My Most Valuable Leadership Lesson: Managing through Crisis

September 2021. The coronavirus pandemic is still front-page news and, as businesspeople, we will feel its effects for years to come. As much as we’ve all talked about it being “unprecedented,” I think it’s important to remember that we’ve survived other massive-scale disruptions. Events that shook the world as we knew it; made us redefine the meaning of work and life; fall back on our resilience, faith, agility, and sheer belief in our own strength; and remind us why carrying on is so important.

Twenty years ago, we faced just such an event. And for those old enough, we recall — in high-definition detail — where we were on that fateful day of 9/11/01.

Managing through Crisis

I had accepted my first real management job in 1999 as the Director of Marketing Communications for GN Netcom (Jabra), a Danish multinational that launched the very first Bluetooth wireless headset, beating rivals Nokia and Ericsson to the punch. It was an amazing accomplishment for the company and pretty heady stuff for me as a new leader.

When I look back, I recognize my time at GN as one of tremendous personal growth for me as a leader of people. But my newly acquired leadership skills weren’t the product of a well-defined first-time manager program at GN (although I would have benefitted greatly), or from mentorship I received from female leaders (there were none).

No, the greatest lessons I learned came from managing during a crisis: 9/11.

September 11, 2001

It was a bright Tuesday morning, and I was in the office, as was much of my team. It was still early in the day when someone shouted out that a small plane had hit the World Trade Center. Soon after we received that first bit of news, we learned the truth. Once word spread internally, we turned on a television in our largest conference room and sat together watching the tragedy unfold in real-time. We were in a lockdown most of the day; our office abutted an FAA center, and there was growing fear of more attacks. That said, we encouraged people to go and be with their families as soon as they were able.

That evening, we held an emergency leadership meeting and immediately went into crisis management mode. My colleague’s pregnant wife had been calling, pleading for us to get her husband back from an overseas trip. We had scores of people who weren’t comfortable returning to the office given the heightened terror threat. We didn’t quite know the impact on our business. What we did know was that we had to prioritize our employees, addressing their needs in the moment. And we had to determine how to move the business forward in a post-9/11 world.

Response. Recovery. Resiliency.

We started with Maslow’s hierarchy. In the immediate aftermath, as leaders, we focused on our team’s most basic needs: food and shelter. First, we had to locate our people, ensure they were safe, and find out what they needed for the immediate future. Then, we had to determine transport; the entire North American airspace had been shuttered for two days and it took almost a week to get our stranded colleagues home.

At the same time, we had to focus on our employees’ well-being, emotional as well as physical, by providing employee assistance programs to those in need. And, as leaders, we had to make ourselves available — oftentimes after hours — to help those who were struggling.

We put people first, which was the right thing to do. But we still had to think about the impact to our business. Travel was an essential part of our sales process; we relied on solid relationships with customers, which were built on friendly, collaborative, in-person meetings. Many of our employees, like millions around the country, were reluctant to travel in the immediate aftermath. I myself didn’t get back on a plane for almost a year. So, we had to reimagine how to conduct business. We were swift and agile, altering territory coverage to make visits a drivable distance, and making the most of our own headset technology by doing more of our business virtually.

But the most important element of leadership we demonstrated throughout the 9/11 crisis had nothing to do with technology. We listened. We listened to our employees, gave them grace when they struggled, and made their suggestions a part of our solution. Fortunately, we made it through and were stronger for it.

Planning for the Next Time

As I look back, I recognize that we reacted to the crisis and did so as well as we could. But we weren’t proactive, executing against a well-defined plan. Since that time, I’ve been far more deliberate about building out crisis plans that account for many different, but equally difficult, scenarios. I’m fortunate today to work for Skillsoft, a company that helps companies grow stronger in myriad ways through the power of learning. In the past 18 months, our customers have turned to us for guidance on business continuity, managing in times of crisis, empathetic leadership, and more. One of our goals is to make sure leaders are better prepared, with a thoughtful plan in place, for the next disruption … whenever and whatever it is.

While you hope you won’t have to put it into action, a crisis plan is an important — and caring — investment a company makes for itself and its people. And it’s something that I highly recommend to novice and veteran leaders alike.

9/11 tested our resilience. Although a devastating tragedy for so many individuals and for our nation as a whole, we came back stronger, and we learned from it. And as we navigate through a completely different crisis in the COVID-19 pandemic, my hope is that we will become more united and, yes, stronger.

And, finally, to the family, friends and former colleagues of Peter, Sue, and Christine (who would now be 20), may their memories be a blessing.

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