Overcoming Adversity in Leadership: Finding Vision and Calm in the Storm

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be in the eye of a hurricane? Have you ever wondered how others have navigated significant organizational crises or the traits they relied on to lead teams and support management through mission critical, dynamic and multi-faceted problems? Every organization and CEO needs “anchors” during a time of crisis – people who can trouble shoot and stabilize the ship, yet who also have the vision, tenacity, fortitude, creativity and skills to identify and solve problems (without making them worse), keep teams focused and help chart a path forward. One of the key “anchors” in any crisis are the organization’s top lawyers who often provide trusted counsel and strategic partnership with leadership and critical functions to weather the storm.

“Organizational crises” are front page news almost daily. The challenges presented can be astounding and the ease of information sharing and “communicating” can be both a blessing and a curse. Navigating these challenges is not easy nor is there any form “checklist” or “playbook” that has all the answers. I had the privilege of brainstorming with four top women in-house counsel, each of whom have faced significant legal challenges and crises throughout their careers, about their insights, wisdom, lessons learned and how organizations today are evolving to prepare for significant disruptions, legal risks and “unexpected” crises. Collectively, we identified five areas that separate visionary leadership and crisis response from the pack.

1. Prepare in Advance.

“Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” John Wooden

Nothing positions an organization or a team to effectively respond to crises better than preparing in advance and building a foundation for success. “Have a crisis plan in advance and train key employees in crisis response, including your top executives”, advises Jody Porter, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel of Toyota Motor North America. “You need to take the time to think ahead about the potential issues you could face before they happen.” Advance planning gives the organization an important opportunity to identify key stakeholders and build relationships in advance that will allow for close collaboration under what may be extraordinarily stressful circumstances. Jody also noted that organizations need clear processes and “it’s critical that your organization speak with one voice during a crisis.” Advance planning is the foundation for success and will better equip leaders for dealing with the inevitable squalls and bumps in the road that will occur and, at times, may magnify in the face of significant problems and the accompanying public scrutiny. “Strong foundations lead to better decision-making,” said Jody, “it’s worth the investment.”

2. When Faced with Challenges, Be Methodical and Keep Perspective.

“Keep Calm and Carry On.” The British Government

This phrase, originally intended to boost the morale of the British people facing major air attacks in World War II, can be an inspiring reminder that, in a time of crisis, self-discipline, fortitude and remaining calm as a team in the face of adversity will pay dividends. “This motto has served me well and is a guiding principle in managing crisis issues throughout my career,” said Anjali Chaturvedi, Assistant General Counsel Investigations of Northrop Grumman Corporation. She added that “it is important to pause, stay composed and do some early issue spotting so that you can put together the right team and give them the authority to take action.” Being decisive is important in times of crisis. Of course, how facts and circumstances unfold may require adjustments to a plan of action - but approaching each challenge calmly, ethically and methodically is critical to achieving the best result possible. Paralysis and waiting for things to evolve often can sometimes lead to bigger problems. At the same time, Anjali pointed out, “leaders and their teams should not jump to conclusions or react without knowing the material facts and thinking through the implications of any response.”

3. Communicate often. Communicate clearly. Listen.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw

One of the biggest challenges in any organization or relationship is “communication.” While nothing and no one is perfect, it often is the “illusion” of communication that gets people in trouble. Lynn Haaland, PepsiCo Deputy General Counsel, Global Chief Compliance and Ethics Officer and Chief Counsel, Cybersecurity, believes communication is critical long before a crisis occurs. She explained that “there needs to be lots of communication before a crisis, including discussion about: (i) what might be on the horizon, good and bad; and (ii) what you and others are doing to prepare.” She also believes it is important to “make sure you are building relationships with other key stakeholders so they understand the role you play in the organization.” The professional relationships you build internally will serve you well when significant problems arise and you must quickly work together in a high-stakes setting. In times like these, communication and trusted relationships become even more essential, and one must communicate effectively early and often – in clear and unequivocal terms. Lynn noted that “the speed at which any issue can spread increases the pressure on companies and their counsel to respond quickly and, as appropriate, to reassure internal and external stakeholders that they are handling the matter appropriately.” Yet Lynn underscored that while the ease of communication (with email, for example) can help tremendously, there can be trouble if different stakeholders interpret a risk, a situation or even the same language differently. These challenges underscore the importance of partnership and regular collaboration between corporate leaders, lawyers and the communications team; as Lynn pointed out, however, there is a greater take-away for non-crisis situations too. Don’t assume people understand the meaning behind your message. Take the time to understand your colleagues, business partners and customers in your day-to-day dealings so that you are even more adept at communicating effectively when it really matters.

