Using Corporate Crisis Management to Solve Any Problem
According to the Grief Recovery Institute, the hidden anguish of employees costs U.S. companies more than $75 billion a year in lost productivity and on-the-job mistakes. That statistic, cited in the opening pages of Jim Moorhead's The Instant Survivor: Right Ways to Respond When Things Go Wrong (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2012), helps frame the book’s approach to using corporate crisis management techniques to solve both personal and professional problems.
What do we do, and whom do we tell, when things go wrong? “There’s a whole range of emotions that can take over when we face a crisis,” says Moorhead, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, D.C., where he co-founded the firm’s crisis management practice. “We will be afraid of what we’re experiencing. We will deny what’s happening. We will hope that someone else will take care of it, or it will go away. We will sometimes be paralyzed by catastrophic thinking.”
Freezing in our tracks, aimlessly worrying, these are the symptoms of personal and professional crisis that Moorhead’s book aims to remedy. He revisits the tenets of a career spent advising Fortune 500 companies facing hostile takeovers (as well as advising politicians running along crisis-ridden campaign trails), and distills them into actions that can work on an individual scale: remain cool-headed, reach out to others for help, come up with a plan of action, and plan ahead before the next setback hits.
Most importantly: don’t try to navigate the rough water alone or without devising a workable strategy. Having crisis management teams and plans at the ready is exactly what great companies do, says Moorhead. “The beauty of having those in place is that it unlocks the brain and puts you in a positive frame of mind, with positive momentum toward a solution.”
The crisis survivors who embody the upsides of Moorhead’s prescriptions have confronted divorce, illness, addictions, and career setbacks. They range from television personalities to military veterans, a Major League Baseball coach, an Olympic medalist, and a smattering of historical figures, both well-known and obscure: Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts discusses how she confronted cancer, and former Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies coach Terry Francona talks about handling bleak seasons and hard losses.
The idea of applying corporate crisis management practices to personal turmoil grew out of Moorhead’s own “soft crisis.” At age 40, he ran for state office in Maryland and suffered a bruising defeat. He subsequently joined a telecom startup as general counsel in 2000, only to experience the pain of the bursting dot-com bubble. As the 165-person company was forced to reduce its headcount by 100, he had to lay off many of his friends.
By the time he exited the company, he no longer knew what to do, or who he was supposed to be. No self-help guide in the bookstore spoke to him—they all seemed too narrowly focused on only pieces of his problem. “The bigger issue was, I had this challenge that kind of moved across my life—finances, career, identity,” Moorhead says. “When you’re in a situation like that, you really need a system for how to deal with a crisis in general.”
The resulting plan is written in a tone that’s empathetic, but also with a matter-of-fact voice of reason. Feel like withdrawing and hiding under the covers? That’s a natural reaction to problems, writes Moorhead, but completely counterproductive to the task at hand. By staying visible, “you will get more help. You make it easier for others to help you move past your own problem when they see you staying on track with your life.”
And while it’s up to everyone to decide how much, and with whom, to share at work, Moorhead notes that keeping secrets will eventually show through—particularly if your job performance suffers. “Your colleagues will sense that something is wrong and wonder what’s going on if you keep them in the dark about it,” he says. Talking with a trusted colleague, in turn, can provide the benefits of having a lifeline at work.
The other major part of corporate crisis management success is creating a written plan. For the layperson, that translates to writing down questions that will ultimately lead to actions and a solution, says Moorhead: “Such as, What is the problem? What are your goals here? What do you need to find out that you don’t know now? Who can help you in this situation? And by answering those questions, that will supply the actions that you need to take.”
Depending on your perspective, the notion of taking crisis management pointers from corporate America at this historical moment is either ironic or perfectly timed. Indeed, Moorhead references the serious lapse in business judgment by former Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld as a prime example of how “untended problems turn rotten.”
But the author insists that while a number of companies were poor role models in their conduct and responses to the 2008 financial meltdown, the problem-solving techniques used by the best corporations are enduring. “Companies know trouble is coming. It’s only a question of when, not whether, and we need to accept that in our own lives,” says Moorhead. “We’ll be much happier on the other side of the crises we face when we’ve planned and prepared and gotten ready to respond.”