9 Ways To Manage A Crisis And Lead Change, From Former Air Force Secretary

Imagine being thrust into managing a crisis that put the “most catastrophic weapons in the U.S.” at risk three weeks in your new job in a new organization. No one knows you yet and this crisis is about as high profile as it gets. And, you’re the lone female leader in an overwhelmingly male organization. Every leadership skill you’ve ever used is suddenly on autopilot in that moment. That’s what Deborah Lee James faced in mid-January 2014 as the brand new Secretary of the U.S. Air Force.

Having barely mapped out her Plan A for her term as Secretary, it had to be scrapped, because young Air Force officers in charge of nuclear intercontinental missiles were found to have cheated on their proficiency exams, potentially putting millions of innocent lives at risk from those massively lethal weapons.

To manage this crisis, James used the leadership strategies she has honed over her 30+ year career in government, defense and business, including as a Senior Vice President of defense contractor SAIC before becoming Secretary.

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“Whether we’re working in industry or government or in the nonprofit sector, change is a constant,” James told me on my podcast recently. Here are 9 key leadership lesson from her for managing a crisis or leading change, especially as a woman in a male-dominated industry (many of which are outlined in her new book, “Aim High: Chart Your Course And Find Success”):

·      Keep your skills sharp: In a crisis, your training kicks in, so make sure to keep your skills sharp and keep learning. Even concerto pianists practice a lot. Your training will help you stay calm too, because it’ll increase your self-confidence.  James said the military’s emphasis on physical fitness helps military personnel stay calm and they are now adding techniques like meditation to too.

·      Have an initial vision of where your organization needs to go: This is not a set of tactics, but a vision for its direction based on your “background, competency and experience,” James said. This is especially important if you’re in a moment of crisis or change.

·      Investigate: To manage a crisis and/or lead change, James uses what she calls her five-point plan, starting with “investigate”: Get the facts, the data.  When she toured the nuclear facilities, for example, in addition to meeting with the top brass, James met privately with the facilities’ frontline staff, intentionally without their officers. That’s where she said she gained the most valuable, unvarnished information about policies that were contributing to the problem.

·      Communicate often and with context: The second step in her five-point plan is “communicate.” Within a matter of days of finding out about the nuclear facility crisis, James called a special press conference, against the judgment of most of her staff. She outlined their plans to address the crisis, including to immediately tour all the nuclear facilities, and when they would update the public next.

“Constant communication is essential when you’re going through change.”

·      See and talk about the opportunities: Especially when you’re leading in a crisis, James said it’s important to stay positive and focused on “the opportunities that lie on the other side,” to help people be inspired to follow you. James is enthusiastic about the military’s BLUF presentation approach – Bottom Line Up Front. That is, start with the key points to help the audience follow along, and repeat them to help them stick as you go through your business case.

·      Activate your plan: The third step in James’ approach is to “activate” your plan for addressing the crisis or driving the change, developed with your team. What are the tactical steps you and your team are going to take and how will you measure their effectiveness?  

·      Put people first: “The best leaders, particularly during periods of change, are people-first leaders…People are going to make it or break it for an organization,” James explained. “They can slow roll things, or they can facilitate things….So, thinking through how it’s going to impact people and trying to make it as easy on people as possible is also key.” And “You have to give people context. They have to understand … why me, as an individual, why am I important to this equation and how am I contributing to the whole.”

If you have to deal with difficult people, James suggests, “the first thing is, you have to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘Am I in some way contributing to this, and can I in some way do things differently to help solve it?’” Maybe there’s a better way to present information to them so ”they can best internalize it and accept it,” for example. Or, they might just be what James called a “jerk,” and in that case, try to understand the pressures they’re under and to support them. If need be, plan your route to a new role and think about something positive you gained from it. For example, “In a bad job, there’ll always be people that you remember fondly, or there might be a new skill you pick up,” she said.

·      Iterate: The fourth step in her five-point approach is to pivot as needed, “because no plan is perfect. You try things and sometimes they don’t work.” To do so, assess the marketplace, your adversaries, your vulnerabilities, and do so with your team, constantly thinking about your next move. “Life is not a game of checkers these days, it’s a game of chess and you have to be thinking three or four steps beyond where you are now if at all possible.”

·      Follow up: James’ fifth step in her approach is to follow up by measuring your results. This inevitably results in more tweaking, and more communicating, etc.

Always “play to your strengths,” James emphasizes, “that requires self-awareness on your part….And make sure people understand what those strengths are and what those strengths can do for the organization.” When faced with a tough choice, remember, she said, “Life is all about risks, and you should never just sort of turn your nose up at such a risk…Look at your financial requirements, look at your family situation, and to a degree, follow your own convictions, your heart, what you really desire to do with your life.”

There’s a lot more in the full interview with Secretary Deborah Lee James on my podcast, Green Connections Radio, here.

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