This piece originally appeared on LinkedIn. See: Sallie Krawcheck talks tough — and with disarming openness — online about the glass ceiling and lip gloss.
As Hurricane Sandy makes her exit, she highlights the challenges and pitfalls of leading through crisis. My first turn-around assignment was my very first management role, as director of research at [Sanford C.] Bernstein [& Co.] (a job I think almost all my colleagues turned down before I was naïve enough to accept). Since then, I’ve done well more than my fair share of leading businesses through turn-arounds and crises, and made plenty of mistakes (and seen other managers make some career-ending ones). These are a few of the leadership lessons learned.
Be available. Be heroically available. It feels a lot better during times of turmoil to close your door and work things through. This only adds to an organization’s stress level. The most notable act of leadership that I saw during the downturn was when one of my colleagues hosted a call for financial advisors on some investment products that had gone very bad; he offered to stay on the open-mike call until every last question was answered. He was on that call for six solid hours, until well after 10 p.m. And many of the “questions” were not questions, but simply venting. It was uncomfortable, but it was ultimately appreciated.
Allow people to ask real questions, even if you don’t want to hear them. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I recall one town hall during the teeth of the financial downturn. The room was packed, employees were dialed in from around the world, the bank’s stock was tanking and the tension was high. The manager made his typical quarterly update presentation, and then opened it up for questions…..and an employee, reading off of an index card, asked what she and all the people in the room could do to support the company’s community giving strategy. You could almost hear the room deflate as it became blindingly clear the question was planted….and as that off-target question was followed by several others that avoided the proverbial elephant in the room by a mile, all read off of identical index cards. See: The SEC wants you to consider the catastrophes.
Frequency matters more than perfection. During the worst of the financial crisis, my management team hosted calls at the beginning and end of every day for our financial advisors. Let’s just say their quality was a little “uneven,” but that way the advisors always knew when the next update and Q&A would be and didn’t have the sense of hanging on their own.
On your message: repeat it, repeat it, repeat it. And do it in different media. People don’t take in everything you tell them on the first hearing, particularly when they are under stress. And some people are readers, others are listeners. So share the information you have again and again, in a range of media. See: Your public relations horror story: It’s not as grim as you think.
Bring in people who know more than you do or provide a different perspective. During the downturn, we pulled in outside experts to discuss a range of topics. They provided a different “voice” to our Advisors in many ways: Not only did they have different expertise but they were literally different voices, so that the advisors didn’t feel like they always heard just me yakking at them on every call. See: What to make of Sallie Krawcheck’s emergence as a Twitter-sphere celebrity.
Listen. In the heat of the moment, it can be easier to talk than listen. But listening to clients’ and advisors’ questions in 2008 provided a remarkably good roadmap on where the next issues could arise. For example, their questions about the safety of money funds in the spring and summer of that year enabled us to get experts in front of them before the industry-wide run on the funds, so that they were confident and well-armed.
Don’t say what you hope; say what you know. During the financial crisis, the most-asked question of financial service leaders was whether everything was going to be alright. The urge to say “yes” was almost overwhelming, because it was what the employees and clients wanted to hear and it was what the leaders wanted to say. Instead of giving into that, we actively worked to give out only the facts as we knew them, and we admitted what we didn’t know. And we worked to understand what the question really was and answer that: for example, a client asking if everything was going to be alright was in part really asking if his assets were safe. That was something we could factually address. See: How JPMorgan’s PR mojo downgraded a $3-billion PR typhoon to a five-day squall.
Let them see you sweat, but don’t let them see you tremble. In times of stress, the team wants to see you working hard and making personal sacrifices to pull the organization through it. But they will watch you carefully for signs that you are nervous or scared. Gritty, realistic confidence goes a long way.
Exercise. I didn’t exercise for years. Between the job, the kids, the husband, the kids’ school obligations, travel, my non-profit work, my extended family…...you get the idea. But I found it was absolutely necessary during the financial crisis. At that point, the work was so intense that if you didn’t have a way to release the stress, you would make big mistakes or burn out very quickly. See: Six things to consider when reading Sallie Krawcheck’s comments in interviews.