How to Lead in a Crisis


How to Lead in a Crisis

Coronavirus. Tragedy. Economic crisis. The toughest moments are the ones that show what leaders are made of. Former DDI president Bob Rogers dives into the moments that test leaders most.

Publish Date: March 11, 2020

Episode Length: 36 minutes

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In this Episode

Coronavirus. Tragedy. Economic crisis. The toughest moments are the ones that show what leaders are made of. Former DDI president Bob Rogers dives into the moments that test leaders most.


Bob Rogers: You got to stay calm. Doesn't matter how nervous you are on the inside. You got to project a calm. You got to be visible, you got to be out there. You got to be talking to people. It's the crisis that defines a real leadership, I believe.

Beth Almes: What do you do as a leader when suddenly everything just goes wrong? We're talking natural disasters, major tragedy, or even the death of a coworker, or in some cases like right now a possible pandemic like the Coronavirus that has stopped much of the world in its tracks.

Hey there, leaders. I'm Beth Almes and our topic today on The Leadership 480 podcast is a big one, how to lead in a crisis, and my guest today is Bob Rogers. Bob is the former President of DDI and he's led the company through a number of crises through the years. Bob's also an Executive Coach, so he's guided lots of the best CEOs out there through their own crisis moments in their organizations. Thanks for joining us today, Bob.

Bob Rogers: Glad to be here.

Beth Almes: So I'm going to start off with a bit of a heavy hitter. What was the toughest crisis you faced in your career as a leader?

Bob Rogers: Well, I was President for 25 years, but the two stand out, obviously 9-11 was devastating, not only to the country but also to our business. And then there was the recession in the end of 2008. In both cases we lost 33% of our revenue within a couple of months. Those were traumatic for all of us, the executive team and all the people in the company. But those two stand out to me. There were other smaller ones, but those two were huge and took lots of effort to get things back on track.

Beth Almes: So those are two really different types of crises. One more really directly to the business, threatening our jobs in the economy and then the other, just the scale of human tragedy on top of the business tragedy and all the business implications of that. So let's talk a little bit about 9-11 first and how you handle difficult conversations with the team. How did you show leadership in that time?

Bob Rogers: Well, it's been a few years. So from what I can remember, and this would apply to any leader in any major crisis is immediately called Executive Committee meeting. Planned out a few things we could do right away. For example, cut all travel, put a hiring freeze on, we knew it was going to kill our revenue because we had workshops and people weren't going to travel to our cities for workshops or for assessments. So we knew our business was going to go down. And as I said, we lost a third of our revenue in a couple of months. We canceled 65 workshops in October of 2001 alone, which costs us quite a bit of revenue. So, we met as an executive committee and we came up with courses of action, like the hiring freeze, like executives were going to take a 10% pay cut off their salary. The bonuses were non-discretionary, so the bonuses were going to go away for the year.

We put more effort, we increased the R&D on virtual classrooms where people can take our courses without traveling. We then had an all leaders communication meeting, back then you could do it by phone, and we had maybe 100-110 leaders around the world. So we talked to all the leaders, gave them some talking points and outlined some talking points to how to talk to the people about this, what impact it was going to have on our financial state, which wasn't going to be good. So we froze some things. Later on we planned for the possible right sizing of our company because we knew we might've had too many people. And we can talk about that if you want. Then I went and talked to, so I talked to all the executive team, came up with some actions, talked to all of our leaders, and then I held town talks for all of our employees to communicate what I could in terms of actions that we were going to take and to try to mitigate their fears.

Now, obviously I'm not going to get rid of all their fears. We were all fearful, but I was trying to stay calm and to dispel rumors because in a crisis the rumor mill becomes very active and I always saw the job of the senior leader is to make, you can't kill the rumor mill, but the job of senior leaders is to make the rumor mill accurate. So communications was extremely important. And the senior executives being visible out in front, remaining calm and plotting a course of action and helping frontline leaders with their communication to their people. Those were some of the things that I know we did immediately after 9-11.

Beth Almes: So Bob, on the day of the crisis, so a day like 9-11 that's when emotions are really high. It's unexpected. People are dealing with trauma and true shock, and that's the moment when the conversation that you have with those leaders is really critical and it sets the tone for everything moving forward. Can you tell me a little bit about how to handle those conversations and how you handled conversations that you had with individuals?

Bob Rogers: Yes, Beth. Absolutely. The key is the emotional state of your employees. And as a leader what you have to do is connect with that emotional state and that's listening and responding with empathy. That's a key emotional intelligence behavior that executives really need to hone in on as a crisis is occurring, because what they want to hear from you is that you understand the frustration and the fear that they have. It's not as important about you, but you can share your thoughts, feelings, and rationale too, in a leadership vein about what's going to happen to the company, what's going to happen to employees. And you have to be positive. You have to be calm. But you have to connect with people on their emotional state and what DDI advocates is listening and responding with empathy. Doing some acknowledgements of your own thoughts, feelings, and rationale to build a bond between you and that employee. And to not tell them what to do, but ask them questions about how they can help the company get over this hump or pothole or whatever you want to call it.

