Female executive leading a meeting

Executives know how important it is to step up in a crisis and be the leader their company needs. With the COVID-19 pandemic, many executives are being faced with challenges they've never had to deal with before. What habits should executives have in order to be successful leaders in a crisis?

According to these executives, here is the #1 habit a successful leader should have:

​Steve Barriault, Global Technology Sales Leader

Male executive thinking about his habits


In any crisis, only cooler heads can prevail. And cooler heads stem from analyzing the situation from multiple angles. That is what my experience as an avid snowmobiler during my teenage years taught me.

One day, I drove my machine in the middle of a raging blizzard in the middle of the night (let us say it wasn't my best idea!). Because it was early in the season, the track did not have markers. So, I got lost in a plain. I turned around, but then got trapped on a hidden, now frozen pond. The snowmobile had no traction and wouldn't move an inch forward. I had to devise a way to get out of there pronto before my track got buried. If I did not, I would have to spend a long night in the middle of nowhere.

So, I collected myself, analyzed the situation, went through a few scenarios, came up with a plan, and executed it. It did not work. I revised my assumptions with the new information I gained, made a new plan, and tried again. Eventually, I got unstuck, and I was somehow able to find my way home.

When you think about it, a business crisis is not different. The landscape keeps on changing—just like in a snowstorm—and it will sometimes change very unexpectedly, just like when I ran over that hidden pond. Time is often critical. Panicking is not likely to get you unstuck. On the contrary, rash actions can drive you straight into a bigger problem. But the clock is ticking!

The #1 habit you can have is to run "what-if" scenarios in your head frequently based on the latest information available. Call it daydreaming if you want, but you must prepare to face different contingencies. What if this all-important customer does not order because of the crisis? How will I find new leads if this continues for several months?

Note that you need not always focus on the negative. Shifting environments can also frequently mean emerging opportunities. Competitors may withdraw from previously impregnable positions. New needs may appear in the market that your organization could service.

So, by all means, allow yourself some time to think. Keep up with the latest information and strategize. It doesn't need to be formal. If you have already considered several options and the ground shifts under your feet, you will be in a much better position to react.

This habit also needs to be complemented by another: decisiveness. Do not let indecision paralyze you. Sometimes the situation will require you to stand still. Sometimes it won't. Whatever plan you come up with, execute it with all your heart. But then you want to keep your mind open to new info. Like on that fateful day on that frozen pond, if your first plan doesn't work, make another one and repeat. Have faith in the fact that there is always a way out.

Steve Barriault is a global technology sales executive with 18+ years of experience in business development on three continents. He is currently serving in a 3,000 employee-strong company providing embedded software testing solutions in multiple industries such as automotive, avionics, industrial systems, telecom, and others. Multilingual, he holds advanced degrees in business, science, and computer science.

​Rosanne Mao, CFO/Finance Director

Two executives talk about better habits


The #1 habit executives need to have right now to lead in a crisis is leading efficiently. As a finance executive, the leadership skills, the financial expertise, the strategic thinking and the operational aptitude are critical to lead efficiently in a crisis. We must take action now to transform today's challenges into tomorrow's opportunities.

The finance executive should focus on assessing the company's liquidity and optimizing cash reserves. We need to forecast cash collections associated with the latest sales projections when many customers delaying payments. When working capital is no longer sufficient, we should also seek relief on debt covenants as early as possible to strengthen the balance sheet.

Frequent modeling of range-based scenarios helps organizations stay agile and develop alternative strategies to deal with a variety of ways in which the post-crisis world might evolve. Rolling forecasts should incorporate both macroeconomic and company-specific data to identify major areas of EBITDA risk. The forecasts should also identify second-order impacts, such as geographical supply-chain disruption and employee dislocation, as well as likely sources of cash leakages and customer-liquidity projections.

