Leading Through Unexpected Adversity

As an executive, it’s fair to say that nothing has truly prepared you for leading through unexpected adversity like we’re facing today. According to Harvard Business Review (HBR), “When the situation is uncertain, human instinct and basic management training can cause leaders — out of fear of taking the wrong steps and unnecessarily making people anxious — to delay action and to downplay the threat until the situation becomes clearer.”

Unexpected situations mean ambiguity, and that is a difficult environment for leaders. Often they will discount the risk and delay decision making or taking action, looking for the situation to right itself. However, during a time of adversity, executives should lead with a sense of urgency, communicate openly, honestly, and often, and embrace the tech industry idea of “fail fast”, iterating quickly and moving past inevitable mistakes. Let’s take a look at the four lessons outlined by HBR.

Acting with Urgency

It makes sense to seek more information and insight when faced with unexpected adversity. The desire to make an informed decision is how leaders typically operate. However, during a time like this, the risks associated with waiting can have catastrophic consequences. This puts executives in an uncomfortable position of making decisions without all of the facts. This should not be an issue if you also follow the other three lessons. 

Transparent Communication

Employees are looking to executives during uncertain times. And as an executive, you know that sharing bad news is necessary, and like ripping an adhesive bandage off, honesty, empathy, and transparency is the best approach you can take. Yes, it takes courage, but it also shows respect for employees. When you share how the organization is approaching the situation, what they can expect, and how they can interact with management so their voice is heard, you’ll encourage more engagement and reduce anxiety. 

And it’s also important to remember, it’s not just what is being said, it’s also how you say it. According to the article, “communicating with transparency means providing honest and accurate descriptions of reality — being as clear as humanly possible about what you know, what you anticipate, and what it means for people…somewhere in that communication must be a hopeful vision of the future toward which people can direct their energy, because without hope, resolve is impossible.”

Fail Fast

When facing an unknown situation as we do today, problems are going to arise that you never considered, and mistakes are going to take place no matter how much planning you do. Responding to these situations requires a high degree of self awareness. If you feel the urge to point a finger or assign blame, pause and refocus your attention to solving the matter at hand. Don’t get defensive either. Leading in uncertain times means failing fast, assessing the situation and moving forward. This can be a hard thing to do. Seeing the bigger picture can help you put the mistakes in context. “The important response to any misstep is to listen, acknowledge, and orient everyone toward problem-solving.”

Over Communicate

Finally, don’t stop communicating with your employees. If you start strong and then stop sharing with them, they will lose faith in you and grow anxious. You will have started on a specific course of action, and it will inevitably change. The situation will change and new information will become available. Keeping everyone up to date is important. Make time to hear the concerns of employees and respond to them. Remote working provides an unique opportunity to connect with people in their homes, which in and of itself is more personal.

There is not a playbook for leading through unexpected adversity. But you can take a page from Thomas Edison during times like this, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.” If you have questions on leading through unexpected adversity and would like to speak with one of our retained search recruiters in Denver, Chicago, St. Louis or Seattle, please send us a note.