Leading in Crisis: How to Prepare, How to Execute, How to Thrive (Part 3)

In the third article in a five-part series focused on crisis leadership, we review a final consideration for what actions to take during a crisis. The first and second articles in the series also focus on critical actions for leaders to take when initially confronted with a crisis. Subsequent articles will examine additional actions to take after the crisis has passed, and before the next one occurs.

Steve Jobs is widely known for being an innovator. The company he co-founded in 1976 (and was the CEO of…twice!) remains a household name today, with 2.2 billion iPhones (just one of Apple’s revolutionary products) sold since their introduction to the market in 2007. Interestingly, however, what Mr. Jobs was not always known for was his communication skills. Rumors, legends, and tell-all tabloid articles alike have countless examples of Mr. Jobs delivering feedback in a manner that was significantly more critical than constructive, of him barking orders, and focusing on failures as opposed to celebrating successes. While these stories permeate his legacy, they are often countered with Mr. Jobs’ success at Pixar, and the culture of communication he established there.

After being ousted as CEO from Apple, Mr. Jobs bought Pixar in 1986 (from, of all people, George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars franchise). Pixar had technology that Mr. Jobs was interested in, and many claimed that Mr. Jobs was obsessed with making the company succeed to add some sheen to his professional accomplishments at a time when Apple’s performance (and his reputation) was sub-optimal. While Pixar would ultimately go on to experience much success (his initial investment of $5 million turning into a $7.4 billion enterprise sales price when the entertainment juggernaut sold to Disney in 2006), it started rocky. Mr. Jobs reportedly had to infuse his wealth into the company to keep it afloat, and the distance between the departments within Pixar were chasms, not cracks.Recognizing the need for greater interactivity, Mr. Jobs became personally invested in the design of the Pixar headquarters building, believing that the design of the building would be critical to the design of the culture he wanted to foster. While initially, the plans called for multiple buildings, each housing specific functional experts (i.e., programmers in one with animators in another), Mr. Jobs turned the plans on their head. He called for the plans to mingle departments, with a large central atrium as the hub of all activities. The mailboxes, cafeteria, and gift shop would all be located in this atrium. Mr. Jobs even wanted the bathrooms to be found only in this atrium (a point on which he was initially overruled)!

His intent was for people to cross paths literally and for the interaction (which the architectural design initially forced) to occur organically, resulting in a blending of culture and ideas. His vision was for communication to happen on a personal level, with people sharing ideas inside this multi-story glass vestibule. Mr. Jobs believed (and was proven correct) that an environment which encouraged non-siloed communication, pervasive across all functional areas, would be the differentiating factor that made Pixar a success. And, he was right.

"The important thing is that we stick together." - Buzz Lightyear - From our Toy Story sunrises ☀️ to yours, good morning and have a magical day! https://t.co/0Q0PkKqglf #DisneyMagicMomentspic.twitter.com/54nU9hZl1B

— Pixar (@Pixar) April 30, 2020

Pixar would release Toy Story (to critical acclaim) and develop more than a dozen blockbuster movies with a widespread and shared belief that the communication not only between departments but more so, between individuals as collaborators, improved the movies. Many of those conversations started in the atrium. Prior to his passing, Mr. Jobs noted, “One of the greatest achievements at Pixar was that we brought these two cultures together and got them working side by side.”It is in this vein that we believe crisis communication should be grounded. Communication should be intentional. It is no secret that communication is central to an organization’s performance. According to the Harvard Business Review, organizations with effective communication yield 47% higher returns to their shareholders. And, there is perhaps no greater need for effective communication than during a crisis.

So how then do you accomplish “effective communication”?

One of the ways to make communication effective during a crisis is frequency. Recently, a Coker client experienced a cybersecurity incident. An outside party breached the organization and took control of all systems, holding the health system for ransom, meaning they were unable to access any of their critical technology. The cybersecurity event was temporarily debilitating for the organization, keeping its financial and clinical systems in paralysis while remediation took place. Recognizing the immediate disruption on the organization, the CEO assembled a response team, and they began communication briefs, which took place at 7:00 AM, 2:00 PM and 9:00 PM every day. These huddles were 15 minutes in length and practically everything that could stop halted for that time. Meeting times changed and breaks rescheduled to allow for maximum participation, and the organization coalesced around the live-stream updates from members of the response team. While these huddles were intended to share information in one direction only (i.e., delivering status updates as opposed to soliciting feedback), their consistent format, presenters, and timing were ultimately seen as critical to keeping employees informed and able to continue functioning as caregivers. Fortunately, the breach was relatively short (though five days of agony at the time). The organization was able to retrieve all information and functionality, and the crisis sparked a communication system that the organization expanded into regular operations, with multiple enterprise-wide and departmental leaders continuing daily huddles as a method to share information and maintain effective communication across the organization.

At Coker, we believe effective crisis communication is not an accident, but a critical part of an organized business strategy. We believe our role as business advisors is to help healthcare entities’ build strategies that not only reflect business imperatives and changing markets, but also include robust communication plans applicable both in times of chaos and in times of calm. These strategies, and ultimately their execution, require both preparation and practice and are often optimized by a third-party intervention.

If you’d like to improve crisis communication and build business strategies during times of chaos or calm, contact us today and request to speak directly with Aimee Greeter, MPH, FACHE.  

Related Insights