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Being a Catalyst in Times of Crisis: 4 Lessons in Leadership

From pandemics to protests, dramatic change is afoot. CEO Susan Cook provides four best practices for addressing crises.

Crises come in many forms. Some disrupt entire countries, others confine themselves to small groups or individuals. However broad, at the heart of every crisis is a series of gut-wrenching decisions.

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Early in my career as a manager, I was promoted from managing a services team into a sales director role, responsible for a team of five account executives and three solutions engineers. I was the youngest person on the team, the least experienced in sales, and the only woman. How was I going to win their respect and confidence so that I could successfully lead the team?

This small-scale crisis, also a significant opportunity, was one of many I have faced since. Today, many enterprises face security and productivity issues from work-at-home arrangements. Customer behavior models have been upended; financial models thrown into turmoil. In our current time of uncertainty, I wanted to share four lessons I've learned in addressing crisis situations.

Lesson #1: Think beyond triage

I was listening to a conversation with Sonny Kelly recently in the context of how we can be better advocates for equality. One of his statements that stuck with me was, "I'm grateful that crisis pushes people to seek solutions they otherwise wouldn't have sought."

At Zaloni, we have experienced one crisis after another since I joined the company as CEO less than a year ago. From political unrest that shut down our Guwahati, India, office to the COVID-19 pandemic to communicating our commitment to racial justice, I have faced a number of unexpected business-critical decisions. For each, the key to our success was not simply to put a Band-Aid on the problem but to think how we could go beyond triage and build a more crisis-resilient, efficient organization.

Many women leaders like me have had to face difficult problems -- such as navigating career vs. family balance, equality in the workplace, and proving that our "seat at the table" is well deserved -- all while managing the challenges facing our businesses. Juggling layers of tough choices has taught me to face painful decisions quickly and honestly, enabling us to get ahead of more negative outcomes.

As an example, at Zaloni, when the coronavirus began spreading globally, I knew it was going to financially hurt our business in the short term. By making an early, agonizing decision to reduce salaries across the board and, in parallel, ensuring we were ready to apply for CARES act relief on day one, we were able to control enough cash to prevent layoffs while weathering the pandemic.

My recommendation is not only to be decisive early but to be as transparent with employees about your approach as possible. For us, this has led to positive results beyond financial triage. Our teams are more efficient, communicative, cost-conscious, and focused on our customers than we have ever been.

Lesson #2: Fostering diversity benefits creativity

In 2015, when I had the honor of leading the sales organization at MicroStrategy, I (and many others) observed that we did not have enough women in data and technology careers. I am a believer that creativity and innovation are best fostered in teams made of people with different backgrounds and life experiences. Unfortunately, my experiences had also taught me that diversity doesn't fix itself, it has to be an intentional effort.

To that end, I helped start the At The Table initiative at MicroStrategy, which is "dedicated to empowering women, encouraging them to stay in the technology field, and enriching their professional experiences." To achieve this ambitious goal, we created a variety of opportunities for women, such as networking events, social events (often involving food), charity walks, guest speakers, and book discussions, all designed to offer options while bringing women together in a positive way.

I am proud to say At The Table continues in its mission and has contributed to the increased number of women working for Microstrategy. I encourage you to find new ways to bring more diverse perspectives into your organization, not to satisfy any sort of requirement, but because doing so will enrich and propel the creativity within each team.

Lesson #3: Prepare for difficult conversations

Just after the dot-com bust, I was working as a vice president of a sales overlay group at Oracle. Like so many technology businesses, the crisis had impacted us deeply. In one day, I had to lay off 10 people on my team, about 20 percent of the group. To call this personally devastating doesn't pay justice to the pain. It remains a defining moment for me almost 20 years later. Not every conversation that day went exactly the way I had planned. The day taught me to prepare more carefully, and I have since developed a list that I review before tough talks:

  • Start with your why; context is essential
  • Do your homework; prepare and anticipate every question
  • Write a script, do not ad-lib
  • Show empathy; it's OK to say you're sorry but don't overdo it
  • Be authentic and direct; do not "sugar coat" your message
  • Follow the "Golden Rule" -- treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Allow for feedback but not debate
  • Be quick about it and get to the point immediately; bad news does not age well
  • Own it if it's your decision
  • Follow up and do what you say you are going to do

A crisis rarely comes without difficult conversations. Prepare your own list and use it to guide your communications through uncertain times.

Lesson #4: The crisis around the corner

If my eight months at Zaloni have taught me anything, it is that the next crisis is likely close at hand. The same eight months have also shown me that this reality doesn't have to be doom and gloom. Talking with a family member recently, I told him that I don't think we would be in nearly as good shape if we hadn't been in crisis mode since my first day on the job.

We have used each crisis to strengthen our business. No time for analysis-paralysis -- just make the best decision you can with the information at hand and go!

About the Author

Susan Cook is the CEO at Zaloni, Inc. where she is responsible for managing strategy, performance, and team success. You can reach the author via email or LinkedIn.

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