Like many American’s I am pretty much obsessed with the confident television phenomenon that is Scandal’s Olivia Pope. As a communication’s professional, it’s hard for me to not want to be her. She’s confident, she’s smart, and she’s basically everything that you would want in a crisis management professional. So instead of ranting about how great the show is, I’ve opted for informing you on some of the things that I’ve learned from Scandal that directly translate to real-life communications situations.
- Never Tell a Lie
This is probably the most important one, especially for government employees. In government as well as the business world, it is vital that you maintain transparency with your public. The days where “no comment” would suffice are no longer here. “No comment” has warped from a way to avoid responding to a topic to a term that evokes wrongdoing and gives your public the impression that you are hiding something. So, don’t ever use that. Instead, stick with the truth. Don’t make anything up, don’t stretch the truth, simply state the facts that you do know. And if you don’t know how to answer a question, it’s perfectly OK to respond to someone by telling them that you will get back to them. But, let me emphasize that you MUST get back to them. You can’t leave them hanging.
- Always Have A Backup Plan
Another important thing that Olivia Pope does is that she develops multiple plans. It is vital for organizations to formulate crisis plans so that they are prepared to respond to just about any scenario that they may come across. If your organization does not already have a crisis plan in place, say something. Lead your organization in the development of a plan, the creation of a crisis team, and acquire or reach out to obtain the necessary resources that are necessary in implementing something of this magnitude. It is far easier to respond to a crisis when there are already steps outlined on how to respond. If you have no plan in place, you are relying on your reactions and emotions to formulate a plan at the last-minute, and this has the potential to add to the crisis rather than help to solve it.
- Confidence is Key
I feel like that phrase is strong enough to use on its own, however I will elaborate a bit so you see where I’m coming from. In a crisis scenario it is vital that you choose a confident spokesperson to respond to the community about what is not only happening, but also what is being done to solve the problem at hand. The spokesperson needs to not only believe what they are saying, but they need to be empathetic with their audience, letting them know that the situation is being handled and that there is nothing to worry about. Sometimes all it takes is a little confidence to reassure the public that they are in good hands. There’s nothing worse than having an unconfident spokesperson, as their lack in confidence in themselves translates to the community as untrustworthy and creates panic and worry in a crisis scenario. Both things that you do not want proliferate.
- No One Is Perfect
Always remember, no one is perfect. Not even Olivia Pope or Mary Poppins (who was only practically perfect). We all have our faults and we all make bad decisions every once in a while. It’s how you respond to these bad choices that makes you a good leader.
- Be a Gladiator
Finally, this is my favorite take-away from Scandal, “be a gladiator.” Get out there and be a leader. If you see something wrong within your organization or if you have an idea on how to improve something, be a gladiator and take the necessary steps to lead your organization down the right path.
Have you had a team member that was reluctant to move forward with a new program or plan? And it wasn’t the normal naysayer or the daily dissenter – it was your loyal, dedicated team member. Maybe it was even the one person on your staff who is always on board and supportive.
In the excitement of new initiatives, we can assume that the problem is with those who don’t share our enthusiasm. We can easily think, “What is wrong with him? Why isn’t she running with this? Why don’t they see the benefits?” We’re tempted to explain again all of the reasons why ours is such a phenomenal plan.
Even when we’ve done our due diligence, sometimes we still get ahead of ourselves or miss an important detail. A loyal supporter who is slow to embrace the change may have insight we need to hear. Yet many employees don’t feel comfortable disagreeing with their leaders. They may question their own hesitation, fear being wrong, and say nothing. But they just can’t seem to get on board.
Perhaps like some of you, I’ve occasionally focused more on convincing than listening. In one particular situation, one of my team members who was typically very supportive and positive, was hesitant about a contractor we had hired. I thought we needed the outside perspective and additional resources the contractor provided. Eventually my employee took over the project with much better results than we experienced with the contractor. I would have been wise to fully explore his hesitation much sooner.
If we are met with reluctance, what are some options for us as the leader of the team or organization?
We can remain confident that we are on track and move forward without complete buy in. An employee with less experience may not be able to conceptualize the end result. For some people, the pieces begin to fit together when the puzzle is partially completed. For others, change is difficult. Even positive changes require time for them to adjust. Pacing the implementation of the new initiative may be the solution.
Or we can probe a little deeper into the resistance. We can ask more questions with a genuine desire to understand, and a willingness to hear sincere objections. We will need to make it a safe conversation for the employee who doesn’t like disagreeing or fears disappointing us. We can assure the employee that we welcome input, and we will listen and carefully consider his or her opinions and objections.
One aspect of crisis prevention is to keep asking at every step along the way, “What could possibly go wrong? What are we missing? What could backfire?” Dreamers and visionaries often see only what could go right. That’s the wonderful balance of a diverse team! We need the idealist, the realist, the “jump in and get it done” people as well as the “let’s wait and evaluate” team members.
It can be a very wise investment to keep humbly asking the right questions to get to the source of reluctance. What we learn could be a gift that allows us to sidestep a land mine, readjust our timeline, or tweak the plan so we are on the very best path for success!
Executive Search Manager
The wind that famously sweeps down the plain can quickly become a violent vortex leveling everything in its path … homes, schools, entire communities. Oklahoma local government leaders are experts on storm recovery.
A couple of years ago when I was the Executive Director for the City Management Association of Oklahoma, I wanted to host an informational panel discussion at one of our quarterly meetings and invite managers who had been through the worst of the storms to participate. Other conferences focused on the administrative or technical aspects of storm recovery. I wanted to hear about the leadership skills that these managers drew on to restore the confidence of their community and heal its spirit after such devastation.
Our panel included managers who had been through severe weather events that left death and extreme destruction in their wake. This experienced panel had walked through the fire and some of their shoes were still charred when we met.
First we asked how they dealt with their own stress. One manager shared that he couldn’t always turn to his normal support system because his spouse and family were also experiencing the shock of what happened to the community. He received encouragement and support from the members of his Sunday school class. A young manager admitted that he would do some things differently – he worked too many hours, forgot to eat at times, and used alcohol for stress relief. He was honest in sharing that the ways he dealt with the tremendous pressures were not always healthy for him or his family.
We asked which leadership skill was most critical to them in the hours and days after the devastating destruction. Every manager on the panel agreed on the one leadership skill that helped him best serve his suffering city.
When I was attending college, one of my part-time jobs was working at a day care. (Stay with me, I promise this is relevant.) One afternoon while I was working, a little boy fell and hit his face. When I lifted him up, his lip was bleeding and I panicked. I grabbed him and ran through the day care calling for the manager. She calmly set him on a counter and asked to see his lip. Then she told him that it looked like the kind of injury that could be helped by a Popsicle. He stopped crying, took the cold treat, and went back to play. Then the day care manager said something I have never forgotten, “Claudia, they are looking to us to see how serious the situation is. When we stay calm, it helps them be confident that things are under control.”
Even in such critical circumstances, the same leadership skill helped these local government leaders reassure their battered communities. They shared that they always spoke calmly, and with confidence in their staff and their community. Every time they were asked to speak at a press conference, in an interview, in an internal or external meeting, they assured their hurting communities that they would recover.
Did they always “feel” calm? Were they always confident of the future? They admitted there were times they were frustrated, weary and overwhelmed. But they also instinctively knew one key leadership principle would have a positive and healing impact at the point of their city’s greatest need – when leaders express confidence, they instill it in others.
In every instance, the communities represented by these managers pulled together, rebuilt and recovered. Their cities are proof of the principle.
Executive Search Manager