It is critical to communicate proactively with boards of directors, investors, employees, customers, and suppliers. The message should focus on the crisis's actual and projected effects on the company, the actions being taken to protect the business, the liquidity situation, and any changes to earlier earnings commitments. Make sure parties who will play a vital role in the organization's long-term success are fully informed and excited by our vision for the future.

We are responsible for the well-being of the finance team. This is a time to show compassion and patience. Demonstrate emotional intelligence. Sharing emotions and personal impact stories with the workforce creates an environment of empathy and resilience.

Rethinking the business model is a true cross-functional project. We should work with the heads of product, sales, marketing, and all the corporate teams. This is an opportunity to rebuild the company that will thrive in the new reality.

Companies will achieve digital leadership by enterprises digital transformation if we succeed in aligning business and IT challenge. We should balance the technology with retraining the workforce to realize new skills.

The critical steps in efficient leadership across three horizons: immediate safety and survival, near-term stabilization of the business in anticipation of the next normal, and longer-term preparations for the company to make bold moves during recovery.

Rosanne Mao is a CFO/finance director with more than 20 years of financial management experience in a multinational company. She's helped the company enhance cash flow, maximize corporate profitability, improve investor relationship, and reduce risk. Her leadership strategy has successfully driven company EBIT to increase by 15%. She has strategically led the enterprise digital transformation with 37% improvement in financial productivity.

​Michael Minchella, Business Development Strategist

Successful executive talks about his habits


The most important habit executives need right now, in order to lead effectively in a crisis, is to keep track of time.

Today, workers are not just working from home; they're working from home longer.

Recent reports published by the National Bureau of Economic Research show that, since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, the average workday has expanded by an additional 48.5 minutes, and the number of daily meetings increased by 13%. And, as workers face additional challenges, such as homeschooling children, or working from less-than-accommodating situations in a makeshift home office, it is imperative that they are maximizing every second of their "working hours."

Simple processes such as ensuring meetings start and stop on time, setting deadlines, prioritizing projects, making quick decisions, and even telling people to stop working for the day, will keep staff calm and focused on their objectives.

Michael Minchella is passionate about working with brands to help them understand and overcome their daily challenges. He has 10+ years experience as a business development specialist, working with professional sports teams and marketing agencies. His career has lead him to work with a number of prominent brands, launch a new professional Major League Soccer franchise in New York City, and open a 25,000 seat arena in New Jersey. Michael completed his masters' degree at Columbia University in 2014.

​Eric Manten, Human Resources Executive

Executives work on a strategy during a crisis


In a previous blog post, executives from different industries and disciplines shared what they consider the five skills executives must have during the COVID-19 pandemic are in order to lead during this crisis.

The article indicates that probably the number one skill executives need during this disruptive time is the ability to communicate—authentic, transparent, honest, compassionate, two-way communication.

While it is a skill every executive should have, it is now the time to be even more aware of and intentional with our communication. Unfortunately, that someone is skilled at something does not always mean they practice it regularly.

Therefore, I want to make the point that communication is not only one of the most, if not the most, critical skills executives need to have, it is also the number one habit they need to practice right now to lead in a crisis.

Communication as a regularly repeated, subconscious behavior demonstrated by executives will:

  • Show intention and provide direction and a vision for the future, instilling confidence
  • Show the company that they are transparent and honest, even when having to share bad news
  • Prevent people from speculating and making decisions based on the wrong assumptions
  • Show empathy and ensure that employees' concerns are heard and addressed
  • Keep the c-suite connected with the organization and create a sense of community
  • Develop a culture of inclusiveness

I urge you not only to communicate when and because the scenario or the communication plan says so. Make it a habit; it could be the most critical habit executives need to have right now to lead in a crisis.

Eric Manten is a human resources executive with experience in progressive HR roles in the US, EMEA, and APAC, most recently with a Fortune 150, globally-diversified professional services company ($20B revenues; 50,000 employees). He adds value by integrating human resource strategies and practices with business strategies. Eric is focused on creating and implementing strategies and HR frameworks to guide people, policies, functions, and cultures that adapt to change. He builds trusted relationships at all organization levels, and delivers creative cost-efficient solutions.

