How to Turn a Crisis into Opportunity: 5 Disciplines for Adaptive Leadership

As a culture change strategist during this crisis, I researched best practices and trends, evaluated new authoritative surveys, studies, and academic analyses, and picked the brains of hands-on thought leaders. Navigating the turbulence of the pandemic was a learning experience that few leaders anticipated, and it will have long-term ramifications for the way companies operate.

The COVID-19 pandemic challenged corporate leaders in ways they were never challenged before. It was a once-in-a-century catastrophe that changed the business world forever, a global seismic shake-up. It was also one that inspired renewed agility, innovation and teamwork.

Most of all, it served as a wake-up call, making us more aware than ever of the need for corporate leaders to prepare for any kind of crisis, to have a management plan in place, and to act quickly, decisively, and with empathy when the next crisis strikes. And there will be a next crisis. There always is.

How can you and your organization be better prepared to face the next unimagined crisis? How can your corporate culture be maintained? What attributes will help senior leaders work their way through all aspects of the challenge? How will you recruit, hire, onboard, communicate, and train during tumultuous times?
  1. I have distilled my findings into a step-by-step road map founded on five disciplines:

  2. Inspire and communicate a shared purpose.

  3. Build trust and authenticity.

  4. Hone your performance management skills.

  5. Develop your talent.

  6. Create belonging through diversity and inclusion.
In my new book Culture Ignited: 5 Disciplines for Adaptive Leadership, I also address the critical role of senior leaders and explore how a crisis can be turned into opportunity. My goal is to equip and empower executives, enabling them to successfully lead an organization to overcome challenges never taught in business school.

This work continues the message and advice in my previous book, Culture Spark: 5 Steps to Ignite and Sustain Organizational Growth. Sustain is a key word because the impact of 2020 and 2021 has far-reaching consequences. Companies with adaptive leadership that responded quickly and thoughtfully made sustainable transformations for long-haul success.

Inspire and communicate a shared purpose Companies with a healthy culture thrive because they create the sense that everyone is in it together. Those companies also care about more than the bottom line. Making a profit is essential, certainly, but purpose is what drives commitment and passion. Purpose is what differentiates you to your customers, vendors, employees, and potential employees.

The flourishing businesses will be those whose leaders recognize that purpose drives profits and profits sustain purpose. They go hand in hand. Purpose-driven business metrics can help you determine how much impact you have on the company, organization, society, and/or community you seek to influence. Examples of purpose-driven metrics that truly differentiate you from the competition include:
  • Brand loyalty

  • Quality job applicants from employee referrals

  • Community involvement

  • Retention of employees, particularly high performers

  • Customer retention, repeat business, and customer referrals

  • Product/service innovation

    Leaders need to lead by example and not only reiterate the corporate purpose but also live it and display it in every action they take. A pre-pandemic Deloitte report, “Global Human Capital Trends,” revealed that employees desired purpose and meaning more than money. They were more interested in their company’s contribution to the world than the bottom line. McKinsey research showed that survey respondents “living their purpose” at work had four times higher engagement and five times higher well-being.

Build trust and authenticity

Trust is the foundation upon which relationships are built, and it’s a two-way street. Research shows that when workers are trusted by their managers, they are much more likely to reciprocate that trust. In turn, they will perform to a greater extent and exceed expectations. Go out of your way to deliberately signal your trust. Don’t assume your employees know that you trust them. They’re not mind readers, so you have to tell them.

Encourage feedback, and be responsive both on an individual basis and through company-wide communications. Strive not only to be positive and uplifting, but also to be honest and realistic.

Hold live question and answer sessions during which employees can ask senior management anything or set up an online link for employees to pose questions to senior leadership twenty-four hours a day. You may find that employees who were too shy to interact publicly are more inclined to participate in a private medium. If you cannot answer some questions on the spot, provide answers in the next team or company-wide communication. Constantly embed purpose in how you communicate with your employees, and when you implement business changes, always link them with your purpose.

