Do Boards Need Crisis Management Training?

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Irrespective of gender, do we think enough about the required traits for crisis management when we’re hiring?

Secondly, assuming the crisis manager is not the ultimate leader, won’t the crisis manager’s style end up responding to the leader’s behaviour and expectations?

If these are the right questions, then it follows that the “crisis” traits need to be encouraged in leaders, too.

Is there enough crisis leadership training for Boards?

These very valid questions were asked by Dr David Landsman OBE in the “Comments” section of an article I have recently written. I promised David that I would be writing a long-form post in reply to his questions – these questions are too good and too timely to be given just brief replies.

How would we characterise the traits anyone would require for crisis management? Is there a secret formula we expect the new hires to fit into? Or are these traits a mix between personal attitudes and behaviours, values and experience?

So, if I were to hire someone today for a crisis management position, these would be the questions I would ask:

How would a crisis look like for our organisation?

…and I’d wait for them to answer, then I’d get into the actual details that would provide me with an acceptable degree of assessing that candidate’s crisis management capabilities:

How would you handle such a crisis from an internal and external perspective?

This second question is more than sufficient to provide the employer with an abundance of subsequent questions which would allow them to gauge that candidate’s knowledge of:

  • the organisation,
  • the wider industry sector it operates in,
  • the local, national and regional/international ramifications of the crisis (as applicable)
  • the organisation’s Stakeholder Map and categories of publics
  • the right response mechanisms that should be put in place to ensure a robust, appropriate and ethical corporate reaction
  • the media and influencer landscape that can negatively impact or support the organisation through a time of crisis.

Often, recruiters and potential employers are content with only asking woolly, non-targeted and loose questions, such as:

  1. What is your biggest achievement so far?

  2. What is your greatest weakness?

  3. Where do you see yourself in five years from now?

  4. Etc.

If any potential employer or recruiter still expects a genuine answer to any of such questions, I’d say they are naïve. When you hire for highly specialised positions such as crisis management, you are not hiring someone to sing your corporate song and praise your corporate mission, swearing allegiance to you for life.

No – you are hiring the best people who could save your organisation from making significant reputational mistakes, who could ensure that when the crisis hits you are as prepared as you can be and, first and foremost, someone whose advice and recommendations you can rely on and trust.

Remember that “trust” and “like” are not mutually inclusive – there are many people whose competency I trust although, as individuals, I can’t stand them. I know that they are among the best at what they do and, therefore, I know that if I ever need their services, I get the best I can find out there.

In a (pre)-crisis situation, especially when it comes to reputational risk, it’s best if personalities and friendships are left at the door. The moment the personalities clash or non-professional relationships are brought into the Crisis Room, it’s likely you’re on the path to failing to contain the crisis or to provide an appropriate response to it.

David also raised a second very important point, one which I partially answered above:

“Won’t the crisis manager’s style end up responding to the leader’s behaviour and expectations?”.

My short answer would be “no”, my long answer would be “it depends”.

A Crisis Manager can have “no style” – horizon scanning, constantly keeping an eye on the organisation’s Risk Register and Stakeholder categories, understanding how the external environment (competitors, market conditions, political instability, acts of God etc.) can negatively impact the business, have very little to do with style. These are utmost prerequisites which ensure that the Crisis Manager can do the job and is trusted to do it well.

The “style” of a Crisis Manager, at most, could be that of an introvert or an extrovert, a “people-person” or a “recluse”. Crisis Management is not Change Management or Change Leadership. In a crisis, you don’t need to hold hands, praise people and take them on a journey of relating and belonging, showing them that the grass is far greener at the other end.

In a (pre)-crisis, the most important things that a Crisis Manager needs (from my own experience, at least) are:

  1. Unfettered access to all relevant information
  2. Ability to ask questions and be given the correct and factual answers
  3. Access to the organisation’s dedicated spokespersons and subject matter experts
  4. Trust in his/her ability to get the job done

A leader (CEO/Chairman) has his/her own leadership style, behaviour and expectations. As with anything else in the corporate world, managing expectations is key – lowering expectations and overdelivering are always very safe bets if one is new in the role or not senior enough. There is only that much a Crisis Manager can do, respond to, advise and contain.

A significant part of what happens next is down to the leader of that organisation. For instance, Tony Hayward’s “I want my life back” did much more damage to BP’s reputation and share price than anything his Crisis/PR advisors could have done. At the end of the day, the official spokesperson of any organisation is its leader – because they lead the business, they are expected to make the best choices for it, including any advice they may receive from their advisors, be they Crisis Managers or not.

And this brings me to the last of David’s questions:

“Is there enough crisis leadership training for Boards?”

No, there isn’t. I do not know of many organisations – public, private or charitable – who put their Boards through Crisis Leadership training. Much of training for Boards today revolves around the legal duties of Board Directors, Anti-Bribery and Corruption and, depending on the size and/or type of the business, some Boards receive training on Diversity and Inclusion.

Crisis Leadership is not something that Board members see as a necessity since, in the view of many, “we can handle anything” or “we are well prepared” or “we haven’t done anything wrong – why should we need Crisis Leadership training?”

Many Boards, sadly, do only go through Media Training – how to smile nicely at the camera, how to deflect questions, how to look into the camera and which type of posture would express confidence and authority.

No disrespect to my media training colleagues, but no media training can prepare any Board Director or Company Executive for the psychological shock of having dozens of microphones stuck into your face, or a myriad of news agencies reporters shouting at you or asking you questions so uncomfortable that you really cannot control your tone of voice, body language and posture, let alone thinking of what you have been trained/told to say or do.

While Media Training is necessary and, to a certain degree, serves well for corporate cosmetic purposes particularly in “times of peace”, it is Crisis Management training any Board member or Executive needs.

When someone asks you the most uncomfortable questions, ranging from those of a personal nature to those of a professional nature, then you become comfortable with “no matter what’s thrown at you”.

In addition, by having these inquisitive and very aggressive questions asked, they may certainly aid in unveiling potential business or reputational risks you, the Board Director/NED/Executive have not thought of. Then, you can do something about them and seek to decrease their level of risk from high to medium and, perhaps, to even low.

When one leads a business, everyone’s eyes are on that person. For the employees and the supply chain of that business, let alone the communities the business operates in, that Board’s or Executive Team’s ability to lead the company and its people in times of crisis is paramount.

If, as an employee, you can’t trust the Board to take the best decision in times of crisis for the company you work for, how can you trust them with anything else?

If, as shareholder of a business, you are not confident that the Board can provide you with a healthy dividend and steer the business through choppy waters, how likely are you to provide them with further capital to invest?

An organisation’s ability to respond in times of crisis is the ultimate test of its maturity, financial stability, alignment with its values/mission and, ultimately, licence to operate.


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