How Leadership Works in a Crisis

How Leadership Works in a Crisis – interview with InterSearch Germany

What are the most important leadership skills in a crisis?

According to Karsten Wolff, Senior Client Partner at InterSearch Executive in Hamburg, the most important leadership skills are acting strategically, agilely and with foresight; being able to make important decisions despite not having all of the information and being able to convince and motivates others. Excellent leaders, he says, only need to adapt marginally in a crisis: “Because they ideally already possess all the skills necessary for crisis management.” Executive search consultant Wolff lists resilience, calmness and stress resistance as other crucial characteristics of excellent leaders. Managers can offer their employees important guidance in uncertain times and thus also lead efficiently in crises by modelling behavior.

The right communication in times of crisis

In an unprecedented situation, the right communication is the be all and end all. When employees are dissatisfied with their work environment, lack of communication is one of the problems most frequently cited. Therefore, it is essential that managers inform their employees about the status quo in a timely and frequent manner. The point is to communicate honestly and at eye level, and to also convey bad news when appropriate. “Well-informed employees are usually sympathetic to negative developments,” Wolff explains. The information should be tailored to the recipient, and either be relevant to their job or affect the entire company. If the team does not regularly meet in person due to home office arrangements, it makes sense to hold regular team meetings – weekly, for example – to bring everyone up to speed.

Setting an example of resilience, conveying security and motivating employees

International crises with uncertain future prospects can unsettle employees and negatively impact their motivation. According to Wolff, managers who demonstrate a “hands-on mentality” and sometimes step in on the production floor, can be very motivating for workers and other personnel. Wolff emphasizes the importance of managers’ role model status for their employees. They can utilize this to set an example of resilience and to give everyone a sense of security expressing empathy and proving their reliability. Wolff emphasizes, “You have to show that the company cares, which might be expressed in small gestures or individual support where necessary.”

Times of crisis demand extraordinary efforts – not just from managers. That is why it is crucial to acknowledge and reward employees’ extraordinary achievements. Wolff himself has had great experiences with awarding instant bonuses. “This could be a small vacation that the employee is particularly excited about. However, you have to know your employees well in order to identify just the right kind of bonus for them,” he explains. In general, companies benefit from self-confident employees who take on responsibility. For this to work, managers have trust their employees and let them take the lead. Wolff points out: “This also includes not micromanaging and not letting employees constantly “delegate back” decisions to their supervisors.”

How can managers be proactive about preparing for crises?

Managers need to take vacation time, too. This might sound obvious but, according to Wolff, is not enforced in many companies. Observing rest periods and vacation time is indispensable to be ready for action and able to work under pressure. This is just one way to proactively prepare for crises. If you want to be ready to act in an emergency, you have to take precautions during quiet times. For Wolff, there are a number of obvious measures that leaders need to take to be crisis-ready: “Managers must ensure the provision of a functioning technical infrastructure, such as hardware (e.g., laptops, servers, smart phones), software, backups, access authorizations and also data protection. Most importantly, they need to train their employees in how to handle them. According to Wolff, it is also particularly important to define who will act as emergency stand-ins for all stakeholders, which must include appropriate training for the stand-ins. He also advises drawing up an emergency plan that takes various crisis scenarios into account. “Such a plan could be devised cooperatively by people from different departments,” Wolff suggests.

Looking to the future: What managers should focus on now

Wolff sees retention management as one of the most important aspects of companies’ future HR strategy. “We currently have a candidate market. Highly qualified and adaptable employees may be the first to leave if they do not see any prospects in the company or feel like they are being treated poorly,” Wolff cautions. However, the right measures can create long-term loyalty among employees. Wolff counts greater flexibility regarding work hours as well as respectful and efficient communication at eye level among these. “Your company has to be able to convey “We need you!” – in one-on-one meetings, if necessary. Taking the time to address everyone individually can be extremely motivating,” says Wolff. Managers should also seize the opportunities for renewal that arise in unprecedented times and, above all, make important decisions in advance and not just when the next crisis is already around the corner.

Karsten Wolff is a Senior Client Partner at InterSearch Executive Consultants, based in Hamburg.

He serves medium-sized and internationally oriented companies with a consulting focus on mechanical and plant engineering and supports his clients in the targeted search for specialists and executives in almost all areas of the company. He attaches particular importance to the accuracy of fit of the personality traits of the candidates and regularly supports the search and selection process by using a diagnostic tool.

Karsten Wolff holds a degree in business administration. After completing his studies in business administration, he initially held management positions in sales and human resources at renowned, internationally active companies for many years.


crisis management, Executive Search, InterSearch, leadership

How Leadership Works in a Crisis

4 min

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