So depending on what kind of job they have, questions about how can you help us? What things are within your control that can help us keep our revenue up, to keep our cost down, to invent things that we can get the market quickly? How to reduce variance in processes? How to reduce costs? All those types of questions are excellent and you pick and choose those, depending upon what the role of the individual is. And that makes people feel more comfortable. It's not just our little group, it's the leadership of the company, understands the fears that we have and they're responding to. That's probably the most critical thing you can do for your people after a major crisis.

Beth Almes: Yeah. And I think that level of transparency is so crucial just telling people honestly what the situation is. So I'm curious, can you think of what was the toughest conversation you had? Can you think of a time when you had really someone who was coming to you and you didn't know how to handle their level of emotions, or it was just really tough on your end?

Bob Rogers: That's a hard one. Because of my military experience, I got a lot of questions about what do you think the country's going to do? How can we prevent this? I wasn't in the intelligence community, so I couldn't talk to that as much. But most of the time I didn't have any distraught people. I don't think we had anybody that, since we were in Pittsburgh, had anybody that had family in New York, who were killed in the terrorist attack. So I didn't have any wildly emotional people coming to me with things that I couldn't deal with. I did have some people, I had a high paying software engineer that came in and said, "I'm going to apply to the FBI and I'm going to leave DDI. I think I need to do this for my country." And so he moved from Pittsburgh to Washington. The cost of living is much higher. He took a 50% cut in salary and I tried to keep him.

But he was committed to doing what he thought he should do for the country. So, that was to join the FBI. He eventually got accepted and left DDI. But I didn't have any wildly emotional outbursts by people. I think because they trusted me and because they could speak frankly with me without it being, without them having to get emotional for them to think that I was hearing them. So, I didn't have ... they were all tough, but they weren't a wildly emotional discussions.

Beth Almes: Sure. So we've talked a good bit about some of the different types of crises you've experienced over the years. And you had mentioned that it's always tough when it's an internal crisis as well. So something like the unexpected death of a coworker or something that happens internal at the company. How have you handled those types of experiences? How did you help your team through that process?

Bob Rogers: Yeah, boy. We had a couple of deaths, obviously 1,100 people in 25 years that's going to happen.

Beth Almes: Right.

Bob Rogers: I had my secretary of 17 years fall over at her desk outside my office and die of a heart attack. That was, again, very personal and very painful to me. So, we had an all hands meeting town talk. There were a couple of ex pastors in our midst, had one come in and we all prayed for Susan and her family. We portrait made of her, which still hangs in the DDI office building. We dedicated that to her. She was loved by everybody, not just me, because he was my administrative assistant. She ran a lot of events, our VIP trip, which is an award trip. We had our big company meeting every year. She ran that. So she knew just about everybody. And tragic as it was. We did what we thought people don't want us to do, which was memorialize her with the painting.

Ask people to go to the church service, which I couldn't speak at because I was probably a bigger emotional wreck than 9-11 because it was so personal. But again, in the town halls I communicated how terrible it was, but that we had to move forward, which Susan would've wanted us to do. She loved the company. So you always, no matter what the situation is, you got to get people to have confidence in their leaders and to look towards the future.

And that's what we tried to do. We had a woman whose teenage daughter committed suicide. Similar situation. So we rallied around that woman. All went and we had the funeral was packed. We had something after the funeral that DDI took care of, checked in with her on a periodic basis after that. She stayed with us for years. So, until she retired. So those kinds of things is when leaders show their true character, not in the easy times, but in the hard times. And a death, a terrorist attack, a financial recession, that's when leaders got to step up and show their character. You got to stay calm. It doesn't matter how nervous you are on the inside. You got to project calm, you got to be visible, you got to be out there, you got to be talking to people. It's the crisis that defines real leadership, I believe.

Daniel Goldman, author of Working With Emotional Intelligence says, "Leaders who can't master their own fears can infect an entire group." And I totally believe that if we didn't take some of the actions that we took, I think we would have lost more of our high flyers that thought, boy, the company's just not moving in a good direction right now. This scares me about the leadership that we have. So that's when leaders need to step up and be visible and be in charge, but be understanding and use tons of empathy.

Beth Almes: Have you ever seen an executive who maybe handled it the total wrong way, really went to ... just really botched his or her response in a crisis?

