Crisis Response for Small Business Leaders

By Lisa Riolo

crisis management

It’s Monday morning, October 2, 2017. How do I respond to everyone today? How do I lead on a day like this? Because today will be different than most.

Our agency is headquartered in Las Vegas. Several of our clients are also in Las Vegas. The community is suffering. We’re all upset. We keep reassuring family and friends that we’re “safe.” But are we ok? We again check our social media feeds hoping to understand what happened last night. We’re exhausted.

This past Monday involved tragedy, heartbreak and fear. Again. It wasn’t the first time our screens were filled with stories that overwhelm. Just weeks ago it was not one, not two, but three epic hurricanes halting business as usual. And there will inevitably be future days that challenge our ability to perform.

Leadership in business is hard during times of intense distress. The people around us react in unpredictable ways; they’re fragile and sensitive. A well-intended comment may ignite unexpected anger and accusation: You did what?! An ordinary request is suddenly totally unreasonable. Plus, those same inconsistencies happening around us, are also happening within us–making us off kilter, too.

So, how do we proceed with our professional obligations? When do we get back to normal? What is (and what’s not) appropriate?

There isn’t a right-right answer. Nor is this post intended to spell out step-by-step what to do in a crisis. Partly because a response to hardship may call for the exact opposite of telling others how to act or what to think. A morning like this past Monday’s is less about expressing opinion or giving advice and more about acknowledging what the people around us are experiencing.

Acknowledgment is Key

By listening and responding to our customers, our partners, our vendors, we’re letting them know they’re not invisible. Acknowledging their responses to a tragedy–without trying to ‘fix’’ things–is a great way to react. On days when we are dealing with so much human tragedy, we might want to eliminate big proclamations and directives. Or avoid comments that begin with “You should” or “Here’s what I think…”

Chateau 20’s Chris Park put together a thoughtful message on behalf of one of our Vegas-based clients that was sent to affiliates and partners. It involved a request to pause any paid ads or promotions for one day. Chris’ words struck the right tone. He emphasized people first and then shared our client’s request. When I read what he wrote, I  immediately felt like I’d just gotten an understanding pat on the back.

Another recipient came back with a very different reaction to that same email. Instead of a comforting gesture, their response felt like a slap. Maybe I misunderstood their reply? My first thought was to confront that affiliate. Fortunately, our founder and CEO, Karen White cautioned everyone to let the apparent insult go.

I still considered logging in to expire that affiliate’s insertion order. But even without Karen’s good advice, I probably wouldn’t have acted on those thoughts. It’s better to pause in times of stress. I inhale a little deeper and exhale slowly. I listen more carefully. I consider other perspectives and plausible alternatives to what just happened.

But I am not perfect.

Even when making a concerted effort to be on time, I’m rarely punctual. So me saying I was late for everything on Monday means I was super late. I was also impatient. And tired. And frustrated with everyone and nobody in particular. I kept forgetting to ask “How are you today?” which was all that mattered. All day I felt not myself.

Then I remembered THIS leader recognizes when she too is experiencing the same heartbreak as her clients, and team members and neighbors. We behave differently on days like Monday. And that is okay. We just do the best we can.

There are no best practices for leading your business during a crisis or national tragedy–except to simply acknowledge our shared pain with kindness and grace, and patience.