Crisis Leadership: Survive or Thrive? Why Not Both?

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The last few months, I have had a lot of folks ask me about what I learned about navigating through a crisis while at Chick-fil-A. I unpack a couple of these life and business altering experiences in my book, Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A, so it’s no surprise to get these questions. After having a large number of these conversations, I thought it might be useful to write down my observations and share them. So, here you go.

First, a summary of a couple milestone events we went through at Chick-fil-A.

1982 was only my second year with Truett Cathy and Chick-fil-A, but it was a doozy! The price of borrowed money got above 18%, and as a result the economy went into a tailspin. Chick-fil-A restaurants were totally mall-based, and as you might expect, mall development and mall retail sales took a nose-dive. And with it, Chick-fil-A’s sales took a severe dive as well…the first sales decline they had experienced since opening the first Chick-fil-A location in Atlanta’s Greenbrier Mall. As a result, CFA faced a major cash flow challenge. In addition, Truett had committed his personal assets as collateral for a loan to build their first office building. And if all this was not enough, yours truly helped orchestrate a national promotion that went $2 million over budget!

Not surprisingly, Truett came to our young executive team and asked what we were going to do about OUR cash flow problem. Our response was to get off-site for a few days to try to figure out what our options were. It was in the midst of this intense meeting that we got past just the typical business options to deal with our problem, and got to the root issue…why does Chick-fil-A even exist? What’s our business purpose? Because if we could not be clear about that, it would be harder to make difficult decisions and articulate the basis for those decisions to the Chick-fil-A family. At the end of almost three days of hard work and prayer, we walked out with a business response, but more importantly, we also left with a written purpose to provide clarity for the entire organization regarding why the business exists; and therefore, how we should ALL make decisions in this context. “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us, and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.”

The headline for the following year, 1983, is this…Chick-fil-A was blessed with a 36% sales increase, primarily from 29% existing store sales growth. Had the financial and mall development crisis turned around? Nope. But the Chick-fil-A family rallied around what was REALLY important and God favored their efforts. No other explanation.

2012 marked another unique and powerful challenge also covered in my book. Chick-fil-A experienced a social and traditional media firestorm around the topic of traditional vs. same-sex marriage. We were caught under-prepared. As we processed the uproar and our response options, ultimately it was the Chick-fil-A Corporate Purpose written in 1982 that helped us craft our response. We simply reiterated our legacy of honoring God by always treating everyone inside and outside of Chick-fil-A with honor, dignity and respect. Which meant we had and would always be committed to serving everyone with gracious hospitality.

Rest assured, we had other challenges from competitors, retail sales ups and downs, but the two experiences of 1982 and 2012 probably have had more lasting impact on the way Chick-fil-A, and myself, look at crisis leadership. Trust me, many of the lessons learned during these years are providing insight to the current generation of Chick-fil-A leaders as they navigate the COVID-19 crisis.

So with that brief historical context, let me share some of my key takeaways and potential applications for any leader trying to offer leadership during a crisis.

First, focus on purpose when facing a crisis. If you have a clear, written purpose, lean in to it. If it’s not clear enough to inform decision-making, clarify it. But once you have a clear purpose, use it to help process and filter the choices you make in responding to your crisis. Do those things necessary to survive, but do so in the context of why you exist and what’s truly important in your organization’s culture. As an example, at Chick-fil-A, decision-making gets a little easier when you hold options up against their three primary purpose litmus tests…will this action be consistent with honoring God, will it represent good stewardship (of people, money and brand reputation), and will it contribute to positively influencing and serving others?

Second big takeaway: let the crisis drive innovation. Your world and the marketplace have probably changed forever due to the crisis. How do you seize upon this reality to leap into new forms of more relevant products or services to create a fresh and even more distinctive niche in the market? I am convinced crisis is the ultimate laboratory for creativity. Why not leverage that by unleashing your people to serve customers in new ways on the backside of the crisis? Preempt your competitors. And do all of this in the context of your purpose and core values. Tactically, I strongly suggest cross-functional teams to be chartered for innovation projects, with a clear facilitator, and equipped with customer insights research/data to serve as the guiding light for development and testing.

Third, approach these two opportunities with an uncomplicated approach to planning and decision-making. A crisis provides ‘air cover’ to approach planning with a clean-sheet-of-paper attitude. Your organization has a finite supply of talent and money, particularly if cash flow is hampered because of the crisis. So, how do you maximize the allocation of people and money during planning to insure you are being the best stewards possible of both the challenges and the creative opportunities? Let me suggest three ways to answer that question:

  1. What do we want to EXPLOIT or ramp-up?  If you have identified potential game-changer customer-facing ideas, how do you aggressively invest in the development, research, testing and rollout of these new strategic initiatives? In other words, if the crisis helps you identify new ways to improve your position in the market, try to resource the top two or three initiatives that appear to offer the greatest marketplace impact, based on customer feedback.
  2. Then, what core competencies must you KEEP and ENHANCE? Those products, services, and infrastructure capabilities crucial to sustaining the enterprise (including being able to launch new offerings targeted above).
  3. And in order to accomplish the first two, what do you dramatically cutback or ELIMINATE? Customer insights will inform how the crisis may have reshaped customer needs and expectations. Eliminate those offerings and the infrastructure that support them to free-up talent and money to do #1 and #2.

Today, as we survey what is already occurring in the USA and the world as a result of the COVID-19 virus, innovation is springing up like new spring grass! Most leaders will figure out those things necessary to survive. But the wise and aggressive leaders will ALSO simultaneously innovate and exploit the opportunities to thrive in the future. Let me suggest in closing that the key word in that last sentence is ‘wise’. Wisdom is needed in days of crisis, both human and godly wisdom. As leaders we are not dealing with just balance sheets and cash flow, but people’s lives and their futures. So, I offer three final suggestions:

  1. My observation and personal experience is that in times of crisis response and planning, a small and nimble leadership team is ideal. Ten or less leaders. All key functional capabilities represented and empowered in their areas. Experienced and proven performers. No personal agendas; just the best interest of the entire organization, its purpose and brand reputation.
  • A group of men and women who have a proven background of wisdom, good judgment, sensitivity to customers and your total team. Ideally, folks who pursue wisdom and counsel on their own, all the time. Pursuing personal, professional and spiritual growth as a habit. Then, when these type of leaders come to a crisis situation, their ‘wagon’ is full…they bring real and balanced perspectives to the table.
  • Lastly, I would urge these leaders to ask God for wisdom. Regardless of each person’s faith walk, God invites us to ask Him for wisdom. The psalmist challenges us to ask for wisdom in our work…Psalms 90:17: “And let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yes, the work of our hands establish thou it.” Seek His wisdom and favor!

I hope these few thoughts might help you lead through crisis in such a way to move beyond survival, and to a new future of thriving.