Bob Rogers: Yes. I want to see if I have that book here. Total Failure of Common Sense. I think the author was Fitzgerald. It's about the decline of Lehmann Brothers during the financial crisis in 2009. The leader was, I watched him testify before Congress. He met with the Secretary of The Treasury, he thought the US was going to bail out Lehman Brothers, went back and told his senior executives, we're in good shape. I think Paulson was the Secretary of The Treasury, is going to bail us out. The next day, Paulson put out a communique that said they were not going to bail out Lehman Brothers and Lehmann Brothers folded. The problem with the leader at the time was he was not connected to his people at all. He lived in an ivory tower. He had his own elevator that only he could use. He only talked to few handful of people. He did not get out and talk to his people at all and it was a complete disaster for anybody in Lehman Brothers, in I guess it was 2009. That's one.

Another one was I was coaching a newspaper executive and the four things I was coaching him on, one of them was listening and respond with empathy. He had a newspaper, a publisher was having an extremely difficult time with her mother, probably in her last days, and he went right to task behaviors through what she should do. And so I saw it and three of us were in a room together. I went up to her and said, "I've been through this. This is a tough time when your parents are in the state. I know what you're feeling. I know it's tough. You're trying to balance taking care of your parents and being a publisher."

This was a major city newspaper. "So, I can feel the stress you're under and just want to tell you that this will pass too, and just hang in there." And then I went back and sat down. And the executive did it again, didn't use empathy, so I got back up and did it again and sat down. And then woman, who was the publisher, left the room. And the fellow I was coaching turned to me and he says, "Those were two really good empathy statements you used there, Bob."

I said, I won't mention his name. I said, "Yeah. But you know why I did that? Because you did the exact opposite of what I did. You should be doing what I was doing." So he knocks himself a head like, Oh, that's why you did that. I said, "Yeah, you need to do that. So I want you to take her to lunch today." This was in the morning. I said, "I want you to call her up and I want you to take her to lunch and I want two empathy statements out of you doing that lunch." And he just, he was a hard charger, great business mind, turnaround artist, but he didn't really have the ability to use good emotional intelligence skills like listening and responding with empathy. And I find that not that uncommon in some of the senior executives that I coach.

Beth Almes: That is surprising. It seems like a really basic manager level skill, but you see it all the time at the top of the house. So one of the things I wanted to ask you about too was decision making in a crisis. So it's one of the most paralyzing things to try to figure out what to do next and is it the right thing? And a lot of times you don't have all the information you'd like to have. How do you keep moving forward and making good decisions? And have you ever made a decision in a crisis you regretted?

Bob Rogers: Well I probably had. But, I try not to think of those. Decision making, boy, the best example of going from right to wrong I can give you is the John F. Kennedy in the Bay of Pigs invasion, which for anybody that studied history, that was the invasion of Cuba that went awry. And the United States was supposed to back up the Cuban rebels. And at the last minute they pulled them out. It didn't work. A lot of Cuban rebels who were killed and the US look extremely bad. And I compare that to the missile crisis of October in '61. And what John Kennedy did, because they taped this, he went around the room and got everybody's input before he would give his suggestions.

So in decision making, all the research says that when you have a major problem, if the boss walks in and says, "This is a problem. This is what I think we should do. And what do you guys think?" Everybody in the room thinks why the idea that boss submitted is wrong. And that is research based by Neil Rackham. So what we did in decision making, like I said, we called the executive committee meeting. I asked tons of questions.

What do you think we should do? How can we make that work? And build off suggestions that I thought had potential. So decision making, the higher up you go, the more your questions are the most important thing you do, not you having all the answers. And really good leaders recognize I do not need to have all the answers. I need to have good people around me and I need to use their talents and ask them questions. I saw something the other day on TV and I said to my wife, "You see that?" It was about the virus and that task force that had been set up and the guy in charge of the task force. I said, "He's demonstrating great leadership in a crisis." Because he had his experts all lined up and when a tough question came, he put one of the experts up to the podium.

He didn't blow smoke, he didn't try to cover things over. He said, "We've got an expert in our committee. I will let them answer that." Or he'd turn and ask a question of his experts. So, decision making requires ... and not just making a decision, but getting a commitment and engagement and passion for that decision. And you can't do that by telling people what to do. You do that by asking people for ideas and building off of their ideas. Even though you might know what to do, that's not how you engage, get passion, get people all on the same direction, heading all with the same amount of passion, energy heading in the right direction.

Questioning becomes far more important the higher up you go in an organization. So my decision making, fortunately I was trained in that when I first came to DDI. And so I just, I had bright people on the operating committee that had different expertise, and so I would ask them questions about how does this apply, what can we do in your area, what ideas do you have about this? And then would flip-chart the courses of action that we would agree to. I usually tried to get consensus, if it didn't get consensus in a crisis, you're the leader. You got to make a call. Being decisive is part of the battle in a crisis. Not a crisis, you can take your time. But in 2001 or 2008, we had to move fast. I did try to get ideas. I did try to get a consensus and I used tons of questions to get there.