​Tonya Towne, Strategic Planning Leader

Executive speaks to his employees during a crisis


I believe the number one habit executives need to have right now to lead in a crisis is being present for your staff. A great leader will not always have the answers but showing up for your employees and empowering them to be part of the solution will almost always render positive results.

In my experience, I led staff in Canada and the U.S. and offered my teams work from home flexibility. Some might think this would prove to be challenging but it was quite the opposite. I fostered an environment where my employees could flourish by being present and connecting with them through one-on-one sessions, which were either weekly or bi-weekly. These sessions were an opportunity for them to let me know how I could support them by providing guidance, removing obstacles, or to be a sounding board. Sometimes it is all too tempting to become distracted and answer a quick email or call while in these sessions, but the key here is staying present and shutting off everything else.

When working with a team of professionals, it is important for them to understand that their ideas and recommendations are valued. The way to support this is by listening and guiding, and allowing them to take ownership, which will lead them down the path of viable solutions.

We also conducted bi-weekly staff meetings via video or teleconference, which was crucial in working with a remote North American team. It allowed employees the opportunity to request assistance from their peers or share ideas and best practices from implemented solutions. This type of environment yielded increased productivity and high employee morale, which were evidenced by an over 90% employee satisfaction rating year over year.

As a leader, in a time of crisis, your team will show up for you if you demonstrate presence and appreciate their value.

Tonya Towne is a strategic planning leader with extensive experience in the financial services industry including mergers and acquisitions, process transformation, product management, and non-performing asset sales. She has developed and led teams of 2-20 employees with operating budgets of $1M - $15M and maintained employee engagement results above 90%. In her most recent leadership role, she managed program portfolios from $2M - $50M in technology investments, as well as led the sale of $1B in unpaid principal balances of non-performing loans and credit cards in Canada and the U.S.

​Michael O'Brien, Operations And Engineering Executive

Female executive smiles at the camera


Leadership is all about influence. As leaders, we are positioned to influence the behaviors and attitudes of the teams we lead. In times of crisis, I believe that fostering dependable, open and transparent communications with our employees is the #1 habit we need to have.

While we may think we're approachable and are always available to communicate with our teams, we may find ourselves consumed with our own thoughts and feelings about the crisis we're in at the moment. This can create the impression that we are "too busy" to slow down and let people know what we know, what we don't know, and what actions we are taking to address the crisis.

In establishing these critical communications, it is also important to realize that we must listen to what our employees are saying, watch how they react to what we say, and constantly check that we are delivering the messages we intend to deliver. Only by gauging their reactions and resulting behaviors will we know we are on target with our strategies and plans.

Michael O'Brien is an operations and engineering executive with 25+ years of experience within the Aerospace & Defense industry as well as clinical operations and not-for-profit educational operations. Mike has increased profits across many programs and projects by over $8M through implementation of disciplined process improvements and focused customer relationship management. His most recent leadership position is Chief Operating Officer for a NFP charter school in upstate New York where he led the turnaround of the financial and operational position of the school.

​Robin Timbrook, Banking Executive

Male executive discusses a crisis strategy with an employee


What happens in a crisis? Can executives be ready for any crisis to lead their teams successfully? I believe they can.

What is the #1 habit executives need to have right now to lead in a crisis? Over-communication.

It has been my experience that when you ask employees how they are doing in a crisis, they'll say they don't know what is going on, they have not received any information, and feel no one is telling them anything. If you ask the executives or leaders, they will have just the opposite view. Often, we believe we are communicating and sharing information. During times of crisis, executives must be good communicators by knowing their audience, being genuine, knowledgeable, and having a plan. It is crucial to stay positive and calm.

In a crisis, it is important to not only talk but to listen.

