July 7, 2020

Four Crisis Principles to Help Your Business Survive Turmoil

Many of us spent the first quarter of 2020 scrambling, bombarded by change. The COVID-19 crisis, social injustices, and tough economic conditions required many business leaders, including myself, to make hard choices, and to re-examine our businesses in detail with an eye toward simple survival.

As we roll into the second half of 2020, though, there’s a new mood. We’re adjusting to an atmosphere of constant change. That means getting out of fast-react mode, and finding a new footing that’s nimble but grounded. We still need to move fast, but we can’t burn up our energy reserves in the process – we’re in uncertainty for a while yet, and it’s important to find smart rules for living with it.

I’ve experienced crisis before when I was CEO of DuPont, and while sitting on Boards of leading companies. Through these experiences, and my current work as the CEO of Carbon, I have developed four principles of crisis management, which have helped me effectively navigate challenges as they arise.

They’re simple, distilled into few words that contain a career’s worth of learnings:

Principle 1: Focus on what you can control.

When COVID-19 hit, many of us asked: What can we do? But unfortunately, many stopped there. During a crisis, a paralysis seeps in: “Oh my gosh, the world is falling apart, my business is falling apart, what do I do?” Well, what you do is figure out what you can do, what you actually have some modicum of control over, determine if it’s going to help, and then get after it and get the team focused. In other words: same question as above, but with a different emphasis: “What can WE — we alone — do?”

Principle 2: Create your own trajectory.

This is where a leader needs to take time to write a plan – because it’s tempting to simply react moment to moment. It is really being very thoughtful and almost forceful with the organization. To say, you’re not going to just ride this out and things are going to be the same. What you have to do is write your own story.

We’re all faced with challenges, but we have the opportunity to be proactive about taking them on and outlining what a successful path forward looks like. In other words, don’t play the hand you’ve been dealt. Play the hand you want.

Principle 3: Be in constant communication.

How do you get a team moving? It starts with something so simple: telling them to move. But especially in crisis, that step can be forgotten – or a leader can assume that when something is said one time, that’s enough. The magic number might be higher, what I learned is that about the fifteenth time I said something, people were finally starting to believe I was serious.

You have to be very consistent in your message, with constant communication. And listening to your team is critical.

Principle 4: Instill pride in your mission.

Many people go through the first days of the crisis confused and nervous. But as we settle into this strange new normal, we’re realizing that establishing routine is how we’ll thrive. At your business, the frantic energy of “let’s just make it through March” needs to be replaced by a steady drumbeat for the months ahead. What sets that drumbeat? The mission.

Obviously, one of the maxims is to not waste a good crisis. But that then becomes an opportunity to express the mission, an opportunity to do something important and unique. Help your team understand how the mission is driving decisions, even in crisis – that there’s an underlying logic and mission to the decisions being made at speed, just as there are in calmer times.

These core tenets have served me well during the crises I have faced in my career, but they can – and should be – applied to how you lead every day. I share details of these four crisis principles with Reid Hoffman on the Masters of Scale podcast.

Listen to the new Masters of Scale episode here.

Ellen Kullman
President & CEO