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Headlining at the World Business Forum: 7 Lessons for Leading in a Crisis

| Tuesday October 6th, 2009 | 2 Comments

7-lessons-bookThe world’s business leaders would be remiss if they didn’t acknowledge the financial meltdown of the past 18 months. The opening statements at the World Business Forum were no surprise, with Patricia Meier CEO of HSM, kicking things off by calling the crowd to remember the challenges of the past year. She reminded people to think back to last year’s conference when the Dow Jones went below 10000 for the first time in years. This year, we’re 15 points lower than we were last year, but this time, we’re on the way up– we see opportunity despite the crisis.

With this theme for the conference firmly in hand, Bill George, author of 7 Lessons for Leading in a Crisis, was the perfect keynote. George is the Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, and the former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Medtronic. George’s talk was all about the best ways to get an organization through a crisis, and the talk was peppered with his own personal experiences coming through tough times. (I don’t want to spoil the juicy bits- go ahead and order the book to read them!)

#1 Face reality, starting with yourself
The first step in responding to a crisis is looking for the root cause of it. If you’re in charge, this includes looking at your own role in causing, or failing to properly anticipate, the crisis. It’s only when you get to the root of the thing that you can start to understand how to fix it.

#2 Don’t be Atlas: get the world off your shoulders
You’ll need help to get out of a crisis. It’s important to take a deep breath, gather the team, and divide and conquer.

#3 Dig Deeper for Root Cause
In the early stages of a crisis, it’s tempting to seek a quick fix because if you can resolve things quickly, it might not be a crisis after all. A strong leader will look beyond the initial symptoms to see the worst possible outcomes, so they can be anticipated and held off.

#4 Get ready for the long haul
True crises build for a while before coming to a head, and they take a long time to recover from. True recover will take a road plan and careful pacing.

#5 Never waste a good crisis
A crisis is by definition a shaking up of the status quo. As much as things are coming down around you, there is also an opportunity to re-build and do it right.

#6 You’re in the spotlight: follow true north
As the leader, your team will be looking to you for guidance about the right way to move forward. This includes not just strategies, but the moral compass for correct responses. Make sure and follow your heart because you may need to defend your actions, and they will certainly be seen.

#7 Go on offense: focus on winning now
In a crisis you need to have a defense (response) and an offense (innovation). Focus on the new opportunities, the exciting new initiatives and possibilities. These are the true path to recovery.

Though George wasn’t focusing on sustainable business at all, these tips are certainly relevant for any business leader who cares about the triple bottom line– not just because we’re in a world crisis but because the innovation provided by new business models represents upheaval for traditional modes of thinking as well as enormous opportunity. Good stuff!

Triple Pundit has a free copy of Bill George’s book up for grabs! Leave a comment and we’ll pick the best one to receive the book. Make sure you include your e-mail address so we can contact you if you win!


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  • Ryan Mickle

    The key takeaway for me from this session was the focus on building long term value, voiced from a very traditional business perspective.

    Bill George sits on the the boards of ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs, which are obviously companies that have been in the spotlight as of late. As he mentioned, activities such as sub-prime lending and selling unhealthy food as the obesity becomes an epidemic are able to create short term returns, they cannibalize their own markets and, in effect, the potential to create returns for 50 years out.

    This perspective applies in so many facets of creating social and environmental value. It’s always best to look at consumers, the planet’s resources, and the global community as partners in order to ensure that a company can create sustained growth, over many years, as Medtronic did, as it grew from $1BN to a $60BN company, under his leadership.

  • Laurie Sanford

    Great blog! Clearly applicable to all sorts of situations and I particularly like the insight that green business models, by definition, will ‘be a shakeup’ to traditional business and therefore represent a type of crisis needing an approach like the 7 points mentioned.

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