Being open to questions and feedback, while continuing to be strong and supportive, will reassure the staff that everyone will get through this together. We cannot forget that often once people have had time to process the information they will think of questions or concerns. What you said and what they heard may not have been the same. The initial communication may have been great, but it does not stop there.

We need to make sure our staff knows our doors are open to them, and we must circle back checking in personally making sure they are doing well, and feeling as comfortable as possible with the plan.

Robin Timbrook is a banking executive with 20+ years experience in deposits, sales, and digital technology services. Her most recent leadership position was with a $2 billion asset commercial bank, where she managed all the customer points of contact.

​Amy Hinderer, Business Management & Operations Executive

Female executive on the phone


A habit is an action done on a regular basis. We all have habits, some good and some not so good. As I reflect on the successful habits of executives, there are several that I could list here, but there is one habit I wish to focus on and that is in wellness. What is wellness? Wellness is the act of practicing healthy habits to attain better physical and mental health outcomes. Maintaining wellness is a "must," not only for executives, but for everyone, especially in the current crisis.

Let's start with the physical component. There are numerous articles and research studies that show the benefits of incorporating physical exercise into one's daily lifestyle. We know that exercise releases the feel-good hormones called endorphins, which helps with brain functions like creativity, thinking, and learning. By exercising, you are keeping yourself mentally sharp and focused as shown by these leaders who attribute exercise as a key factor in their success.

Next, the mental component. The most popular form of the mental component is meditation. Research has found that practicing meditation can reduce stress and anxiety, increase feelings of calmness, and improve focus and concentration. If you are still a skeptic of the benefits of meditation, take a look at this list of CEOs who practice meditation while at work.

During our current crisis, executives and other leaders are stressed and anxious, as they feel the pressure to be the role model and visionary for their company and employees. If there ever was a time to incorporate wellness routines and make it a habit, the time is now. The benefits are proven.

For me, the physical and meditative components are natural parts of my daily routines and I enjoy the benefits these practices have brought into my life.

Take a moment and think about who you admire as leaders. I venture to say that most of these leaders incorporate some form of wellness routines into their daily lifestyles because, as leaders, they embrace the holistic approach to mind and body.

Amy Hinderer is a business management & operations executive with 18+ years of experience in global enterprise and start-up businesses. She has managed teams ranging in size from 10 up through ~35K supporting revenues between $2M - $9B.

​Francois deCourtivron, Financial Executive

Executive communicates with his employee


I think the #1 habit is maintaining honest, candid, and frequent communication within and across the company. Most company executives already know that formal and informal communications are a foundational ingredient for effective management, but in times like these with COVID-19, there is so much uncertainty that affects employees both professionally and personally, executives would do well to completely reassess their existing communication norms and SOPs.

Being completely accessible and, yes, even being vulnerable during some of their communications helps their teams and workforces to accept their own feelings especially with those that may be dealing with the same challenges. But, most importantly, it shows that leaders and executives are authentic and trustworthy.

I have recently come across some great examples, including CEOs conferencing from their make-shift living room and home offices or sharing parts of their personal lives which help make employees feel more comfortable and less isolated. Additionally, the topics and agenda items need to be adjusted to make sure that not only are the usual business topics covered, (i.e., are we on budget? we are on delivering time?) but "What do we still need to change or adjust to find our new normal?" or "Are there other accommodations we need to consider?"

Finally, I also observe that high performers are not going to wait for a crisis to subside before making a move or accepting a competitive offer. Executives should ensure that they have a solid handle on their best and brightest in addition to keeping the teams as a whole updated.

Connect with Francois deCourtivron on LinkedIn.

Bonnie Patrick Mattalian, Business Operations Strategist

Successful female executive speaks to her employees during a crisis meeting


Understanding Cultural Climate Changes

It's difficult to keep our fingers on the pulse of how our teams are feeling while in the midst of a crisis. However, this is the most critical occasion for understanding and open, transparent, two-way communications from leaders.

