Boyden Executive Search

As employees look for guidance, it is up to senior management teams to demonstrate their strengths and set the tone with clear crisis communication.

Challenging times such as the COVID-19 crisis put an organization’s leadership to the test, and one of the most crucial strengths to activate now is communication. Chief executives in particular are being called upon to communicate a message to their workforces and customers. The crux of this should be that the company has a plan. Along with having employees work from home, this plan may include changes to the supply chain to maintain production and shifting strategic priorities.

A joint letter from Chief Executive Rich Handler and President Brian Friedman of Jefferies, a New York-based investment bank, offers a worthy example in terms of messaging. It emphasized that “topmost on our minds is the safety of our employees and our clients”. The leaders also assured employees and clients of the firm’s stability, saying it is “flush with capital at both the operating business level and our parent company”. Of course, not every firm can make such claims. What matters is the communication itself. As The Economist cautions, “silence could be dangerous”.

The National Defence University (NDU), an American military college, developed a remarkably relevant report in 2006 called “Weathering the Storm: Leading Your Organisation through a Pandemic”. It outlines steps that organizations should take. First is to identify and prioritize the tasks that are required to continue operating. To ensure talent is available for essential functions, employees should be trained in other disciplines so they can cover for sick colleagues. This also creates a more versatile workforce, so the organization is better able to respond to new challenges in the future.

The communication theme is echoed in the NDU report with the admonition that how an organization handles crisis communication is critical. In his book Invisible Leadership, Shawn Engbrecht, a former U.S. Army ranger who runs a personal-protection company, emphasizes the importance of honesty. “Failure to tell the truth rapidly erodes trust and confidence in higher command”, he says. In Engbrecht’s view, there should be no sugar-coating. Everyone is well aware of the crisis; therefore denying or downplaying it could backfire.

The communication component of crisis management should also be two-way. Senior management teams are advised to make themselves accessible, listen patiently, and be responsive to questions and concerns. An online town-hall meeting is a good format for calm yet honest and transparent communication with employees and other stakeholders. Finally, leadership in a crisis means stepping up to shoulder the burden, and being the first to make sacrifices.

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