Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Character, not strategy, is the way to face a crisis

In the midst of a crisis, many will say that their strategy and planning will be tested, but will save the day.

I say there’s a really good chance they will fail.


Planning and strategy are tools for calmer and steadier times. In a crisis, ideology and philosophy that has been consistently expressed through corporate character is what will save the day.

"It ain't my money, I seriously do not care"

A recent TV commercial by the USPS shows an employee preparing overnight letters that really don’t need to be expressed overnight. The postal worker explains that there’s a more cost effective way to accomplish the same goal. The employee, not realizing his boss is standing behind him, states he doesn’t care about the cost because it’s not his money. The postal worker tries to help him save face. The boss harrumphs and walks away.

The real tragedy is that the employee’s attitude is very likely reflective of the character of the company. He probably feels like his company doesn’t care about him as a person, so why should he care about how he spends “their” money.

The boss can harrumph all he wants, but he and the rest of the company leadership has failed to engage their employees with a sense of ownership and responsibility. There’s no sense of “we’re in this together.”

Confronted with a crisis, this company will be in for a very bumpy ride.

Crisis planning can’t replicate what isn’t lived out

Many companies and organizations will spend thousands of dollars to assemble carefully crafted crisis plans. Some will go further and provide media training to key individuals. And a few will even stage artificial crises to put their plan through its paces.

All of this is worth naught if the core character of the company is even a little rotten. Just as happens with individuals, tough times will reveal who you truly are, not what your vision and mission statements say you are.

Simply put, if your company has a nicely polished sweet-smelling mission statement, but your leaders or employees behave like boors, a crisis will bring out the “wurst” for all to smell.

Something smells funny but no one is laughing

As the adage goes, character is who you are when no one is watching. In a crisis, everyone is watching. And everyone is Tweeting, posting on Facebook, snapping photos and taking video on their cell phones, texting, blogging, and more.

Crises inflame the disease of egotism. People will jockey to be the voice or face of the situation; the “i-reporter” of note. This threatens to become a conflagration of bad publicity, unless your employees are reflecting a shared positive corporate character.

Bad corporate character will eventually destroy a company from the inside out without ever encountering a crisis. But in a crisis, it can destroy a company in a New York minute, both from the inside and the outside.

A crisis releases the stink of a rotten core and exposes every flaw, whether or not they are related to the crisis situation.

Build character to defend against crisis before it happens

All the spin in the world can’t create good character. Spin will just make a stinky situation stinkier. Mission and vision statements alone won’t do it either.

But an organization that's grounded with a solid, ethical culture and character won't need spin in a crisis.

Corporate character is established through the living out of a robust ethical philosophy that is communicated by word and deed from the top down. It is often expressed in a clearly communicated ideology that permeates the behavior of executives and employees at all levels.

The goal is to have every employee on the side of the company. People are happy to support and defend what they believe in; they will believe in what is good, right, and true. They will defend what they feel they are a part of.

To build an ethical organization takes ethical people. From the CEO to the managers to the janitors, everyone needs to be immersed in ethical thinking and behavior. This requires consistent, repetitive communication about the company’s policies and ideologies. It requires walking the talk, day in and day out. This involves more than spitting out "messaging" and platitudes no one really cares about or believes in.

Who you are as an organization; how you operate day-to-day; the heart, soul, and character of your company – these are the traits that will carry you through a crisis.

A grounded organization will stay grounded throughout the toughest of times.


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