Crisis Management

You have written your business plan, obtained your funding, and followed all the steps for operating a successful small business. You are on your way and prepared for anything. Then comes the day when the unplanned for occurs - a critical employee walks out, necessary suppliers abruptly shut their doors, a flood closes you down and damages equipment, any of a myriad of unexpected events can happen to cause a crisis and major stress in your life. Management is never put more strongly to the test than in a crisis situation.

One of the most memorable crisis management stories in history has to be the Shackleton trip to Antarctica in 1914. Shackleton set out by ship for Antarctica hoping to cross the continent on foot. He never even made it to land. His first crisis struck when his ship became stuck in the ice. He and his crew remained there for months, then the second crisis struck. The ship sank, leaving him and his crew of 27 stranded more than 1,200 miles from civilization, floating on ice floes with limited provisions. Incredibly, using barely seaworthy life boats, he led his crew to a small island. There, he made the decision to split the group, leaving some there with the limited provisions, while he and a few men took a lifeboat and sailed 800 miles to a whaling station in South Georgia. Even more incredibly he returned to rescue his remaining crew. He did not lose a single man in spite of all the odds against even his own personal survival.

Are you ready to provide that type of leadership when a crisis happens to your business? While quick thinking in an emergency may be something you do well, planning is clearly important. What we are considering here, however, are events that are unplanned for. Whether you should have planned for them or not is now a moot point. You, as the business owner, are now facing a situation that is threatening the very viability of your organization and most likely you financially. How do you handle it?

What are some of the situations that might arise to test you? There can be crises that happen out of the blue - natural disasters, environmental incidents, workplace accidents, product failure, or even shooting incidents. There can also be incidents that have been smoldering within the business that all of a sudden burst into flame - fraud by an employee, government fines, labor unrest, group protests, lawsuits, customer allegations, or investigations by watchdog agencies.

The most traumatic crises often are those that involve violence - a growing threat in every workplace for both employees and customers. There are firms that offer training in the safe management of disruptive and assaultive behavior including everyday skills of breaking bad news to people. Stress management and training in non-violent conflict resolution are becoming critical for any company that deals with the public regularly. One easy way to learn some of these methods is to volunteer at a local mediation center. They give you training, you help make your community a better place to live, and your organization gets publicity through the goodwill your work brings.

There are certain steps you need to be prepared to implement when something happens. Note that I use the word "when," not "if." Something will happen. That is a fact of life. It is how you handle it when it happens that is your test. Having systems in place that provide clear instructions to all concerned and a way to provide continuity of business operations during and immediately after the crisis is critical.

Many crisis management articles stress the need to manage the media well. While working with the media as a means of communicating with the public is indeed important, it is also necessary to make certain that you get your business up and operating as soon as possible. Not only do you need the ongoing flow of income, your employees need to feel confident in the survival of their jobs, and your customers need to feel confident that you will be continuing to provide your product or service.

Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell analyzed what lessons can be gleaned from Shackleton's tremendous achievement in their book, Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons From the Great Antarctic Explorer. Some of the leadership steps he followed were:

  1. Immediately address your staff, offering a plan of action, asking for everyone's support and showing confidence in a positive outcome.

  2. Give your staff an occasional reality check. After time, people will start to treat a crisis situation as business as usual and lose their focus.

  3. Keep malcontents close to you and win their support.

  4. Use humor and other diversions to relieve tension.

  5. Let all the people involved in a crisis participate in the solution.

Shackleton didn't tell his people what to do, he involved them all the way - and stayed personally involved himself. His conviction that they could do this together inspired everyone to do things they would not have thought possible.

While, hopefully, none of you will have challenges this extreme, his is a model that can help you through your own challenging moments to your own personal triumph over any crisis that may arise.