Crisis Leadership - Interview with Caroline Sapriel

Hello, ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to our live discussion about crisis leadership. Today, we have our interview with Caroline Sapriel. Caroline is our member and managing partner at CS&A International, a leading global risk and crisis management firm. She is an experienced international crisis resilience professional with over 25 years of experience in risk, crisis and continuity management. Additionally, she has an extensive expertise in crisis communication. Caroline coaches senior executives in all aspects of communication skills and is recognized as a leader in her profession. She is an accomplished trainer and facilitator. She is regularly invited to speak at international conferences and seminars on risk and crisis management. She is a guest lecturer on crisis management at Antwerp University and has taught a course on corporate crises at the Graduate School of Public Administration of Leiden University.

 

Now, at some point in their career, most CEOs will lead their organizations through a crisis for instance downsizing or a merger or an industry-wide upheaval wrought by new technology. But few CEOs will face crisis as disruptive and dramatic those encountered – and overcome it.

 

Now my first question to you, Caroline. What is a crisis and what is effective crisis leadership? Can you give some examples of a bad and good crisis leadership?

 

Caroline: A crisis is a major disruption. It can be an event, an allegation or revelation or a set of circumstances that threatens the integrity, the survival and the reputation of the organization involved. It challenges the public sense of safety and appropriateness, and more than anything else, a crisis is a situation where the organization involved has virtually no control. So even if the problem is fixed or resolved, the crisis has a life of its own and it ends up at court of stakeholder and public opinion. That is a crisis and in today’s world, we see many. We almost see some every day. Therefore, crisis leadership is critical and it’s about recognizing that even if you can’t control the events, you can definitely control your organization’s destiny and how you want your organization to be perceived during and after the crisis.

 

So, I typically make an important distinction between a crisis and what I call a reputation meltdown. In a crisis, the problem may be difficult to resolve, the crisis can last a long time and there is potentially major impact, but the organization manages to retain the trust of its key stakeholders. In the reputation meltdown category, the problem may be difficult to resolve, it can also last a long time and the potential damage is considerable, but because of poor leadership, the organization involved, loses all credibility and the trust of its stakeholders. That’s when it can end up in that sort of reputation meltdown or train wreck, however you want to call it.

 

Now, unfortunately, there are more examples of bad crisis leadership than good. Probably because hear more about the ones that are badly managed. A well-managed crisis does not seem to get the same level of attention and blame.

 

But we find examples of good crisis leaders in history. The one that comes to mind is Prime Minister Churchill. The new movie “The Darkest Hour” highlights the challenges and the pressure and political opposition that Churchill went through in May-June 1940 to prevent the capitulation to Germany and instead go on fighting the war.

 

Churchill’s was very focused and recognized that it is not possible to win on all fronts. He provided the British people with purpose to keep going and a vision of the aftermath of the crisis. These are fundamental and critical principles of crisis leadership. By contrast, there are a number of crises in recent years where leaders were unable to retain that credibility nor to provide a direction to their organization throughout the crisis. Instead, they seemed literally managed or led by the crisis itself, instead of leading through it and retaining stakeholder trust. There are many examples of that among multinational corporations and other organizations.

 

Boris: In your article, “Crisis Leadership: Have You Got What it Takes?” you make a difference between crisis and reputation train wreck. Could you please elaborate on this?

 

Caroline: Most organizations will face a crisis at some point in their lifecycle so it’s very often a question of if it’s more of a question of when. Crises happen, they happen for a bunch of reasons. It could be human error, it could be because of major external factors or it could be failures in their own systems of operation and management control. When that happens, a crisis can really have significant impact on the organization. However, with good crisis leadership, the organization involved is able to retain the trust of stakeholders, and remain in the crisis category and not become a reputation meltdown.

 

On the other hand, in a reputation meltdown category, stakeholders are saying we don’t like you, we don’t like what you represent, we don’t like how you’re managing this, I don’t feel safe, I don’t feel it’s appropriate, I feel that the values that you are displaying are completely wrong.

