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Keeping “black swans” at bay: four crisis management lessons from business leaders

Keeping “black swans” at bay: four crisis management lessons from business leaders

It’s been almost a year since the first episode of White Swan: The Crisis Podcast first landed. The podcast showcases host Gavin Megaw and guest Gary Cleland, both of Hanover Communications, our sister company in the United Kingdom, and Karen White of our Halifax office to talk with a special guest to look at crises from all angles to explain how senior business leaders stay on top of things during those tense, headline-making moments.

Over the last year, we’ve heard from business leaders, journalists, politicians, cybersecurity experts and more about what crisis means to them, and how they have set up teams to handle the worst that might be thrown at them.

Many will be familiar with the term "Black Swan"—a rare and unforeseen event that might have a catastrophic impact on a business. Essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who coined the term black swan back in 2007, has argued that the COVID-19 crisis—which has been described as the ultimate example of that unpredictable catastrophe—was in fact a white swan event. It obviously had a major impact but, argues Taleb, we were warned, and could—and should—have been prepared.

Business leaders have told us over the last year how they have dealt with a wide range of crises, including those posed by COVID-19, and how they have set up teams and processes to cope with whatever has been thrown their way.

Here, we’ve gone back over some recent episodes to find the key takeaways to help you learn how you might get "crisis prepared" for those "white swan" moments when they arrive.

Information, insight, action

David Davis MP told us about the importance of having an external view on crises when they unfold, to help prevent them escalating.

Dealing with crises—whether a fast or a slow crisis, David told us, should always follow a simple path. You need to gather information, gain insight, then take action.

To help push this forward, getting an external view is vital.

“We all talk about fight and flight responses. What people forget is there are three reactions. As well as fight or flight, there’s freeze. And the most common reaction of people who’ve not been through a crisis is to freeze, because they don’t know what to do, they’ve never seen it before.

“This is why outsiders are very important. Somebody else coming in and taking over. Someone to say ‘No, that’s not actually very important’ or ‘we can change this, we can’t change that’. That’s the analytical element. The path has to be information, insight action—and when you’re frozen, you’re stuck in the pre-information stage.”

Make sure everyone knows who’s in charge

When a crisis hits, the most important thing is to know who is in charge, because there will instinctively be dithering and worry. Having a strong leader who gets the right people in the right room at the right time is crucial, former cabinet secretary Lord Richard Wilson told us.

“One of the things that goes wrong in a crisis is that people run around like headless chickens,” he said. “People need to know who is in charge, and what they have to do. Even if they didn’t expect this crisis, they need to know how to behave in a crisis”.

The person in charge not only needs to think about what message is being put out to the outside world about the crisis, though—they need to make sure they bring the organisation with them.

“Communication, internally, is also very important. It’s no good, having a brilliant statement for the world or to the press if people inside the organisation have no idea what’s going on, or what’s expected of them. So internal communication is as crucial as external communication. You need to give people a lead so that they know where they’re going.”

Don’t pretend things don’t exist

In a fascinating and frank interview, Farrah Storr, editor in chief of Elle UK, told us about her view of the need for clarity in leadership, particularly during challenging times. When should you gloss over the truth with your team—if ever? How can you walk “the fine line” between bringing your team with you with clear direction, as opposed to dragging people along?

“When you tell a team how difficult it is, something changes,” Farrah told podcast host Gavin Megaw.

“The structure naturally starts to become flat. Teams go brilliant, we’re all in this together now”. It bonds teams together, knowing the big obstacles in front of them.

“The reality is crises are everywhere. Whether they’re personal or professional, they are going to come for you. The best thing you can do is not pretend they don’t exist; it is to acknowledge they’re there. You come up with a plan, and you get stronger as a result of that, you unlock your potential, and you discover amazing things about yourself”.

Developing your network is crucial

Building a "black book", and a network of contacts to help navigate potential crises, is a crucial step. You do not want to be introducing yourself to people in the middle of a crisis, you don’t want to be trying to explain your business to someone who is viewing it through the lens of a particular issue. You want people to view the issue you’re experiencing through the lens of what they already know about you and your business.

Steve Elworthy, Director of Special Projects at the England and Wales Cricket Board and now Chief Executive at Surrey Cricket, told us how he went about this as a South African new to the English game in 2008.

“Your black book is all powerful, that network of connections is crucial,” he told us.

“I didn’t turn down one invite for two years, to develop a network of colleagues, to build up my knowledge and network.”

Be considerate, be transparent, be consistent

Cybersecurity is something we’re hearing more and more about, and something that Dr Jessica Barker, co-founder and co-CEO of cybersecurity agency Cygenta, told us sadly won’t ever be fully eradicated—and thus something that every business needs to have a plan for.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where an organisation can say they are 100 percent secure, which is why it’s so important to be prepared for the fact that you may be hit with an incident,” she told us.

“And there’s all sorts of ways you can prepare for that, which will save you time when an incident happens, allowing you to be able to respond to that incident more effectively, to communicate more effectively.

There are three things to think about to ensure your deal with a cybersecurity incident in the best possible manner, from a communications point of view, according to Dr Barker.

“It’s about giving the information you can, when you can. Be consistent and don’t feel too much pressure to say everything you can all at once. People understand that cyber-attacks are happening, people understand it can take time to uncover what’s happened. It’s about really being considerate, being transparent, being consistent.”

Listen to previous episodes and subscribe to White Swan: The Crisis Podcast here so that you get the latest episode as soon as it is released.