by Caroline Sapriel, Founder and Managing Partner, and Anthony Spota, Senior Consultant, CS&A International
As lockdowns are gradually being lifted, shops reopening, city centers slowly regaining life, road traffic growing and with it the noise we would gladly have left behind, there is a tentative yet unmistakable energy around – a desire to get back to a more normal way of life.
The fatigue that many of us are experiencing and the urge to get back to normal is understandable, yet is it wise to let our guards down and proceed full blast ahead?
One thing is certain: the new normal will not be “business as usual” and the recovery process will vary for different markets according to the distinct phases of pandemic infection curves currently observed.
Whilst it’s impossible to see the future through a crystal ball, it is possible to learn from the past. It is safe to say that a crisis is not over until it is really, really over. Before, during and after, crisis management best practice advocates capturing lessons learned from previous cases. This sound advice is regrettably often swept away by the drive to recover as quickly as possible, keeping us vulnerable to subsequent recurrences. Teams that have been working full on through the last few months will have little appetite to consider how much worse the situation could still get. Yet, this is precisely what needs to be done to remain resilient and come out stronger on the other side.
Kick-starting this recovery is one thing and sustaining it through the icy road ahead is another. So, what can organizations do to be resilient in this ongoing, uncertain and unsettling phase we are entering?
- First things first, having taken stock of the impact to date, set the course for the recovery period and focus on holding that course. It will keep you going through the likely bumps ahead and ultimately get you where you want to be.
- Fight for the long-term win – Don’t focus on short-term survival only. If you let go of employees without considering the damage to your company’s external reputation and internal morale, how will you recover when the crisis is over?
- Balance people and business objectives sensibly. When it comes to the safety of your employees, prudent overreaction is advised. When it comes to how you operate your business, continue to drive slowly forward. You are on an icy road yet stopping altogether is not an option.
- Develop scenarios: worst-case, worsening and improved. Consider what each one could look like for your organization and what you need in place to address them optimally. Operationalize each permutation by developing mitigation and contingency plans for all of your key activity areas. Most experts believe the vaccine will become available by mid-20211, but a “return to normal business” could take longer. This is the time to get ready for a potential second or even third wave. Use the new data and analytics which you have acquired in the last few months to predict how a second wave, including one with prolonged supply chain disruptions and more infections amongst employees, could affect your business.
- Continue to capture lessons learned as you go – Assess the effectiveness of your decisions and actions through regular After-Action Reviews (AAR)2, adjust and keep going. This is a smart process that you must implement and sustain throughout the duration of the crisis.
- Reinforce your stakeholder engagement – Sustaining stakeholder trust through the next phase is critical. Remember this is a people problem and don’t lose sight of this when trying to mitigate the business impact. Stakeholder groups such as staff, customers, suppliers, contractors, regulators, the wider community, the media and others specific to your business interactions, each have their issues and concerns with the situation and how you are dealing with it. Keep this in mind whenever making decisions and communicate accordingly.
- Stay vigilant – Whilst the urge is there to go back to business, remaining vigilant though the next phase is key to longer term recovery. This includes keeping core teams and task forces active with a watchful eye on possible developments to try and stay ahead of the curve.
- Don’t go into a siege, stay out there! – Even if you make all the right decisions, no one will know unless you tell them. In protracted crises such as COVID-19, ongoing stress and fatigue can make leaders retreat. Yet sustained active internal and external communication is often the make-or-break factor in the recovery phase. Be proactive in communicating challenges and impact.
- Show leadership – All eyes will be on your organization and how you have led by example through the storm. Effective crisis leadership is not about winning or losing or finding the perfect solution, especially in a crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19, where control is limited. It is about recognizing that whilst no one can control the events, crisis leaders can control the way they chose to respond and behave.
- Turn your limitations into advantages – Whilst ostriches are limited because they cannot fly, they use their speed and strength to overcome this impediment to overcome danger. Consider “The Ostrich Paradox“3 in which the author identifies why this metaphor can be the ultimate tool to survival and robustness.
Uncertainty is inherent to crises. The COVID-19 pandemic has yet to manifest itself fully, and it may yet get worse before it gets better. Ultimately, steering the course through the unknown requires a steady hand and a resolute disposition.
Caroline Sapriel is the Founder and Managing Partner of CS&A International, a global risk and crisis management consulting firm working with multinational clients across industry sectors in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, Europe and the Americas. With over 25 years’ experience in risk and crisis management, she is recognized as a leader in her profession and acknowledged for her ability to provide customized, results-driven counsel and training at the highest level.
Caroline speaks on risk and crisis management at international conferences regularly. She has published articles and co-authored two books as well as contributed the chapter on crisis management to IABC’s Handbook of Organizational Communication. She lectures on crisis management at the University of Antwerp.
Fluent in French, English, Spanish, Hebrew and Mandarin, Caroline holds a BA degree in Chinese Studies and a BSc degree in International Relations from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Anthony Spota is a Senior Consultant with CS&A International based in Brussels. With a background in Communications and Human Resources (HR), he helps prepare the firm’s clients for the crises of tomorrow by designing tailored communication, HR and operational crisis response strategies.
Anthony is involved in the implementation of these strategies via trainings, exercises and programs that help businesses strengthen their organizations from within. He researches international crisis trends and develops case studies and scenarios based upon best practices and taking into account that “change is the only constant”.
Anthony holds an MBA from Vlerick Business School and a Master’s Degree in European Policies and Crisis Management from the University of Rome – La Sapienza. In his free time, he enjoys writing and has published several articles in Fair Observer, EurActiv and peer reviews, including on crisis communications. Anthony is fluent in English, French and Italian.