Opinion: How to turn the next crisis into something routine
By Angel Iscovich
We are just emerging from a once-in-a-generation crisis. COVID-19 has disrupted not just nations, but the world. We can view events as Pre-Pandemic and Post-Pandemic.
To say the coronavirus has also disrupted businesses would be the understatement of the year. Or decade. We have witnessed the destruction of companies and industries that once seemed invincible.
Based on these developments and more, it’s fitting that my new book, “The Art of Routines: Discover How Routineology Can Transform Your Life,” features a chapter on how companies can prepare for the unprecedented. This might seem like a contradiction of terms, but in my mind, it is advice is on par with the notion of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.
In our new reality, it becomes ever more crucial for senior leaders to develop the supplest of mindsets to face a zeitgeist unrecognizable from anything Pre-Pandemic. My advice? Establish a routine offering the reassurance of structure yet open enough to handle the novel and unknown.
In the spirt of such “disruptive preparation”, allow me to share an excerpt of my book offering insights to forward-thinking C-Suite executives on how to use emergencies to their advantage. The following content dovetails with Winston Churchill’s own thinking about turning life’s many lemons into lemonades: “Never let a good crisis good to waste.”
As a former emergency physician turned CEO of a multimillion-dollar emergency medical care organization, I have learned much about maintaining balance amid upheaval. As it turns out, the corporate realm isn’t so different from the ER. Investment in structures and a commitment to balance can keep companies from the brink, whether it be a devastating lawsuit, the travails of bankruptcy, or even a pandemic. As professionals, we really can prepare for the chaotic and unexpected.
Insight 1: Insist on Decorum and Mutual Respect
When the brain is in the grips of fight-or-flight, we can slip into survival mode. This is exactly the wrong way to behave in a crisis. The best leaders know you can calm everyone in the room and increase team spirit by working thoughtfully and compassionately.
Case in point: In 2018, two African American men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks because the manager said they didn’t purchase beverages. In the wake of the crisis, Starbucks doubled down on its dedication to an environment of civility for all guests — even those who haven’t (yet) bought anything, by making the following announcement: “We want our stores to be the third place, a warm and welcoming environment where customers can gather and connect. Any customer is welcome to use Starbucks spaces, including our restrooms, cafes, and patios, regardless of whether they make a purchase.”
Insight 2: Enforce a Distinct, Recognized Chain of Command
If you have ever witnessed a cardiac arrest or sudden loss of consciousness, the adrenaline can be intense. When this happens, clear-headed thinking can go out the window. Worse, problems can exacerbate when leaders don’t say, “Hey, I’m in charge here. The buck stops with me.”
Of course, perceived authoritarianism may be unwelcome in less challenging times, but it’s key to instilling stability when an individual — or organization — is under attack. This notion of a central command in times of crisis takes on new levels of importance when the business challenge in question is public-facing.
Dr. W. Timothy Coombs, writing for the Institute for Public Relations in a 2014 article entitled Crisis Management and Communications, had this to say on the subject: “From a public relations perspective, this take-control approach by senior leadership to quickly acknowledge the problem and explain what is being done to correct the issue, reassures the public and imbues a certain level of confidence in the senior leadership of the company.”
Insight 3: Remain Calm and Mindful — No Matter What
For a time, I managed a high-stress trauma unit dealing with life-and-death emergencies. Whenever I tell stories to friends about what we endured as a unit, I invariably receive the question, “But how did you keep your cool?” Some of them have even asked, “How did you keep your humanity?”
“By committing to the concept of triage,” I told them. “Handle the most urgent concerns — the core problems — first. While remaining calm.”
Triage in business matters because life can throw us problems that we don’t think we can handle. Back in my CEO days, I was heading up a company experiencing a bleeding of profits going into the third quarter. When it became evident our organization was heading to the danger zone, we developed an operating procedure to fight this crisis — a new routine. We established a war room and went to the heart of the situation.
Doing so may be likened to a doctor checking for vitals. By zeroing in on the core issue — revenues — we pinpointed the most urgent matter and (calmly) fixed it.
The takeaway is that if and when the next calamity strikes, it does little good to be reactive. Reactive actions result from a place of fear and usually lack a broader understanding of what is at stake. By triaging in business, i.e., focusing on what is most crucial and then handling the situation with mindfulness, you have a better shot at solving the problem. Whatever it may be.
• Dr. Angel Iscovich is a physician, a longtime Santa Barbara resident and a supporter of the health care and nonprofit communities. This column is adapted from his book “The Art of Routine: Discover How Routineology Can Transform Your Life.” He can be reached at angelisovich.com.