companies it was a big change to suddenly work with virtual teams. Global companies certainly had a certain advantage here, because at least the infrastructure was available. However, even these companies usually have branches with offices, where employees usually spend their time every day.

The most important learning for me was that social interaction is an incredibly important part of the corporate culture. However, when suddenly everyone had to work from home, this was dropped.

That's why after the first week I introduced so-called "Morning Huddles". Every day at 9am the Austrian and German colleagues dial in and have a chat. Sometimes it is a professional exchange, sometimes it is simply personal. It has the character of the morning get-together in the office pantry, where it's not always just about the job, and - based on the feedback I have received directly and indirectly from the teams - there is a sense of security and a feeling of cohesion.

On the other hand, of course, you also have other challenges: You don't see each other all day long, but you should still have an overview of what your employees are doing. There is a fine line between trust-based control and micromanagement.

Depending on the activity, the KPIs and also the possibilities of controlling them are different. For hotline staff, it is easy, they record incoming and outgoing calls, call duration, cases, etc. In business development this is a little more difficult.

My team sends me a memo every evening in simple and general bullet points on what was worked on that day. This gives me a good overview and also allows me to plan my resources better. Some employees like to work very independently and feel controlled if you get too active, others like to be in contact and exchange information regularly.

There is no "one-size-fits-all" approach, and a good manager knows this and implements it accordingly.

Coping with pressure

Many years ago, during my NLP (Neuro-Lingustic Programming) training, I got to know WIDEG. WIDEG stands for "What is this an opportunity for?", and whenever something unforeseen - whether positive or negative - happens, I ask myself this question.

In the current situation it is an opportunity to identify new future managers but also to determine what we as a company or the managers have not paid enough attention to in the past: What should we train more, what should we train less? Where do employees seem to be overburdened with the additional responsibility? Where did we overlook a rough diamond that has now been cut by the crisis?

Under massive pressure I try to step aside and observe the situation as an outsider. Then I mentally make a list of things I have no influence on. I then do not let these things get to me anymore, because this would otherwise rob me of an incredible amount of my energy, which is then missing in the things where I can make a difference.

Changing forms of leadership

From conversations with my fellow students from the GEMBA programme at INSEAD, I know that in many countries it is assumed that even after Coronavirus crisis, there will be more emphasis on working remotely.

The crisis has shown many companies that they would be fully operational even with a home office, and I can imagine that this will continue - on a voluntary basis.

I also think that the crisis has shown many companies which managers could handle such situations and which would have needed more support.

Whether the management culture in general will change is difficult to judge. But I can well imagine that we will soon be reading about best-practice cases and that one company or another will try to adapt and improve its management culture accordingly. To paraphrase: "What is this an opportunity for?"