Discover the unofficial grapevine of influencers within your organization. Establish formal and informal models for seeking input and feedback on the climate of your workforce. Widely report those findings to your entire team with frequency, encouraging comments and vocal participation.

I remember when the company I was with lost one of our top businesses in the rubble of 9/11. It was the first site in a sixty-unit national company. The CEO had built the company on this location. Part of his legacy was in the story of how he would sleep on the floor of the office as he built the business, to keep things moving.

A few days after the tragedy, our CEO gathered the leaders and our front line teams together in a building a few miles from the pile. He spoke softly in the informal setting. You could hear a pin drop in the room. While he described how the business was decimated, and how we lost many customers, thankfully all of our teams made it out and survived.

After speaking logistically of how the company would continue to take care of the teams, he thanked everyone in the room for their prayers and support. Then he audibly exhaled, and said, "And it's okay to cry. I have cried quite a bit over this too." This gave us all permission to feel the very real emotions of loss and fear—to experience these together, and to talk through these feelings aloud.

Employees are going through a rollercoaster of emotions both personally and professionally daily:

  • Between dealing with children and homeschooling, or partial home schooling, and the worry of their child catching the virus while at school
  • Supporting parents and other loved ones who may fall ill
  • Feeling fearful for their own jobs
  • Bearing an additional workload and stress with new responsibilities, due to downsizing
  • Experiencing "survivor's guilt" for making the cut during a reorganization, and potentially missing many workforce friends who supported them for years, without even the chance to say proper goodbyes or thank yous

Ensure there are outlets for frequent discussions on these stressors, with managers empowered to provide real-time solutions.

Respond to questions and needs individually and collectively. With uncertainty, emotions are likely to ebb and flow, and to run high at times. Be certain resources can adequately anticipate and respond.

Strategy will continuously be evolving, as our new ambiguous normal does.

This is in no way a time of business as usual. How employees and customers are treated now will dictate the future success of an organization. Those leaders that genuinely show compassion, seek to understand, and put people first will find the return on that investment to be a loyal workforce and customer base who will stand with them through any storm.

Bonnie Patrick Mattalian builds high performance teams and businesses in both the private and not-for-profit sectors. A renowned presenter with proven solutions for customer experience delivery success, financial profitability, strategic planning, and team leadership development, Mattalian's style is engaging and collaborative. As an unabashedly enthusiastic and skilled leader, she has facilitated the successful launch of more than 60 centers throughout her career, turnarounds for another 20 locations, and was most recently responsible for a book of business for a global company of more than $25M in revenues and 1200+ employees.

​Melodie Turk, Learning & Development Executive

Executive listens to one of his employees


The #1 habit executives need to have right now to lead in a crisis is delivering consistent transparent communication—to their organization, division, team, and mentees.

Crisis removes normal routines and structures that we unconsciously operate in and make plans and decisions in. So, we, as leaders, have a responsibility to provide routine and structure wherever we can and delivering consistent, transparent communication is the first step.

Be Consistent

We need to have a communication plan with what messages need to go to what audiences and how frequently, then have time scheduled on our calendar to remind us to deliver said messages. Consistency builds trust.

Be Transparent

We need to share relevant information and context. We don't need to share everything, but we do need to share what we can and the reasons behind actions and decisions. It's also a good time to get vulnerable and share what we're feeling or going through. Transparency builds trust.

Be Communicative

We need to communicate more often than normal. During a crisis we need to be "seen" and "heard" more often. This is a great time to try different modes of communication for different audiences—one-way video, one-way live video, infographs, photos, polls, surveys, text messages, etc. Connecting frequently builds rapport.

EXTRA: We need to ask for feedback— from everyone—and invite our organization, our division, our team, and our mentees to let us know how we are doing. Asking for feedback builds rapport; it also gives us content for future communications.

