In my work as a business coach to CEOs over the last 28 years, I have come to understand that no one escapes trials and tragedies. Although we strive for continuous success, it’s simply not the nature of life that any of us avoid problems. While most of these are the garden variety that are fairly easily solved, we must recognize that a major calamity looms somewhere in future days.
Just acknowledging this uncomfortable fact can be unnerving in and of itself. However, fear of unknown demons tends to destroy faith to move forward. We can become calcified by such fears, and actually bring disaster to our doorsteps by inaction.
Today, the “prepper” movement reminds us that earthquakes and other natural disasters may steal—at least temporarily—our normal, comfortable way of life. In my neighborhood (which sits in a prominent earthquake zone), we periodically run drills to simulate the event we all dread, in order to prepare for the reality that will likely one day come.
In that regard, I have developed a process for dealing with major unforeseen business calamities. It follows this basic process:
- Allow yourself a bit of private time to come to grips with your emotions. CEOs generally feel a need to show no fear. While this is wise when putting a public face on things, it is critical that you acknowledge the trauma you are experiencing. One CEO with whom I have worked said, “I just need a full day to process this. I’m angry; I’m worried; I blame others for this mess; I don’t know what to do!” He needed to vent, to weep, even to despair. This was not a weak man, nor a poor leader, but before he could move forward, he needed to process the pain he was feeling.
- The next step is to own the situation. Once a brief period of grieving is done, put it away. You are a leader for a reason. You must believe in yourself. Fear must be replaced by faith in yourself and in your team. Set aside blaming and anger; replace them with resolve to find a way over, around, or through the situation.
- Strive to clearly understand the situation. Look for root causes and their solutions. This is the time to bring in your closest confidants and advisers to analyze what has happened. Separate facts from emotions. Consider possible outcomes, both bad and good. Often the next great market opportunity will grow out of a calamity if we strive to see things with new eyes.
One of my clients decided with his executive team to go to his customers and acknowledge a major product flaw, assuring them that they would make things right—even if it cost them their company. This CEO was deeply worried that it would indeed bankrupt them, but found that their integrity opened new doors and opportunities. Not every situation will work out this way, but covering up the problem would surely have destroyed this company.
- The last step is to act. This is the moment of decision, of setting forth an agenda to turn things around. As this plan is shared with your employees, customers, and others, allow them to ask questions. Acknowledge what you don’t know, but assure them that you are moving forward with faith. You may be stepping into the darkness, but you are doing so with complete confidence.
This last step takes incredible courage. It is far easier to roll over and die. And inevitably, it will bring criticism and push-back from detractors. As a friend (who is a retired Army General) has said, “You must move forward—and draw fire!” The fire will come, but you will certainly not fail for want of trying.
One recession-ravaged CEO client marched into his banker’s office and proclaimed, “I am so glad that we are partners. A normal banker would call my loan due, but you and I can work this out so that we both succeed.” He then confidently laid forth his plan. He was totally out of covenant on his loan, and his banker was not happy. However, after drawing considerable fire, the plan was approved. It took time—and a lot more fire—but they turned things around.
These steps are primarily a process for restoring leadership confidence when it has been shattered by unforeseen circumstances. Understanding this process can be a life-saver (or company-saver) when the inevitable disaster strikes.
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.