Dr. Kotter's latest book, Change, is available for pre-order now. Get your copy today!

Designated as one of the greatest disruptors in the twenty-first century, the Covid-19 pandemic has forever changed the way organizations function. Businesses around the world have been forced to respond quickly, operating with little to no information about what potential impact the virus would have on their organization, the industry in which they operate, or the global economy. Crisis leadership has taken many shapes in the months following the initial outbreak, as leaders and their workforces hang in different states of operation. In some locations around the world, organizations have returned to the workplace. In other locations, many businesses continue to operate remotely or have suspended operations. In circumstances as dynamic as this one has proven to be, it is prudent to capture learnings about how others are successfully navigating such complex change. 

Kotter has partnered with an oil and gas organization over the past year to support a multifaceted transformation aimed at becoming a more agile organization while supporting the organization through unprecedented turmoil; historically low oil and gas markets, Covid-19, and workforce reductions. This article shares insights into this organization’s crisis leadership response to the Covid-19. We aim to highlight how this initial pandemic response helped the business to successfully navigate the crisis while establishing a new normal that continues to drive value – and share what others can learn from their experiences. 

Key elements of this organization’s crisis leadership response include:

  • Minding the crisis at hand and the impact that response will have on the future
  • Harnessing the conditions that a crisis creates to identify clear priorities
  • Resisting the anxiety-driven flurry of activity that splinters focus and dilutes results
  • Motivating the workforce with a combination of head (the business case behind strategic priorities) and heart (tapping into the underlying passion of your workforce to make a material impact)
  • Having the courage to be transparent about what is known and what is not known

Determining a Strategy for Today + a Post-Crisis Tomorrow

The Covid-19 crisis presents not just one crisis, but many for those in the oil and gas sector. Immediately following a damaging oil price war, the global pandemic not only put the health and safety of the workforce in danger, it also caused demand – and thus prices – to plummet. Exacerbating this climate was the difficult task of taking an asset-focused, legacy organization and transitioning it to remote work essentially overnight. Each crisis fed into another, creating a perfect storm of complexity.

Crisis leadership decision-making is a two-pronged endeavor: how do we react now, and how will that reaction impact the future, post-crisis? An opportunity-seeking leader must balance the crisis on hand right this moment with the strategic priorities the organization aims to pursue. Each organization has an eye on the big bets it wants to make in the future given what is known about the operating environment today. When responding to a single crisis – let alone many at once – it can be easy to forget, or deviate significantly, from the business priorities. Doing so can leave the workforce feeling left out or left behind if their function or initiative has suddenly been deprioritized or displaced. This is a confusing experience in normal circumstances and is especially disconcerting during the uncertainty caused by a global pandemic. 

Read more about leading through crisis in the Recession Leadership Pitfalls eBook

Laser Focus: The Conditions a Crisis Creates

Given the need to manage the Covid-19 crisis of today and lead the business towards tomorrow’s opportunities, leaders will need to create space and time to focus on what they want the business to look like post-crisis. Seldom are they able to maintain a clear vision for where they want to take it in the future. Visible crises, such as the one we’re in, can be helpful in capturing a workforce’s energy when, seemingly overnight, everyone becomes aligned around what is most urgent. Yet, only when leadership can articulate the opportunity a crisis like Covid-19 presents is accelerated change made possible.

Leaders at our partner organization realized the opportunity that the present crisis created. In response, they intentionally accelerated two key strategic priorities to drive business value in the short- and long-term: flexible working and a multi-year digital transformation initiative. In a matter of weeks, the organization equipped its entire workforce with new laptops and smartphones, provided an allowance to equip remote offices in employee’s homes, and successfully migrated business operations to virtual collaboration platforms. While the activities achieved were impressive, it is the long-standing behavior changes that are creating truly impactful results now and will continue to do so in the future. Several executives commented that without Covid-19 serving as a catalyst to bring a laser focus on these priorities, the organization would have taken months, if not years, to achieve its new reality and return to a sustainable pre-pandemic level of productivity. Instead, this was accomplished in a matter of weeks. 

Beyond the immediate emergence of a remote workforce, each member of this organization’s management team was provided with tools on digital collaboration, facilitation, and leading through a crisis. Not only was management equipped to navigate the uncertain months ahead, they were prepared to lead their workforce through the unprecedented consequences wreaked by Covid-19 that will be felt for some time. Each strategic initiative was intentionally aligned to a window of opportunity opened by the pandemic that leadership was then able to mobilize the entire workforce around. 

Importantly, senior leaders understood that the above examples were essential elements of a successful digital transformation. What set this effort apart was how leadership went a step beyond baseline success. They prioritized a handful of digital initiatives they knew would be game changers for the business going forward and decided the time was now to go after them. They chose two areas that were slated for completion by 2023/2024 that they wanted implemented in 90 days. 90 days. They were able to implement a ‘digital twin’ design and a decision-making model in record time because of unrivaled focus and prioritization. Once these first initiatives were achieved they moved on to the next set of strategic initiatives that could be driven by digital, fueled by the momentum that quick wins produce. 

Urgent Agility: Resisting the Common Reaction to a Crisis

A crisis rarely occurs without an immediate, and understandable frantic, response of the workforce. A natural tendency for any organization in times of crisis is to exhibit false urgency: an anxiety-driven behavior that prizes activity over results. The threats exposed in a crisis can lead to a ride-out-the-storm mentality, where the focus is only on short-term changes. While the volume of activity observed from afar might look like engaged productivity (weekly progress check-ins, workshops to continually realign, or starting completely new initiatives specifically targeted at the crisis) these efforts often contribute little and ultimately immobilize the organization under the weight of their undertaking. This frenetic approach has a predictable and familiar ending – burnout. Even worse is a common drop in productivity when it can least be afforded.