 

Boris: What are the major steps for a leader to prepare the organization for the crisis?

 

Caroline: Large organizations today have quite a lot in place to manage crises, they typically, also have solid risk management systems, they have risk registers where they catalogue the critical risks or the risks that are more likely to happen and would have severe impact. Risk management and crisis preparedness work alongside each other. Crisis preparedness starts with having procedures in place. But that is not enough. People need to know how to use these procedures and therefore, you need training and you need practice via exercises with a continuous loop of feedback and improvement. We typically say that a good crisis management is not a destination but it’s a journey because conditions, circumstances, factors evolve and it’s impossible to be completely prepared.

 

In this context, the CEO needs to recognize that it takes more than good business acumen and business experience to manage a crisis. Crisis management takes special skills and acknowledging that you don’t manage a crisis like you manage a bad week at the office is the first step.

 

For some, this is difficult because of the assumption that, well, I’ve been in this business for 25-30 years, therefore, I know my company, I know my industry, I know my business, therefore I can manage this crisis. This assumption is plainly wrong and risky. It takes special skills to manage a crisis and that recognition is critical for leaders and crisis management teams.

 

Boris: Alright. Are there any recommended trainings to get leaders adequately prepared for crisis?

 

Caroline: Yes, certainly, we have developed a crisis leadership model and we train senior teams in crisis leadership competencies. This includes a crisis leadership competency matrix that helps leaders and crisis teams assess themselves against best practice standards and provides a roadmap to acquire and improve their crisis leadership skills.

 

Boris: What should business leaders who are unsure whether or not they possess crisis leadership skills do?

 

Caroline: The first thing they can do is to take part in a crisis simulation exercise where they can practice their role as crisis leader. During such exercises, facilitators will help participants recognize the strengths and gaps that they might have. In addition, as stated earlier, using a competency matrix provides a formal framework to assess crisis leaders’ ability to manage a crisis.

 

Once the baseline has been established, the second step is to focus on the set of skills that these leaders must possess to perform optimally as crisis leaders.

 

Boris: What sort of skills and competencies do leaders need to possess to anticipate manage crisis and help their organizations recover from them?

 

Caroline: Leaders need to be very attuned to the world around them, how the changing environment can actually impact their business and to the risks and threats that their industry face.

 

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about cyber threats. But there are other risks such as reputation, environmental and people threats. Therefore, the first thing is to map risks, assess threat levels and develop mitigation plans to address the more critical ones.

 

Because it is a fact that it is impossible to eliminate all risks, crises do happen and preparedness is key to minimizing their impact.

 

Boris: Also, a popular question is how should crisis leaders prepare for TV interviews?

 

Caroline: Going back to the previous question since one can never completely eliminate the risk of crisis, organizations must be prepared for the worst and this includes leaders ability to communicate effectively. Good crisis leadership includes being visible and communicating with a wide range of stakeholders successfully. Media and stakeholder communication is something that can leaders can acquire through training via a range of crisis and media communication courses. Leaders must recognize the make or break power of communication in a crisis and learn to get used to communicating in under pressure. Sensitive and clear communication is key in a crisis and many have learned it the hard way.

 

Boris: Thank you, Caroline. Last question, what is your company doing that is unique in the crisis management space?

 

Caroline: Well, we’ve been in this field for over 25 years. We were one of the first to totally focus on integrated risk, crisis and business continuity. Crisis management is our business. So as a result over the years of working across industries, globally, with multinationals and other organizations, we have developed deep expertise and designed a number o unique methodologies, tools and processes that help organizations be better prepared or add value to those that already have a lot in in place. As I said earlier, it’s not about the destination, crisis management and preparedness is a journey.

 

The world around us is dynamic; therefore, to increase resilience, we must continuously adjust and upgrade our vigilance and preparedness to the evolving risk environment.

 

Boris: Thank you, Caroline. It was a very interesting interview.

 

Caroline: Thank you very much, Boris.

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