Authenticity founded in transparency

Transparency is tough for many organizations and for many leaders. Many of us were taught that being a leader meant knowing all the answers and have worked in environments where making a mistake was tantamount to career disaster.

The reality is that we cannot reignite our culture without first acknowledging the current state—which is likely to have created issues—when a crisis occurs. If we are not candid about these issues, the rumor mill will run rampant, as will mi trust. Trust is fragile, easily broken, and hard to regain.

Leaders need to take a long, hard look inward and ask themselves if they are part of the problem. No culture can sustain itself without authenticity and emotional intelligence. Can you see things from your employees’ point of view? Are you a role model for managing stress in challenging times? Do you demonstrate resiliency and the ability to lead with minimal conflict and maximum collaboration?

Hone your performance management skills

Managers need to be clear about the big picture, and employees need to understand it. When we consider the human element in performance, it is not enough to know what to do. It is also important to know the how, why, how well, and how often for people to bring their best ideas and contributions. At the outset, leaders must articulate company direction, strategy, and business goals. Keep the message simple and straightforward, and don’t assume it’s a once-a-year undertaking. In fact, touching on priority goals at least briefly in every team meeting helps employees continue to feel part of a common cause, especially if they are working from home. Remind people of your organization’s purpose and ask them how they contribute to it. Even when they feel isolated, they need to know they make a difference.

Most employees are concerned about overall company performance. You can put their minds at ease by sharing market realities with them and letting them know what is happening in other regions and business units, as well as with their customers. Be honest while maintaining a degree of optimism and a forward perspective. Share progress and accomplishments, no matter how small, and inform them how these accomplishments support organizational goals.

Develop your talent

One of the first casualties of a financial crisis is often the company’s training budget. While it may be a quick way to effect cost savings, it is not the right solution. I don’t say this simply because I passionately believe ongoing talent development is critical and have a vested interest in providing it to companies large and small. I say it because the data is clear that cutting a training budget is a short-term fix at best with many long-term downsides.

McKinsey cites a Training Industry Report, which showed that during and after the Great Recession, a significant drop in training expenditures in the years 2009 and 2010 was followed by a surge in 2011 and a return to 2008 levels in 2012. Says McKinsey, “What this tells us is that if companies cut their learning budgets now, they’re only delaying their investment, not netting a saving—especially since the current crisis will require a larger skill shift than the 2008 financial crisis did.”

McKinsey further recommended—and I concur—that company leaders should undertake a broad reskilling agenda that develops employees’ digital abilities and their cognitive, emotional, and adaptability skills. Companies can’t be resilient if their workforces aren’t.

The qualities that workers and companies need for tomorrow are not what they were yesterday. Jobs have changed, and the way we conduct business has changed. Precisely calibrated skills can become a barrier to innovative thinking and flexibility. Skills are still important, but today’s success also requires innovation and entrepreneurship, adaptability, collaboration, and emotional intelligence.

Create belonging through diversity and inclusion

Striving for diversity is not simply a politically correct, feelgood goal for corporations. While it is certainly an ethical imperative, organizations have increasingly recognized it is also good business. There is mounting research to prove the point from companies such as McKinsey, Development Dimensions International (DDI), Korn Ferry, and Boston Consulting Group.

A McKinsey study of 180 global publicly traded companies found that those whose executive boards had the most diversity showed returns on equity (ROE) 53 percent higher than those that were the least diverse. A DDI survey of more than two thousand human resource executives and nearly sixteen thousand global leaders found that organizations with above-average diversity were eight times more likely to be in the top 10 percent for financial performance.

Diversity at the top drives value and is critical at all levels of an organization to drive innovation and a sense of inclusion. It opens doors, facilitates communication, and broadens both perspective and thought. As Laurence D. Fink, CEO and Founder of BlackRock, the world’s largest investment firm handling nearly nine trillion dollars of investments has said, “If we are not a mirror of who are clients are, we’re going to fail.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Adapted from “Culture Ignited: 5 Disciplines for Adaptive Leadership” by Jason Richmond, Jeanne Kerr and Malcolm J. Nicholl