How To Lead Through Crisis

There’s a passage in Ernest Hemingway’s 1925 novel, The Sun Also Rises, in which a character is asked how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” he answers. “Gradually, then suddenly.” The quote has since become emblematic of how a crisis takes shape. First with small signs you hardly notice and then with shocking impact.

That’s certainly how it felt to me in November, 2008, when I was leading a media company in Kyiv. By that time, the financial crisis was going full throttle, although things had been relatively calm in our market. Ukraine had been growing briskly in recent years and, while we expected a slowdown, we didn’t expect a crash.

Those illusions were soon shattered. Ad sales in Ukraine would eventually fall by a catastrophic 85%, while overall GDP would be down 14%. It was, to say the least, the worst business crisis I had ever encountered. In many ways, our business never really recovered, but the lessons I learned while managing through it will last a lifetime.

Build Trust Through Candor And Transparency

Our October revenues had come through fairly strong, so we were reasonably confident in our ability to weather the crisis. That all changed in November though, when ad sales, our primary source of revenue, dropped precipitously. By mid-November it had become clear that we were going to have to take drastic measures.

One of the first things that happens in a crisis is that the rumor mill goes into high gear. As if the real news isn’t bad enough, unimaginably crazy stories start getting passed around. To make matters worse, the facts were moving so fast that I didn’t have a clear picture of what the reality actually was, so couldn’t offer much in the way of consolation.

Yet what I could do was offer clarity and transparency. I called my senior team into an emergency meeting and told them, “This is bad. Really bad. And to be honest I’m not sure where we stand right now. One thing that I can assure you all of though is this: Like everything else, eventually this crisis will end and, when it does, you are going to want to look back at how you acted and you are going to want to be proud.”

A good number of those in the room that day have since told me how much that meeting meant to them. I wasn’t able to offer much in substance, or even any condolence for that matter. What I was able to do was establish a standard of candor and transparency which made trust possible. That became an essential asset moving forward.

Create An Imperfect Plan

Creating an atmosphere of transparency and trust is essential, but you also have to move quickly to action. In our case, that meant restructuring the entire company over the next 36 hours in order to bring our costs somewhat back in line with revenues. We weren’t even close to having a plan for the long-term, this was about survival.

We still, however, wanted to limit the damage. Although we were eliminating some businesses entirely, we recognized that some of our best talent worked in those businesses. So to lay people off indiscriminately would be a mistake. We wanted to keep our top performers and place them where they could have the most impact.

Over the next day and a half, we had a seemingly never-ending and excruciating series of meetings in which we decided who would stay and who would go, where we could increase efficiency by combining functions and leveraging our scale. Our goal was to do more than just survive, but to position ourselves to be more competitive in the future.

The plan we created in that short period of time was by no means perfect. I had to make decisions based on poor information in a very compressed time frame. Certainly mistakes were made. But within 36 hours we had a plan to move forward and a committed team that, in many ways, welcomed the distraction of focusing on the task in front of them.

Look For Dead Sea Markets

In their 2005 book, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne popularized the notion of a Blue Ocean Strategy, which focuses on new markets, rather than fighting it out in a “red ocean” filled with rabid competition. As MIT Professor David Robertson has described, however, sometimes markets are neither a red or blue ocean, but more like a dead sea, which kills off existing life but provides a new ecosystem in which different organisms can thrive.

He gave the example of LEGO’s Discovery Centers, which has capitalized on the abrupt shift in the economics of mall space. A typical location is set up in an empty department store and features miniature versions of some of the same attractions that can be found at the Toy giant’s amusement parks. The strategy leverages the fact that many mall owners are in dire need to fill the space.

We found something similar during the Ukraine economic collapse of 2009. Because the country was a major outsourcing center for web developers, demand for those with technical talent actually increased. Many of our weaker competitors were unable to retain their staff, which gave us an opportunity to launch several niche digital brands even while we were cutting back in other parts of our business.

Every crisis changes economic relationships and throws pricing out of whack. In some cases that turns cheap commodities, such as Lysol and hand sanitizer amid a Coronavirus pandemic, into highly demanded products. In other cases, however, it makes both assets and market share surprisingly affordable. That can create great opportunities.

Prepare For The Next Crisis

By the fall of 2009, our company was financially stable and things were returning to some form of normalcy. We had a strong management team, a portfolio of leading products and our survival was no longer seriously in question. However, I was exhausted and decided to leave to pursue other opportunities.

The founder, who had started the company almost 15 years before, was as exhausted as me and was ready to sell the company. Given our highly political sensitive portfolio of news brands, I urged him to seek a deal with a multinational firm. However, for various reasons, he decided to go with a local group led by Petro Poroshenko and Boris Lozhkin.

In my book Cascades, I describe what happens next. Due to the hard-hitting coverage of our news journalists, the company came under pressure from the oppressive Yanukovych regime. In 2013, the new owners were forced to sell the company to an ally of the Ukrainian President. A few months later, the Euromaidan protests broke out and Yanukovych was unanimously impeached. Later, Poroshenko was elected President and named Lozhkin as his Chief of Staff.

I still keep in touch with a core group of my former colleagues. Many have started families or new businesses. Quite a few have moved to different countries. Yet we all share the bond of working through the crucible of crisis together, some pride in what we achieved and the satisfaction that, when it was called for, we gave it our honest best.

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Greg Satell

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