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This week I received phone calls from two Millenials I mentor who were both frustrated and looking for some coaching or some commiserating. I am not really sure which. Their frustrations were identical, with both individuals highly emoting their unhappiness with their perceived lack of leadership with their immediate supervisors. Both calls took me back twenty years, to my own observations on crisis leadership after the 9/11 attack.

Going Back in Time

Watching the news coverage of the attack from the Concierge Lounge at the San Diego Marriott, my first reaction was to call home to assure that my wife and three children, three thousand miles away, were ok.

Within minutes of that call my boss at HP, SVP Adrian Koch, called, first to see if I was personally OK and then to articulate his initial plan of action. My responsibilities in his plan were clearly laid out.

For Adrian, crisis leadership came naturally. “Did you secure your family and have a plan for them?” he asked. “Check,” I responded. “Good,” he replied, “Now I want you to report back to me within two hours on the safety of your 1200 employees. Call me with your results no later than two hours,” he stated, and quickly hung up.

I basically initiated the identical plan with my leadership team and was able to thankfully report back to Adrian, “All accounted for and safe.” Two hours after Adrian’s initial call he had set up a “war room” employee communication model, customer communication model, employee mental health links, hot lines, etc. Key customers were called by Adrian himself or by his leadership team.

Crisis leadership was in Adrian’s DNA. His leadership came naturally and was spectacular. Everyone followed his lead and the end results were positive and the learnings were clear.

9/11 also gave me experience with less than natural crisis leadership. Bob (name changed for obvious reasons) was also an SVP who I worked closely with. The attacks on our country left Bob in the proverbial “Deer in the Headlights” state.

I had known Bob for many years and knew him to be a good guy and a solid leader of a very large Division. But, while Bob did a great job assuring that his family was safe and secure, he had no natural ability to lead in a crisis.

Unlike Adrian, there were no processes set up, no war room, really nothing in those early days. Happily, Bob watched Adrian and others like him, and after a week or so Bob was able to recover and once again lead his team effectively and efficiently.

Leadership in the Age of the Coronavirus

With that experience of twenty-plus years ago, I was able to coach my young and passionate mentees.

I shared with them that the current Coronavirus crisis, with its multi-factorial dynamics and with so much still unknown, the most experienced leaders may be struggling. That the most experienced leaders may be vacillating, flip flopping, or acting inconsistently.

I coached them to be empathetic and understanding of their bosses, as he/she may be struggling themselves with crisis leadership, or perhaps an elderly parent or grandparent. I suggested they brainstorm how they can help.

And most importantly, I told them two things:

  1. First be patient – as I bet their bosses will “get it” shortly and offer solid leadership
  2. Secondly, I told them that in their careers, they won’t always have great leaders as supervisors. But, they can learn as much from a weak leader (what not to do) as they can from a strong leader. Many leaders will grow into the reality, as my colleague Bob did after a week or so.

I look forward to my next coaching session with the two of them to see if their managers did indeed evolve with the current crisis and what my two proteges have learned from this once-in-a-lifetime crisis.

Kevin Gilroy

Kevin Gilroy

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