Beth Almes: So one of the things that's often a huge issue in a crisis is rumors that start to circulate and they're really hard to stop. How do you prevent the rumor mill from going crazy?

Bob Rogers: Great question. Because I think it's one of the most destructive things in a company. And as I said, you can't get rid of it. Your job as a leader is to make it accurate. So this is why your communications in a crisis needs to step up and be almost continuous. You can think of our current crisis and how much we're hearing from leaders of our government. Ambiguity causes bad things in organizations. So you have to be, as a leader, you have to be out there. You have to be communicating. I don't know how many leader conferences I had with all of my leaders around the world, but there were numerous ones, both in 2001 and 2008 going into 2009.

Preparing them, talk tracks, for even the first level leader, a team leader, but you got to be out there and address, I was not afraid to address rumors that I had heard. In fact, Susan, my assistant was tied into the rumor mill. And she'd come in and say, "Do you know what they're saying out there?" And I'd say, okay, if it wasn't time for my town talks, which were every other ... twice a year, I would put out ... I used to put out a voicemail sometimes once a week, sometimes once a month. So I'd address it in my total company voicemail. This is before some of the high tech stuff we have today. You could do it differently today.

But back then I would put a voicemail on about an issue and then I'd send an email, say, "Please go listen to my voicemail. It's this many minutes long." Obviously, I kept them short. But if there was a rumor out there, which was untrue, I jumped on it right away or had my leaders jump on it right away. Because you don't want either ambiguity, people don't know what's going on, or inaccurate things going on because the rumor mill has spread and as rumors go, they tend to get worse as they tend to spread. So, I have a saying, you can never over-communicate, and that is particularly true in a crisis.

Beth Almes: Yeah. All right, so one final question for you, Bob. Can you share a moment in a crisis where you saw a leader handle it really well, whether it was your own manager at the time or someone higher up in the company that you observed them and it really made an impression on you?

Bob Rogers: Well, that's tough. I'm trying to think through some of the people I've coached. Well, I'll give you one. This is again, I'm older, so I remember when Chrysler was in a really bad straights in the 80s under Lee Iacocca. Now, some ways I'm not a big of Lee Iacocca, in other ways I am. And what he did was, the older people will remember his commercials. He'd get on TV and say, "If you can find a better car, buy it." But here's what we're doing. And he, in a time where they were out of money, government was bailed them out. He put in a ... he had this excellent communication team and he was everywhere. And then he trained all of his frontline leaders in DDI's supervisory training program, and he put messages in the training for leaders on their communication. And the training that we did was a lot about communication, a lot about listening, respond with empathy, a lot about your seek tell ratio, a lot about connecting with your people, a lot about retaining your high flyers and how you do that.

He took swift direct action so that Chrysler didn't fold. And if you know the story, he paid back the government in I think half the time that they gave him. So, there was a leader in charge. Now, Iacocca had a big ego. There's parts of what he did, I didn't care for. But in that crisis, in that time, he was an extremely effective leader.

Beth Almes: Yeah. That's an amazing story.

Bob Rogers: That's an old one, but it's unusual when you're in dire straits to say, "I'm going to go train all of our leaders." But he did it and it turned, now Chrysler eventually had its problems long after Iacocca left. But, that's a different story as to why that happened. But during the crisis, when he was in charge, and I'm thinking this is early 80s, mid 80s, he was superb in a crisis. There's others, but I think that's one of the more dramatic ones that actually worked.

Beth Almes: Thank you so much, Bob. This was great. So as we wrap up, do you have any final words of advice for people who are dealing with the Coronavirus or other crises today where they're looking to step up and lead in a time when their people are scared?

Bob Rogers: Well, I think the four things I'd say is stay calm and take charge. Do something that you can communicate, communicate, over communicate, address rumors, focus on the future, inspire confidence that the future is still good for this organization. The more you can focus them on the future and the more you can use their expertise to help focus on the future, the more people will go back to work with purpose in their mind and give them as much control as you can.

Because stress, we've studied stress. Stress is caused by you feeling you don't have any control on things. So as a leader, what you have to do is maybe empower a little bit more, spread out the degrees of freedom for your leaders to be able to take action. I think that's even more important in a crisis because you know the stress levels up, the ambiguity the level is up, and you have to address those two things by your decisions and how you interact with your people. So the those would be if you take nothing from this podcast, take be in charge, stay calm, and communicate, and focus on the future.

Beth Almes: Thank you so much, Bob. Those are really great tips to end on. I appreciate you joining us today and thank you to all of our listeners who took time out of their 480 minutes a day to spend with us. If you enjoyed this episode of The Leadership 480 podcast, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you're already a subscriber, we invite you to subscribe again on all the platforms and devices you use. Please rate us as well to let us know how we're doing. And be sure to tell your friends and colleagues about the podcast and invite them to subscribe. Thank you all for listening today.

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