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Ten Lessons for Leading During Crisis

Ptimes_May18_FeatureOne thing I like to do is to read books on topics from other industries or disciplines that are related to project management and this week I read a book by Linda Henman on ‘Landing in the Executive Chair’ [1] where she talks about what a leader should learn in order to prepare for a crisis and what a leader should do during a crisis. Her book is essentially oriented towards business executives but there is a lot in it that also relates to managing projects.

Experienced project managers know that projects rarely go according to plan and sometimes a crisis will rear its ugly head when you are least expecting it. At the same time, this crisis can provide an opportunity for the project manager to excel, so project managers will find these ten lessons of great value in preparation to minimize the impact to their projects and their organizations.

In her book she quotes an English proverb; ‘A smooth sea never made a skilled mariner’ and I can attest that a smooth running project never makes a skilled project manager. I have managed several high risk projects that had failed previously and I have also managed projects where a crisis occurred and provided me the opportunity to demonstrate my leadership capabilities.

Lesson 1: Heed the Early Warning Signs

There are often early warning signs that a storm is brewing. Sailors have a saying, ‘Red sails in morning, sailor take warning, Red sails at night, sailors delight.’ Take notice of early warning signs in your project. Be aware of persistent customer, stakeholder or project member complaints, rumors, turnover in the project, and resistance to change due to innovation or technology.  These always seem to start off small and begin to swell. Don’t ignore them and find out exactly if there is the potential of a problem brewing over the horizon. 

Lesson 2: If You Can’t Prevent a Crisis, at Least Contain It

After a crisis has occurred, you will want to contain it as quickly as you can by getting accurate information as to what was the real cause of the crisis and what are the ramifications. Next you need to act quickly and decisively, communicating correctly to all levels while behaving ethically as you attempt to contain the crisis. These are the tools of Crisis Management which the project manager must deal with whenever an event occurs that may threaten to harm the project. Three elements which are common to most occurrences of crisis management:

  • threat to the project
  • element of surprise
  • short decision time

You want to stop the ship from sinking.

Lesson 3: Never Run Out of Altitude, Airspeed and Ideas at the Same Time

To ensure project success, the project manager should employ the following techniques during a crisis.

Altitude – This relates to maintaining focus on the big picture required for the leadership of a project such as project vision, critical thinking, ability to prioritize, motivation, and continually moving forward to accomplish objectives. 

Airspeed – This relates to the velocity and forces that make a project go forward such as building relationships, having a good sense of humor, motivation through follow through, willingness to listen, capacity to convey respect to others and their ideas, and confidence to tell project team members what they need to know. All of these fuel us to provide the airspeed to keep the project moving onward.  

Never Running out of Ideas – This relates to the project manager’s ability to brainstorm and incorporate creativity, maintain enthusiasm while challenging existing processes, inviting input from others from a variety of perspectives, and a willingness to try novel approaches and champion innovation. The author states: ‘Having ideas makes us mentally flexible, which in turn equips us to see things from several perspectives, tolerate uncertainty, adapt to changes, and solve problems in new ways.’

During rough seas, a skilled captain not only knows how to successfully navigate through the rough waters but at the same time displays confidence to the crew.

Lesson 4: Face Reality

There comes a time when we must formally acknowledge that a crisis has occurred and communicate this to everyone. Don’t ignore or deny the urgency and severity of the crisis but rather confront it and take charge of the situation. Don’t blame other people or external events for the cause of the crisis. Your job is to take resolve the situation as best you can. 

Lesson 5: Prepare, Don’t Practice Bleed

Practice bleeding is a term the author uses to describe the tendency to suffer before the real pain begins. This relates to how you handle risks that you have identified through your risk analysis but are unable to avoid, transfer or mitigate. You have accepted the chance that the risk can occur and that there is a high probability that it will play havoc with your project. The anticipation of the risk is causing the project manager, and the team, great pain and suffering (bleeding) well before its occurrence.  This in turn interferes with your ability to manage. Others will notice the distraction and your leadership will be in jeopardy.

Lesson 6: Be Realistic but Optimistic

Many people panic and become very pessimistic during a crisis, which can definitely and severely impact the project.  As a result, project team members will spend more time taking about the crisis than trying to work on it. It is best to be realistic and communicate a genuine, yet sensible assessment of the situation and be optimistic when seeking solutions.  Get the team involved to find work-around solutions.  All hands on deck.

Lesson 7: Take Charge of Communication

When a crisis takes place, people in the organization and project look for leadership to take charge and that is you, the project manager to tell the facts, define the situation and to provide hope that the situation is in good hands. The project manager should consider what needs to happen to lessen the crisis, what ambiguities needs to be cleared up, what needs to be communicated and what are people most concerned about.  Be aware of your non-verbal body language so that it is in sync with both your spoken and written messages. People can sense when they don’t match.

Lesson 8: Encourage and Listen to Impolite Candor

As a project manager, do you squash debate in favor of politeness or do you encourage robust difference of opinion?  After a storm has blown you off course, you want to make sure that you get your project back on course as soon as possible.  You want your team and the stakeholders to be open and feel free to express any and all alternatives to solving the problems caused by the crisis.   

Lesson 9: Exude Powerful Vulnerability

During a crisis, project managers can feel overwhelmed with responsibility and usually will try to solve the problem themselves. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and admitting to your limitations will actually benefit you by acknowledging them and then enable you to find the right people to help you resolve the situation. This action will in fact strengthen your leadership ability since nobody really expects you to have all of the answers or go it alone.  You are the captain of the ship

Lesson 10: Respond Appropriately to the Media

When a very serious crisis occurs, many large organizations have public relation (PR) specialists who respond to the press but they need the detailed facts before taking action. The project manager needs to 

  • Cooperate with the PR specialists and not obstruct their discovery efforts
  • Minimize the lag time between the time the problem occurred and the response needed. Gather the facts as quickly as you can
  • Don’t respond to unfounded stories
  • Be transparent and avoid no comment. If you don’t know, then say you don’t know and convey that you will find out the answers as soon as possible
  • Don’t try to minimize to situation by comparing it to worse ones. Remember the PR disaster after the BP oil spill
  • Communicate effectively and don’t try to confuse the facts

I have only selected one chapter from this book to write about in this article but there are many other exciting leadership ideas contained in the other chapters such as decision-making, problem solving, attracting top talent, planning successfully, leading a team of virtuosos, and becoming a champion of change. I think that this book; Landing in the Executive Chair, should be required reading for project managers looking to implement effective leadership strategies in their projects and their careers.  

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Steve Blash, PMP  is an experienced IT professional project manager consultant providing leadership, mentoring, and training in Project Management. His areas of experience include business process improvement, business analysis, business intelligence, data analytics, project and IT management.

[1] Landing in the Executive Chair, Linda Henman, Career Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-1-60163-153-4

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