Given this tendency, an organization responding to a crisis must be agile enough to maneuver quickly, especially when there are several unknown factors at play during the decision-making process of what to do first, next, and so on. Leadership must cultivate a sense of urgency broadly throughout an organization that aligns with the strategic opportunities presented by the crisis itself. The connection must be made explicit, not left to inference. Not only does this help ensure that as many people as possible will be clear on what the North Star is today, this sense of concreteness is a comfort in a crisis when seemingly everything feels unknowable and unclear.

Leaders who effectively role model urgency communicate their strategic vision. They celebrate the successful implementation of the initiatives identified to achieve the opportunity before them – even while the crisis persists. To do this, our client’s executive team identified flexible working and digital transformation as critical levers in both the short- and long-term. Together, they became the North Star – and everybody in the organization knew it. With these priorities and the new reality precipitated by the pandemic, it was critical that the executive team demonstrate and reinforce true urgency that gets results, not the false urgency that spins up activity and fills up calendars. Senior leaders were expected to role model flexible working and drive better results through the use of digital tools. They determined that one of the most impactful ways to demonstrate true urgency was by pausing or stopping low-value work. True urgency is, after all, not about doing all things. It is about doing the right things at the right time. Clearly communicated priorities from the leaders empowered people at all levels to pause or stop any projects or activities not aligned with these priorities. Giving people the agency to stop low-value activities generated immediate increases in productivity and made the focus on only the strategic priorities sustainable.

Crisis Leadership Relies on Both Head + Heart

Motivating a workforce during times of crisis requires appealing to the head – explaining the business case and logic behind strategic priorities, as well as their heart – tapping into the underlying passion across the workforce to make a material impact. The project teams that were making progress toward realizing the strategic priorities – utilizing flexible working and digital tools – received emails and phone calls from senior leaders reiterating the value of their work. One senior leader went so far as to send gift baskets to team members exemplifying urgency in a time of crisis. Management teams spent Thursday afternoons on virtual calls raising glasses in a toast to their teams, creating space to pause and be proud of what’s been accomplished, and discuss how they could apply these learnings to other seemingly intractable barriers. Early-in-career groups networked over coffee to get to know each other as individuals and learn about one another’s work within the organization. These efforts were not contrived opportunities to give unearned praise. They were conceived of wanting to give a stage to people who were going above and beyond to drive results. While celebrating wins is core to any successful transformation, it becomes even more critical in times of extreme stress when so little is known around what the future looks like. By focusing the workforce’s energy and attention on driving specific wins and, in turn, celebrating their incredible successes, the company was able to harness what could have quickly become splintered, false urgency in the midst of such dire circumstances.

Telling the Truth: Being Transparent about the Right Things at the Right Time

A shared, common understanding of what is known and what is not known can be a powerful crisis leadership enabler. The total impact of the Covid-19 pandemic could not be predicted during the initial outbreak and continues to be relatively unclear today. Leaders who authentically communicated with their workforce about the uncertainty of the future and shared how decisions were being made based on just-in-time information provided their employees a clearer grasp of reality and an easier transition into a foggy season. Within the oil and gas industry, which typically operates on a schedule-based model, pandemic-related decisions were not made according to an arbitrarily set deadline, but instead based on conditions that needed to be met. This allowed employees to have a greater degree of visibility into the decisions being made and helped them understand why they were being made. This stands in stark contrast to the opaque, milestone-based decision-making process employed by many organizations and governments. 

Transparent, frequent, and simple communications require both clarity and compassion, particularly as the weight of the message increases. Overcomplicating the message or using technical jargon leads to a disassociation between leadership and workforce. Concise, honest, and widespread communications can be challenging in a crisis because it requires that leaders humble themselves to all of the unknowns while bearing the ownership of the decisions being made that could potentially impact many individual lives and livelihoods. However negative the message seems to be in a pandemic, the choice to communicate versus not communicate nets positive impact. A little extra communication goes a long way to quiet the speculation and surmising that will fill in any silence.

Read more: Are crisis management tools relevant during Covid?

Following a Covid-19 related work from home mandate, the leadership team at our partner organization held virtual “coffee catch-ups,” inviting dozens of employees attending each session to sit down with a senior leader to openly discuss the current situation as it was unfolding. Leaders of the organization did not have any additional information than had not been previously shared broadly. Instead, they empathized and listened to employees, heard their situations, and learned more about the impact that Covid-19 was having on them personally. They asked what ideas people had that could be used immediately to ease the challenges they were facing. The leaders stressed that this was the time for people to take action to make their jobs easier and more productive – and to not wait for further permission to do so. 

As the duration of the pandemic progressed, leaders in this organization began to institute pulse checks at the start of meetings. Unable to hold individualized meetings with each employee to mitigate the ever-present uncertainty, each meeting began with time designated to ask “What are you learning? Where are the barriers? Where are we performing better than we have before and want to institute?” Crisis leadership was an example set forth at the top that the workforce then emulated. Leaders demonstrated that empathy was not merely an immediate, but passing, response to the crisis that would fade once business returned to normal. It had become a part of their very culture – a new way of working together.

Crisis Leadership: An Industry Agnostic Insight

Covid-19 has permanently changed the way the world operates. It is more essential than ever that organizations are nimble and willing to quickly identify the opportunity presented within even dire circumstances – and mobilize their workforce around it. A century-old organization in the oil and gas industry might not be where you’d first look for insights on how to navigate these unprecedented times with speed and agility. Yet, the lessons from their leaders transcend sector, size, and organizational age. Their crisis leadership response held both the present situation and the strategic priorities for the future with extreme care. This created a sense of urgency that aligned the organization on where it was headed together, not just what was needed to stay afloat today. Doing so made it possible for the organization to accelerate results – even in a paralyzed world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *