Leading through crisis: Learn to knock out the pressure of change

By Leah Polakoff

In the world of business, change is a constant. It’s an inevitable force that will come barreling at you whether you’re ready or not. How you deal with the punch, however, is up to you. Read on for advice from experts on change management and top CEOs on how to step into the boxing ring with your A-game in hand.

Punch out the old

Whether you’re a partner at a law firm or the head of a design company, one thing is clear: Business is constantly changing. Exceptional leaders are the ones who adapt to this change and embrace it full-force. By leading with an open mind and staying ahead of the times, you can implement a strong change management program in your business. So what exactly does change management mean?

“It means bringing the right people to work for you, ones that understand the leader’s vision for the organization, and developing the right management team,” says Siobhan Reardon, president of the Free Library of Philadelphia. “So sometimes when you walk into an organization like I did here, nothing is wrong, it just needs to be rethought.”

Rob Weinhold, crisis and issue management expert at The Fallston Group, agrees with Reardon. By not hiring the right people, you put yourself at risk of turning change into a crisis.

“The type of people that you recruit and hire [are] really important,” Weinhold says. “In my business, we talk about crisis costing four things: time, money, customers, and ultimately, your career. And if change is not managed well, then those four elements are very much impacted and organizations certainly will not accomplish their business goals or the heights they want to accomplish.”

A large part of managing change well is hiring people who are teachable, open to communication and motivated in ways that promote innovation and change. Then, ensure the employees are up-to-date on your mission and the organization’s goals. Constant communication and the willingness to listen to your staff is important. If a leader is not openly communicating where the team needs to be, team members are bound to be left behind.

“Many times our experience is, when there is significant organizational change, people often get managed in or managed out,” Weinhold says. “Some folks who are hired do a really good job for a few years, but as the company grows and shifts, they’re no longer the ideal candidate for the role. That creates trepidation and uncertainty within the workforce, and that’s when crisis leadership really kicks in to high gear.”

While some companies may grow and shift every few years, for others, the need for change management exists on a year-to-year and even a day-to-day basis.

“It’s a day-to-day reality for us because when you run a large, dispersed organization, there are things that will occur in the neighborhood library that don’t occur in the central library. And there are things that will occur in the administration realm that don’t occur in the day-to-day public service operations. There is something constantly afoot where we really have to dig deep and understand what’s happening and how the staff is reacting to a change,” Reardon says.

Keep your employees close during a time of change to give them reassurance and plenty of feedback. “You have to be willing to manage in and out,” Weinhold says. “With the most important goal being the business objectives of the organization.”

When change hits below the belt

There’s one rule to remember when it comes to change management: Don’t wait until the crisis occurs. The more informed you are, the better prepared you are for the punch. Watch what happens constantly. From the data to the staff’s reaction to a new initiative, pay attention to every detail.

In 2008, The Free Library of Philadelphia lost 20 percent of its city budget and 30 percent of its state budget. Reardon says paying attention to financial details was crucial to anticipating crisis. Stay one step ahead and watch trends in revenue and expenses. If something seems off, like you’re behind on your expenses or no new revenue is coming in, start early and work to begin a new call to action.

“If you’re not paying attention, you’re going to hit crisis,” Reardon says. “Taking your eye off the prize is the problem. You never want to take your eye off the prize.”

Harry Thomasian, partner at Ernst & Young, has a list of three “don’ts” for when it comes to dealing with a crisis:

  1. Don’t wait. “If there is a crisis occurring or you see it coming, don’t wait to deal with the crisis. Problems are not like fine wine; they do not get better with age. If there’s a crisis, deal with it immediately.”
  2. Don’t go at it alone. “Get other points of view – whether it’s peers, fellow executives within your organization, board members or mentors outside of the organization.”
  3. Don’t deal with a crisis over the phone or email. “I remember getting a phone call from a client [in Atlanta] who was concerned about some service issues. I could have easily said, ‘Give me some time to gather the facts internally and I’ll call you back.’ My response was, ‘You know what? This is important. I’m going to be on a plane tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. and I’ll be in your office by 9:30 and let’s deal with this face-to-face.’ I think that’s critical.”

Of course, a crisis is likely to happen eventually; it’s just a matter of when. However, if you handle the crisis with decisiveness, optimism, integrity and effective communication strategies, you can easily turn short-term adversity into long-term advantage. Reardon didn’t give in to the pressure and simply refocused. She realized she needed to create a new plan.

“We brought in an organization from the Wharton School to help us go through what we call ‘scenario planning.’ Once we had the scenarios in place, we built a strategic plan. And the strategic plan does provide that we have a tremendous focus on five particular areas: school-age children, people with varying abilities, service to new Americans or immigrants, a focus on small businesses, and entrepreneurs and workforce investment. Those are the five areas where we double down on our efforts. It’s not that we’re ignoring everyone else, but [these five areas are] where we’re going to make strong strategic investments.”

Weinhold says when you find yourself in the midst of a crisis, try to put what’s happening in perspective. Understand there is a way to lead through a crisis and look at the big picture instead of what’s happening in the immediate sense. Next, peel the layers back on the issue. What’s impacting you professionally? What’s impacting you personally? Develop a strategy that involves taking baby steps to overcome those disadvantages. Once you’re balanced with the baby steps, you can widen your stride, throw on the boxing gloves and knock out pressure for good.

Editor’s note: Look out for part 2 of our “Leading through Crisis” series, where we discuss how CEOs can manage stress during tough times.


All the leaders we interviewed agreed that waiting to tell your team about a crisis will only set you back. Engage in open conversation, know the facts and be ready to take action. Here is some more advice on leading through a crisis:

“Don’t wait to deal with the issue. You want to make sure you have all of the facts, or as much as you know. As a leader, you have to be truthful and you let your employees know what’s going on. You need to make sure others know that as a leader, you have the situation under control. It can’t be gloom and doom, the sky is falling, but don’t hide the fact there’s an issue.” – Harry Thomasian, partner at Ernst & Young.

“What needs to occur and what people want to know [is whether] the goals of the organization are going to stay consistent; or if there is a shift, [whether] their role in the organization rolls up into the larger strategic focus. You have to keep folks very close during a time of change to give them reassurance and positive or negative feedback. You have to be willing to manage in and out, with the most important goal being the business objectives of the organization.” – Rob Weinhold, crisis and issue management expert at The Fallston Group

“If there’s something on the horizon and you know about it and it’s going to have a big impact on the staff, what you want to do first of all is understand what the impact of a particular issue is and then get out as fast as possible. Don’t hide out behind the door. You have to get out and say, ‘Okay folks, here’s what’s going on, here’s what you need to know. I’ll answer as many questions as I can at the moment, but I’ll keep updating you as we go along.’ The sooner we communicate everything we know, the [more] the staff is going to feel that we’re paying attention and we’re trying to set up a good structure around something that is bound to be chaotic.” – Siobhan Reardon, president of The Free Library of Philadelphia.