Focus: People Management - Coaching session with Stephen Bubb

Q. I always seem to be managing a crisis. I'm worried that I often make bad decisions in the heat of the moment.

This is a not untypical plea from some of my chief executive members.

Crises really test our leadership because they require fast and effective decision-making. How do you make good decisions when it is hard to sort out what is important and what isn't?

First, be aware of the effects of stress. In a crisis you fear a disaster, want the crisis to be over and require a positive outcome. You feel the pressure to make a decision. Sometimes this is nothing more than being seen to "do something", and often this makes things worse. Avoid futile and harmful responses driven by stress.

Remember to sort out the facts. The leadership role here is to find out as quickly as possible what the real problem is. You will probably have a flurry of information, and much of it will be wrong. You will need to face this by asking the right people and listening to the most reliable of your staff.

In a crisis, you need information. I remember Christie Peacock, chief executive of Farm-Africa, telling Acevo members how one of her early problems in the job was simply not having the information that showed there was a problem. So you need to ensure that you have effective management and financial information systems in your organisation. The last thing you want is to think everything is hunky-dory when there is actually a crisis brewing.

Always keep focused. Crises come in all shapes and sizes. What some staff may see as a crisis will be a storm in a teacup, something they've all got hyper over. It is your job to focus on the priorities. This will involve assessing and responding to what can be controlled and not getting worried about what cannot. We all know the staff members who love to wind their boss up.

It's important to work together. In a leadership role you've got the power to draw people together. You may need to create a new team to tackle a crisis if the current people involved haven't been able to cope. Use your networks for help.

Do try to avoid blame. Sometimes crises will be caused by incompetent staff or volunteers. Pointing this out to them is, of course, momentarily satisfactory. Tackle underperformance and lack of delivery by all means, but you need to create an atmosphere in which people look forward to what needs to be done rather than one that encourages back-stabbing and finding fault. Kick an inanimate object instead.

Last, do what needs to get done. Rules, policies and procedures are created to maintain order and provide structure. Most rules were not created with a crisis in mind. Do whatever you need to do, don't worry about the rules and don't be anally retentive.

Stephen Bubb is chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo). Send your questions to

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