Two weeks into my first job as a management consultant, I found myself in São Paulo, Brazil. I was part of a nine-person project team, and two of us were in Brazil for the first six weeks of the project; the rest were in New York.
For the first month of the project, not a single person in New York knew my name. That changed when my colleague’s appendix ruptured.
It was two weeks before our first major client meeting, and this gentleman, my supervisor on the project, was in the hospital. Suddenly, our success depended on whether I—just a few months out of college—could find and share the data we needed, data that was the source material for that all-important first client meeting.
I still remember the teleconference the next day, with the full senior team in New York. During the call, I discovered that they were learning my name for the first time: one person said at the close of the call, “I know it’s a lot to get done, Sasha, but if you need help, I’m sure Alexander can chip in.” (My legal name is Alexander. There was no other person.)
For better or worse, I was now visible. How I managed through next two weeks set me on a trajectory in that job. Because I succeeded in that crisis, I was identified as someone to be trusted when the stakes were high.
You, too, will surely face crises in your professional life.
Here are eight steps you can follow to increase your own effectiveness when these crises arise.
- Grow the Team
- Name the Crisis
- Own the mistakes, and own the client’s experience of the mistakes
- Move into Crisis Triage
- Get the Work Done—Fast, and With Zero Mistakes
- Deliver…and sit tight
In a crisis, attention is magnified. From the moment the crisis is identified, there’s a sharpening, a concentration of focus, that’s required of every member of the team.
It should feel different: your orientation is different, you’re in a higher gear. You’re working both faster and better: tearing through work, but also triple-checking it because making mistakes is not an option.
To note: it’s possible that the crisis isn’t the only thing you’re working on. If that’s the case, then you must be adept at shifting quickly between ‘normal’ and ‘crisis’ levels of attention and focus.
2. Grow the Team
Inevitably, you’ll need some extra people and skills to get through this. This could mean bringing in someone more senior to run point. But it could just as easily mean adding team members who you know you need to deal with this particular situation.
It’s important to move quickly here and be decisive. And it’s OK to overstaff a bit and then release people from the team if you don’t need them.
3. Name the Crisis
With your team in place, the team leader’s first step is to explain to everyone involved that this is a crisis. This needs to be clear both to the original team and the expanded team.
You must tell the new team members how we got here; why the situation is grave; why, specifically, the client is upset; and why that matters. So, not just, “they’re upset,” but, “they are upset because [x], they are one of the most respected actors in this market, if they end up dissatisfied, that will set us back 6 to 12 months in what we’re trying to do here.”
Importantly, these first three steps—intensify, grow the team, and naming the crisis—should all be completed in a matter of hours and, at most, in a day.
4. Own the mistakes, and own the client’s experience
If you’re in a client-facing situation, it’s essential that you own up to what’s gone wrong. This means giving voice the things you feel were screw-ups and the things your client feels were screw-ups.
This latter point is essential: this is not a moment to nickel-and-dime over whether the client is 100% right. They are disappointed and angry, you’ve agreed that your job is to fix the problem. And “the problem” is not an objective set of facts, it is your client’s subjective experience. At this moment, their narrative is what’s real. Tell them, in your own words, everything that went wrong.
If they don’t feel heard, there’s no way they’ll end up satisfied.
5. Move into Crisis Triage
This is the team operationalizing the “intensify” step. Specifically, this means that any task that is part of addressing the crisis is immediately at the top of each team member’s list.
When new information comes in, you act on it.
When new data comes in that could be analyzed, it’s analyzed immediately.
When any additional step can be taken, it gets taken as soon as possible, regardless of whatever other important work is on each team member’s plate.
In crisis triage, urgent trumps important, and everything crisis-related is, for now, urgent.
Nothing sits on your desk / in your Inbox / as a Slack message for a few hours.
You want the client to see that everything is moving as fast as possible. Because, until the crisis is resolved, this is the only way to demonstrate that you are on it, and that solving this problem is your top priority. Without this, all your pretty words about how you understand the client and are committed to solving the problem ring hollow.
If this is a true crisis, you should, at a minimum, be communicating once a day to the client—more if there are major developments to be shared. And, of course, communicating much more than this internally.
The client should feel that they know everything that is going on, that they never have to chase you for any information.
You can slow down this cadence after the first week (or so) of the crisis, when things have moved from Defcon 5 to Defcon 4, but it’s nearly impossible to communicate too much in a crisis.
7. Get the Work Done—Fast, and With Zero Mistakes
This goes without saying, but the quality of the work, and the speed of the work, must be a 12 out of 10, from everyone. You’re moving as fast as possible and you’re triple-checking, you’re dotting every i and crossing every t, you’re getting a second set of eyes before sending…
Again, remember that this is about solving the problem and changing the narrative, and part of the narrative of any screw-up is the gap between how you promised your team would behave / your service would work and what happened.
Any mistake, no matter how small, will reinforce the narrative you’re trying to dismantle.
8. Deliver…and sit tight
The final step will depend on how big the problem was, and how well it was resolved. In a perfect world, the way you’ve responded, and the successful resolution, will have repaired or even strengthened your relationship with your client.
And that may happen, but it will likely take some time.
While you’re waiting, it always helps to thank the client for identifying the problem in the first place and for their patience, and to articulate your appreciation that they stuck with you.
In nearly all cases, you’ll have learned important things through this process—about how you do your work, and about your team.
And, if you’re one of those team members who worked through the crisis, in whatever role, savor the calm after the storm, relish the chance to have worked through something challenging, the chance you had to shine.
No one wants things to blow up.
But no one should ever let a good crisis go to waste.