Leading in Crisis: How to Prepare, How to Execute, How to Thrive (Part 4)

In this fourth article in a five-part series focused on crisis leadership, we consider vital actions to take as a crisis begins to subside. Previous articles focused on what to do during a crisis, and the final installment will focus on preparatory steps to take before the next crisis.

Are you a thermometer in your organization, or are you a thermostat?

This time-tested leadership question implores leaders to examine whether they read the temperature, or they set the temperature within their organization. More often than not, being the thermostat is touted as the more desirable posture as it conveys more in-depth knowledge of where the organization needs to go and suggests taking more active measures to get it there.

However, post-crisis analyses typically indicate that leaders try to be both – they want to read the room when panic is at its highest, so they then know how to adapt and adjust direction. While successful leaders can do both and still effectively set the tone, ineffective leaders tend to immerse themselves too deeply in evaluating the culture, and thus, miss opportunities to intentionally drive the changes that need to happen. Therefore, as the initial shock of a crisis begins to subside, leaders must return to being a thermostat for their organization.

Let’s consider an example. A large integrated health system had a previous leader who was known for telling the media that his job was to “keep [his] hand on the thermostat” to keep the organization from falling into failure. When this CEO took the reins in 2002, the system was struggling through a merger where the two legacy organizations remained glued to their distinctly different cultures, with no real evidence of integration. The merger intended to improve the health system’s financial performance, but that too was showing no signs of improvement. The organization was teetering on the verge of being sold to a for-profit entity.

As the new CEO evaluated the situation, he sent a memo to all employees as his first action (on his first day in the role). The notice called out the situation at hand: the financial hardship, the upcoming employee layoffs, and the potential sale that may need to be the life raft to keep them afloat. The memo specifically stated that the organization had one “last chance to right the ship.” Brutal honesty was uncharacteristic for the organization; the CEO’s message opened the eyes of many who did not appreciate the severity of the situation up to that point. Now everyone knew the temperature within the organization, and it helped staff realize the current temperature (i.e., the system’s current performance) would not be sustainable. But the CEO did not stop there. He then called for continual accountability for performance throughout the organization, including published reports to be issued each quarter to show how the organization was running. These reports, which included information on medical errors and clinical operations, were true to his claim of keeping his hand on the thermostat. The reports ensured that all employees knew the organization observed their actions (and the corresponding impact on the organization) and reported them publicly for the world to see. Unsurprisingly, the organization improved by creating a sense of urgency. They frequently and consistently explained where the organization needed to go and capitalized on the unceasing pressure to perform.The system experienced over $50 million in losses. As the losses lessened, they were able to break-even just two years later; during that same time, nursing turnover decreased by 13 percentage points. With the pressure on them to perform, the staff took their last chance and often made pain-staking changes to bring the organization back from the brink.

In this situation and others, the logic behind keeping your hand on the thermostat is that when the temperature gets too low, there is not a sense of urgency to keep people pushing forward, making tough decisions, and continually seeking improvement. The health system from our example found themselves in this situation; they needed to turn up the temperature to help drive meaningful change. The inverse, of course, is when the temperature gets too high, and people are too afraid to take risks, even when they may yield significant benefits to the organization. Thus, a leader needs to make continual adjustments to ensure the temperature remains right where it needs to be, ensuring the organization is not stagnant or complacent, nor so frenetic it becomes unwieldy.

Finally, just as a leader with their hand on the thermostat is critical, people who act like thermometers are also critical. Effective leaders know they need to engage others to function as thermometers, both in times of crisis and not, to provide readings to leadership so they can determine changes to make.

In a crisis, the temperature may have been way too hot for way too long, and yet, perhaps the heat needs to continue to bring closure to the crisis. Alternately, an organization may need a deep freeze to restore order to the organization post-crisis, allowing people to calm and cool down. Once the thermometers indicate where different segments of the organization are, leaders can use that information to chart a course, communicate it, and make necessary changes. As with many things, reacting appropriately to change, both amid a crisis and during its wind-down, requires a team effort!

Knowing what the temperature should be going forward is critical to define how we react to the end stages of a crisis. However, determining that precise temperature can be very difficult. As seasoned, independent evaluators and strategy setters, Coker consultants are ready to assist C-suite executives, members of the Board, and crisis response teams in determining their temperature.

Please request to speak to Aimee Greeter, MPH, FACHE, to share how you have functioned as the thermostat for your organization and learn more about how we can help you effectively adjust the temperature.

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