Managing in a time of crisis

Developing a flexible mindset can prepare you and your business both psychologically and systemically for change and enable you to develop appropriate procedures for the worst that can happen. James Burstall explains how

After the major shocks of the past few years, crisis management is a key skill for any manager or business leader. For over a decade we have used a system we call The Flexible Method. It led to our company outperforming the market average during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It was first developed during another existential crisis, the 2008 credit crunch. In the independent TV production sector, we are experts at managing tight margins and have learned to be nimble, always ready to pivot. Other industries could benefit from adopting similar ways of thinking that are perhaps not currently in their DNA.

Preparing to defend your business against a multitude of future threats can seem overwhelming but doing nothing is not an option. Preparation is key to your organisation’s survival and long-term prosperity, so game-plan across your organisation in calm times. Not every disaster strikes out of the blue, so heed signs of coming storms and keep your business continuity and disaster recovery plans up to date.

How to deal with disaster

When disaster strikes, some managers act defensively in the belief they are protecting their business, but they are actually damaging it over the long term. In a crisis, money – or more precisely, the lack of it – can become a big problem. Cash flow issues are one of the main causes of business failure.

This means you are going to have to cut everything you can but do not panic and blindly slash spending across the board. Although this may feel like you are acting decisively, you can do more long-term damage than the crisis itself. Use a scalpel, not an axe. And do search your metaphorical attic or storeroom for any unused assets that could be monetised.

I believe that as leaders we must always put our people first. Caring for your staff is not only the right thing to do; it is in your interests. You need your team healthy and onside, so look after their mental health – and don’t neglect your own. Self-care is often overlooked but is one of the key qualities of a leader.

In a crisis your team will look to you for strong leadership, but don’t equate being macho with strength. Aspire to lead with calm purpose, setting achievable goals one step at a time and fiercely pursuing them to conclusion.  This is very much a time for humility.

And you don’t have to do all this alone. Being an inaccessible leader is never a good idea and it can lead to terrible decision-making, so set up an emergency team. Empower your bravest thinkers, delegating and spreading the decisions across the entire organisation. This will make you stronger.

During a crisis you are going to have to significantly step up communication with your stakeholders. The content of your communications will change as the crisis evolves, tailoring it to the likely emotional state of your audience, focusing on what they need most at that moment. Speak honestly and regularly to all your team. Avoid pretending everything is going to be fine but do kindle hope.

There is a lot you can learn lessons from past disasters, but critical thinking is still crucial to be able to respond effectively.

Remember your core values

In a storm you need an anchor. These are your core values; you should not only hold onto them during a crisis but expand them. Values are important to people and people are your business. If you ditch your values when things get tough, that sends a message that you don’t really care and they’re not that important.

An instinctive response in a crisis is to batten down the hatches and protect what you have. Counterintuitively, effective collaboration can boost long-term commercial success, so reach out to your industry network to share intelligence, experiences and create alliances. Lobby your industry and government with a stronger voice. You will find a host of helpful new friends and allies when you look for them.

Once you have steered your business through a crisis, you should think about charting your future course. First assess what has changed in the new norm. The disruption of the crisis may have resulted in new areas to explore, while others are less attractive now. A post-crisis landscape can offer once-in-a-lifetime opportunities where your spend can go further, so this may be the time to invest to grow.

And once you have thanked and rewarded your exhausted team, it is time to prepare for the next crisis…

James Burstall is the founder and CEO of Argonon, one of the UK’s largest international independent TV production groups and the author of The Flexible Method: Prepare to Prosper in the Next Global Crisis, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing

You may also like...

School rankings

France dominates FT’s MiM rankings

With 21 entries, French business schools comprise a fifth of all institutions in the 2023 Financial Times master’s in management (MiM) ranking, ahead of 10 from the UK led by London Business School, which claimed third place

Read More »