Turn Panic into Purpose—Lead Through COVID-19 with Confidence


My email and phone are burning with questions and concerns from leaders facing the tough decisions that COVID-19 is forcing upon us. Choices that plunge a budget deep into the red and threaten member engagement are gut-wrenching, but the difficult decisions are easier when you have expert advice.

We looked to our colleagues Adele Cehrs, author and CEO, When + How Agency, and her partner Chip Massey, former FBI hostage negotiator and special agent, for advice. Adele and Chip are seasoned crisis managers who have a long history of successfully navigating disruption. I’ve summarized some of their strategies for changing panic into purpose and keeping staff, volunteers and members calm. Access the webinar they recently presented for .orgCommunity at this link.

Be a Mirror

Begin with yourself. If you are calm, the people around you are less likely to panic. Find your inner strength and put it to the test. Say no to the lizard brain’s scatter-shot instincts for survival and bring clarity and logic to the fore.

Identify the Right People

Form a crisis management team. This is not the time for group decision-making. The people you select need not be the leaders you would typically involve due to their position in the organization. Pick no more than five people who give head and heart equal time, and who can be objective. The team needs to act decisively. You might include your meeting planner, your chief communications and financial officers and other problem-solvers who mirror composure. Put your attorney on standby.

Recruit Champions

Identify eight to ten advocates who will support your decisions and initiatives. These cheerleaders should be ready to wave the pom-poms in both personal interactions and in public venues such as meetings, conference calls or on social media. Enthusiasm is contagious. Others are more likely to come on board when their colleagues set the example.

Over Communicate

Silence is not an option. It will only foster confusion and panic. Even if questions are flying and there are still no answers, keep the lines of communication open. Explain that you are working on solutions. When you are ready to provide specific information such as a timeline and a game plan, make sure that you can deliver. Your brand is in the spotlight; it must be a star.

Corral the Questions

Direct questions to one place.

Direct all questions to one place. This is not a time for fuzzy communication—words matter. You and your team should begin crafting the messaging on crisis Day One. In a perfect world, you might have already been planning how to address some of the issues. The messaging must be clear, concise and consistent. Shoot for a response within one hour.

Use Your Website

Create a crisis page on your website and keep it updated with information that is both transparent and helpful. Don’t try to sugarcoat. Aim for accuracy.

Be an Empath

This is huge. Nobody in the orbit of COVID-19 and its attendant disruption, especially the staff on the front line of managing a canceled meeting, can escape stress. Empathy diffuses volatile emotions. These strategies demonstrate that you understand the issues your staff and your constituents are facing and that you care about their well-being.

Get off the Island

Don’t isolate yourself from your team. Whether you are working virtually or in person, make time to directly connect with as many people as you can. Listen to their challenges and do your best to find resolutions. During a crisis, the person at the top provides the positive attitude and reinforcement needed to keep everyone on track despite challenges.

Forget the Golden Rule

Treating a colleague the way you would like to be treated yourself won’t be effective. We all see the world through different eyes. Being an empath means that you become the “other”—you can hear someone else’s soundtrack. By asking probing questions, you’ll uncover real concerns. Then you will see a change in attitude and a more positive approach to you and to the conversation.

Tame the Tiger

Ask people about their biggest fears. Address the issue head-on. Do not evade or redirect that will create anger and resentment. Everyone wants to be heard. Keep a list of the most significant concerns and use it to make communications relevant. If you’re on a phone call, ask someone else to participate to ensure that you understood the nuances of the conversation.

Take Responsibility

Don’t be afraid to apologize. Assuming responsibility or sharing someone else’s pain is the highest form of empathy.

Individualize Customer Service

Individualize customer care.

Every organization has a member who thinks the beach is too sandy. Whether they are credible or not these complainers are also influencers. Don’t be afraid to put on the kid gloves. All talk is good talk. When people vent, they are on their way to becoming calm. Listen with compassion and you may be able to turn those strident voices into your best spokespeople. Keep this piece of association wisdom top of mind—the relationships you have with members are all about them, not you.

Consider the Future

An annual meeting is the entire staff’s big opportunity to showcase their accomplishments. If the event has been canceled, it’s critical to find ways to compensate for that loss. Throughout the coming months highlight your successes in all communications channels. Even though everyone acknowledges the reality of a public health emergency, unless you strengthen your relationship with sponsors, vendors and speakers, there will be an uphill battle next year. Create the right narrative and keep the positive communication flowing. Be honest and transparent in all messaging.

Assume Authority

A crisis is not business as usual. Don’t fall into the habit of association groupthink and paralyze your ability to move forward. For CEOs this is a once-in-a-career opportunity to demonstrate that you can lead your organization through an unprecedented challenge with courage and confidence.

Find more resources for managing through COVID-19 here. Contact .orgSource directly if you have questions or would like to discuss your specific situation. We are prepared to support you with strategy solutions, vendor selection, management, communications, project management and digital transformation.

Learn more about Adele and her professional journey in our new book Association 4.0: An entrepreneurial Approach to Risk, Courage, and Transformation.

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