CEOs: What’s your CQ*

CEOs: What’s your CQ*

And what can you do to raise it? (*crisis quotient)

By Nels Olson, Vice Chairman and Co-Leader of Korn Ferry’s Board & CEO Services Practice

Much the way the current, unprecedentedly severe storm season of floods and hurricanes reminds us of our communities’ vulnerabilities and the need to be prepared, corporate crises have a way of stress-testing organizations for weak spots that may need shoring up.

President Roosevelt was the quintessential crisis leader: A wartime president, he was renowned for his communication skills evident in his “fireside chats.” He was able to both reassure and mobilize a frightened nation into a highly successful war effort, gaining crucial cooperation toward a common goal. Not every leader can be an FDR, but all can build greater awareness of what their organizations need from them – and what shareholders deserve – during trying periods.

Ask yourself these four questions to learn how capable you are of leading your organization through a crisis and, if you fall short, what you can do to raise your CQ:

1. Am I communicating what I need to, and how, throughout the organization? Inherent in the shift from merely focusing on shareholders to the broader stakeholder group is the recognition that employees also have critical needs that must be met if the organization is to continue to function effectively and meet its strategic goals. When a crisis strikes that will likely negatively affect some, or all, employees – such as a merger or downsizing that will result in layoffs – make sure you have a plan to communicate what will be happening, when, how, and to whom. CEOs that wait too long to communicate these details for fear of disrupting operations ironically ensure just the opposite effect. Amid uncertainty about the organization’s future and their own, employees have difficulty focusing on their work. Productivity and morale can plummet as the rumor mill runs amok and people seek higher, safer ground – perhaps at another organization.

2. Am I a good role model? The CEO is the role-model-in-chief and has to carefully monitor not only what he or she overtly communicates, but the inadvertent use of symbols and even gestures. During tough times, employees want to be reassured that leaders are down in the trenches alongside them, shouldering their share of the burden. Does the CEO say one thing and do another? Tough talk, for instance, about belt-tightening measures that will impact all while being seen leaving on a private jet for a weekend getaway will not go down well. Yes, people will take notice and, no, it will not have a positive impact. If the cozy sweater or the baseball cap adopted by so many political and corporate leaders during crises seems like over-playing your hand, do what is comfortable and authentic for you. Strive to convey informal confidence and reassurance.

3. Am I inspiring confidence and loyalty? If layoffs become a necessity, for example, how are those who will be let go treated? And what about the “survivors?” Again, employees will take note, and the results may accrue to the organization’s benefit if done right. Are those who must leave treated with respect and empathy or like criminals and pariahs? Acknowledging how people are feeling, whether they are leaving or remaining, and why certain measures are necessary, will go a long way toward building credibility and loyalty. And in a world where disgruntled current and former employees have ample public opportunities to share ill feelings, this approach will keep that static to a minimum.

4. Am I painting a picture of a more hopeful future? It’s easier for leaders to see what lies ahead than for those working further down in the organization with a more limited perspective. People want to know the truth, what the future holds and how their individual lives will be impacted. Regular communications that update people on organizational and personal status, and how that is likely to change, help to allay fears and anxiety that block individual and team performance. If you can see beyond the current crisis, be certain to share a view of a more positive future.

Smart leaders don’t wait for a crisis to strike, but prepare well ahead in anticipation of a variety of bumps and detours, big and small, on their strategic journey, to ensure a tight, closely aligned organization. For those to whom the softer side of leadership doesn’t come naturally, there are remedies, including personal coaching, that can help to build these essential skills. Leaders should work on bolstering their own deficits and consciously building a resilient organization: one that performs well when the sun is shining, and can also weather the storm on rougher seas.