4. Maintain Perspective and Don’t Rush to Judgment

“Fortune truly helps those who are of good judgment.” Euripides

The need to respond quickly and the dangers of rushing to judgment without all the facts is a delicate balancing act when faced with any significant problem. Christina Ackermann, Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Valeant Pharmaceuticals International, Inc. said: “you need to collect facts with rigor before making decisions and involve the right people early without causing panic in the organization; it’s better to make decisions with facts and not rush poor decisions.” Leaders need to be courageous and decisive but, above all, they need to “get it right” because the outside world has become exceedingly unforgiving if you “get it wrong.” Christina pointed out that evaluating the facts can be difficult and you cannot always believe what you read - stories appear in social and news media that are misleading and false at times. Therefore, she said, “it is key to act with a calm head and don’t overreact” when faced with negative media. She added, “only set the record straight when truly needed and critical – you don’t want a media war on minor issues or appear overly defensive; rather, you want to build credibility with the external and investor community.” At the outset of any brewing crisis, focus on meticulously, quickly and objectively assessing the facts without over-reaction or any knee jerk reaction to place blame. It is important to have the judgment to focus on the bigger picture when facing adversity. In Christina’s experience, the most significant challenges in overcoming multi-faceted, complex problems often involve “defining the organization’s objectives while removing emotions from the decision-making and designing a response strategy that resolves problems while putting a human face on an otherwise faceless company.”

5. Embrace Adversity, Be Courageous and Use Challenges as an Opportunity to Learn

“Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn” Harriet Beecher Stowe

Based on our career experience, we all agreed that adversity is inevitable and, in times of crisis, strong, decisive, fearless, compassionate, visionary and resilient leadership is critical. Is it reasonable to assume that any one person will embody all these characteristics at the same time? Perhaps not in every situation. But, we agreed that visionary leaders supported by strong teams with empowered decision-makers can accomplish anything.

Jody noted that different leadership styles may be needed at different times and different skills may be needed at different phases (for example, a time to “rally the troops versus rebuilding”). It is important that leaders and their advisors know what skills are needed and when, and that they proactively empower a small group of decisions-makers with clear authority and responsibilities to achieve the objectives at hand. “Otherwise you could have a situation where everyone and no one is in charge simultaneously,” which can create other, sometimes more significant challenges. At all times, she noted, “maintaining a customer focus is critical because, in part, it helps foster better internal cooperation and partnership on shared goals, and it can inform a more thoughtful and comprehensive strategy.”

Anjali agreed and emphasized that those who demonstrate true leadership care about solving problems ethically, legally, responsibly while treating their colleagues with respect.” She added, “I have learned that in solving any problem, big or small, taking some time to have a fulsome conversation with people who can provide advice and giving them the room to speak openly and fully has always helped me get the best answer. Inclusion means really listening to all points of view even if they differ from my own. That is how good decisions are made.”

Christina also focused on communication and approach. In times of crisis decision-making, she believes that “rigor in thought and analysis, patience, collaboration and calmness is key.” She said “leading through a crisis requires a calm head, strong collaboration with different experts and functions, and the ability to set a clear strategy and communication strategy (internal and external).” She added “I have learned to involve and rely on others, communicate transparently, and set a focused simple strategy to get through the crisis; our mission should be in the forefront of decision making.”

Lynn highlighted teamwork, grace under pressure and flexibility. “It is important to build trust among leadership and the business in your judgment and your perspective – but to above all work collaboratively as a team.” One must be prepared but also listen honestly, be flexible in finding solutions, “read the room” and don’t make it personal. At the end of the day, the most important thing is the success of the team and doing the right thing. She also aptly noted that it is important to be generous with appreciation, to give credit to others who work long hours with little thanks or to give someone a second chance who makes a mistake during times of stress.

We all shared the view that it’s essential to take time to learn from your failures both as an organization and a leader. Be courageous and curious. If you take the time to embrace and learn from adversity and honestly assess improvements – you will be better for it and the loyalty, dedication, growth and vision leaders can chart for the future will be limitless.

Last, but not least, don’t miss the opportunity to talk with and learn from others. These opportunities may prove invaluable to help chart your path and right your ship when it’s your turn to face the inevitable storms that you will encounter.

“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” Eleanor Roosevelt


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