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How to Reinvent Your Organization In the Middle of a Crisis

Here is an excerpt from an article written by David Lancefield for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit: Yaroslav Danylchenko/Stocksy

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“They expect me to perform miracles and I haven’t even caught my breath yet,” a senior executive told me as she held her head in her hands. We were talking about how she should lead her organization after the Covid-19 pandemic. She knew she would face intense pressure to deliver a turnaround in performance.

Thinking about it felt overwhelming, especially since she was already exhausted from dealing with the first, acute phase of the crisis. Could she switch from focusing on urgent, operational issues to more strategic opportunities? How well could she cope with the aftermath of the crisis — in particular, a difficult economic environment and a weary workforce — while also building a more resilient organization that’s ready to handle the next one?

Despite the feelings of overwhelm, the chronic, ongoing phase of a crisis is an opportunity to plan for the resolution and reinvention that will come after it. Based on recent interviews and my experience working with leaders over the last 25 years, I’ve developed five strategies that can help anyone looking to build a more capable and resilient organization as a crisis endures.

“Call Time” on the Crisis

A crisis rarely meets a neat and tidy ending. Instead, there’s usually a “ragged end,” so it’s critical that you make an informed judgment about when to “call time,” or signal the crisis’ end for your organization. This could be informed by leading indicators that suggest a reversion to normalcy, or by sufficient consensus among experts.

Communications within the organization should include four elements:

  • Recognition: Show gratitude for the sacrifices people have made, the difficulties they’ve endured, and the trauma and grief they’ve experienced. Call out the unsung heroes who’ve stepped up at critical times and the people who’ve supported colleagues in difficulty.
  • Honesty: Be candid about the challenges and uncertainties facing the organization (in relation to performance, resilience, and prospects) and about what has and hasn’t worked during the crisis. Encourage people to share how they truly feel (some will have been struggling while pretending they’re fine) and to express what they need to do their job well.
  • Aspiration: Talk about the organization you want to create and how it will make employees’ (and customers’) lives better. Reset your personal narrative, too. One CEO told me he was keen to shed his label of “super CFO” after having spent months immersed in financial restructuring. Take care, though. Balance your ambition with a dose of pragmatism, showing sensitivity to how people are feeling.
  • Commitment: Commit to acting on the lessons from the crisis, developing new norms, and preventing unnecessary practices from the pre-crisis period from creeping back in. This helps build confidence in the future direction of the organization.

Back up this communication with actions that signal de-escalation. For example, you could change the composition of the leadership team in order to bring in more strategic expertise or fresh perspectives, reduce the frequency of meetings set at the onset of the crisis, and make more room in the corporate schedule to explore new business models.

Refresh Yourself — and Others

Executives are often expected to carry on even after long periods of intense working, which can lead to poor decision-making, inertia, and even unethical behavior. To prevent this and other collateral damage, you need to find “moments of decompression,” as Mike Adamson, CEO of the British Red Cross, put it to me, and ways to share the workload more widely. This might mean restarting an exercise regimen, delegating more, or being ruthless about taking on new initiatives. In any case, it means being strategic about where you spend your energy and time and focusing on your highest-impact, most visible moments.

You’re not the only one who deserves this kind of care. Facilitate a conversation in your leadership team about how they can refresh themselves while still running the business. This should cover three questions:

  • How are you feeling?
  • What do you need to replenish your energy and perform at your best?
  • What do you need from the team or elsewhere (for example, mental health resources) to do this?

This isn’t always an easy conversation. Participate by sharing your own answers, and give people the space to answer their questions fully in order to create what Nancy Kline calls a “Thinking Environment.” This means giving your full attention as you listen to the answers and not allowing interruptions.

Commit to looking out for each other’s well-being, whether by offering support when asked or calling out unexpected changes in behavior.

Roll out this “format” across the organization, allowing people to disclose as much or as little as they feel comfortable. Anchor this exercise in a belief that people can decide how best to recover themselves — with support as needed — while meeting their performance targets. This shouldn’t be positioned as a one-off exercise, either. Operating in a world of systemic complexity and multiple crises requires careful management of energy and resilience on a day-to-day basis.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

David Lancefield is a catalyst, strategist, and coach for leaders. He’s advised more than 35 CEOs, was a senior partner at Strategy&, and is a guest lecturer at London Business School. Find him on Twitter @DLancefield or at, where you can sign up for his free “Strategising You” assessment.


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