Melodie Turk has a passion for transforming people and organizations. With her 15+ years of experience in change management, making a difference in tomorrow is always the goal. Recently, she led talent development strategy and implementation for 1600+ employees—adding learning hours, training sessions, and diversity and inclusion conversations—all which increased employee engagement, enhanced culture, and promoted workplace satisfaction.

​Susan Leys, Healthcare Coach, Consultant, And Career Navigator

Female executive communicates with her team during a crisis


The ability to lead during a crisis can be difficult due to needing to have an acute awareness of the different organizational, logistical, and staffing perspectives that can take place during a pandemic, hurricane, or another traumatic event.

The number #1 habit executives need to have right now involves consistency and congruence.

Consistency: Being consistent helps foster calmness within your organization. At a change of shift in healthcare, physicians and nurses and other professionals report to the oncoming shift about what the challenges have been, who the patients are within their department, and what their continuing care needs are. It's a way that teams set each other up for success by communicating and working collaboratively and in a manner that fosters top-notch care for patients and families.

In organizations outside of healthcare, leaders can keep their teams informed of the changes that need to occur or how they have had to adapt to what has happened. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have already seen significant changes that have consisted of changes within the organization to working from home, adjusting to the addition of personal protective equipment, and providing COVID-19 tests for your team. Additional challenges have included adjustments within your business, adapting to state, federal, and industrial changes taking place, and (in many cases) closing some of your business offices, laying off staff, or closing your business altogether.

These changes are usually accompanied by the critical conversations that may occur within your executive leadership team and your staff.

Congruence: Whenever a stressful event occurs, it's not uncommon for your first response to be, "It's okay, we'll handle it. Everything will be fine," even if you don't know this for sure. It tends to be our natural first response for the people and teams closest to us; we care about them, so we want them to be okay.

The challenge is that when you have an abundance of stress coming from all angles, it's best to approach these conversations honestly and authentically. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, this conversation is not easy to navigate because there are several unknowns. When will the illness be contained? How will your business continue to adapt? How many staff do you need to retain? Where are the best locations for them to work, and how do you present this information to them knowing that they have already had difficult conversations with their family and friends.

Congruence is about having your conversation with the words, tone, expressions, and compassion necessary to match the conversation you need to have with them. It's not telling them that everything will be okay if it isn't. If you are not sure how your business will adapt, take the time to express the uncertainty you have appropriately. Conversations like these are not easy, but the more congruent and honest you are with your team, the more they will appreciate you for being upfront with them.

S.A. Leys is a coach, consultant and career navigator at https://www.coachingfornurses.io. We provide coaching, consulting, and debriefing for the healthcare professionals and teams who care for all of us. Follow our hashtag #debriefyourteam on LinkedIn to receive information and strategies to assist your team with coping and retention strategies.

​Andrea Bjorkman, HR Executive

Male executive communicates with an employee during a crisis


With our world turned upside down, good leadership is needed now more than ever to help employees succeed and, ultimately, for the organization to do the same. Brave executives will be the difference for their organizations. Showing that bravery every single day is the #1 habit executives need to lead through this crisis.

Of course, this doesn't require masks and capes or Wonder Woman poses (unless that's what gets you going!), but it does require being audacious, curious, vulnerable, resilient, vulnerable, and selfless. And don't forget that you can't and shouldn't go it alone. You need to be a connector!

Andrea Bjorkman is an HR executive with broad-based business and HR experience. Most recently, she has taken her passion for innovative ideas to help meet underserved markets to her new role as Co-Founder/Managing Director (USA), Brand Knackstor Global, Blue Hour Moon Technologies Corp.

While communication is a skill, it is also a habit. Most of the leaders above agree communication is the #1 habit executives need to successfully lead in a crisis.

If it isn't already a part of your daily routine, try making more of an effort to effectively communicate with your teams. It could make a world of difference in your company's success during a crisis like COVID-19.

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