Leading your Team and Communicating through a Crisis

Leading your Team and Communicating through a Crisis

Guest Bloggers | 15 April 2020

To help guide your organisation through the coronavirus pandemic and mass uncertainty that has accompanied it, Matthew Sherrington gives his ten point plan for leading your team and communicating through a crisis.

Everyone will have been dealing with complete upheaval for the last three weeks, re-organising teams to work from home. Some will be scaling up front-line operations rapidly in response to the coronavirus emergency. Some might be experienced in emergency response and have had protocols in place to trigger. Many will not.

Many organisations, conversely, will be dealing instead with crisis response, as massive funding shortfalls are projected, staff furloughed and volunteers kept at bay.

How do you lead people through such unprecedented turmoil? Hopefully, the below will help you reflect, offer reassurance about things you’ve already got on top of, offer things to think about, and thoughts on what still to expect.

1. Understand the phase you’re in. First comes the upheaval of immediate response. It can be chaotic. People feel lost, emotional, stressed, exhausted. You organise for frequent business updates and streamlined authority to set priorities. Decisions are fast and furious. There’s never enough information. This could last from days to weeks.

Second comes a phase of stabilizing. Your response plans are getting implemented and need close monitoring. Redeployment of people and resources is bedding in. It’s still completely different, still fast and furious, you have more of a grasp of things, but people are still feeling debilitated. This could last weeks to months.

Third comes recovery and renewal. You won’t know at the outset what this might look like, nor have time to think about it yet. But shocks to the system can and will change everything. People will see the necessity and inevitability of change, but emotions will range from demoralisation through anger and upset to hope and positivity for future opportunities. You might not get to this phase for months, and it could last years.

2. Organise your crisis/emergency management team. Have the necessary people in the room with clear responsibilities. You’ll need regular updates on programme delivery issues; external news and environment; funding and finance; staff & volunteers; stakeholders. Meet regularly – start daily, reduce frequency when it feels right. This will be for longer than you think. If you can, put in place a dedicated crisis team manager to run that process for you. You’ll all be busy.

Accelerate problem solving and decision-making among managers. Agree what needs sorting out and doing, task people to work out how with their teams. Trust your people, they will rise to it.

3. Keep talking to your people, you can’t communicate with them enough. Everyone will be anxious. They’ll know you don’t have all the answers, but that big decisions will be needed. Be honest about what you don’t know, what you can and can’t share. They’ll know you’re feeling it too. Trust them and let them support you.

Your internal communications is critical to holding your team together, and leading them through. Schedule regular team check-ins. Make sure you have a clear communications tree, so everyone who needs to know, gets the same message/instruction. Share promptly and regularly, as you know more, and as your message shifts.

4. Triage work priorities. Some activities will be cancelled, others immediately irrelevant. Be ruthless; stop them. You'll need to do more of others. Move people over to support these. You’ll need to be more directive than you’re used to. People will need and want that and respond ok. Work with your managers. Just keep talking, explaining as much as you can.

5. Talk to your stakeholders, while you plan the rest. Be clear on your key messages, and who is responsible for different stakeholders. Explain how you and the mission work are affected, that vital work continues, that their support is critical and needed more than ever. Tell them what you’re prioritising and doing. Let them know what they can expect from you, by when, and how to reach you if needed.

6. Take care of people, and yourself. Emotions will be high. That’s ok. Reassure people with what you know; acknowledge how people may be feeling, anxious at both home and work. Make space for mutual support. Share your own feelings, you’re human. You’ll be rewarded with understanding and support from your team.

Take care of yourself, and your peer leaders. You’re not super-human. Check in. Share how you’re feeling. Find a friend willing to listen. Accept all love and moral support you get. Get some air. Stop and rest when overwhelmed. Tell your team, it sets a good example that self-care matters.

7. Review and shift your story as things develop. As you move from crisis response, to stabilisation, to recovery; as your operational programmes scale up or down; as you have to adapt to new organisational realities and perhaps face budget cuts, update the story and messages you give to staff and stakeholders, to inform them, to focus them, to reassure them, and be honest with them.

8. Look and plan ahead. Financial reality and forecasts will force the biggest choices: on-going costs, liabilities, income, and reserves. Make sure you’ve got the most up-to-date information to hand. If cuts are needed you’ll need to cut harder than you think. Be bold in looking for savings; seek input and ideas from staff. Be bold cutting whole chunks of work; resist slicing off everything. You leave people stressed trying to do it all with less, and less well. It’s not sustainable, and you risk being back here again.
If you can, dedicate time or people to think ahead, to proactively plan to scenarios. This needs focus and a different mind space to those managing the reactive and operational response.

9. Keep your eyes on the prize. Your goal is to deliver your mission as best you can; organise, lead and sustain your people through this to emerge as strongly as possible. There will be tough choices, hard work, emotional toll and pain along the way. Also some opportunities, some surprises, some more efficient ways of working people like and want to keep. Keep talking, People will appreciate it and understand.

10. Be kind. Take care. Stay safe!

Matthew Sherrington is an independent communications and leadership consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington


See this page for all the latest information for fundraisers about the coronavirus outbreak from the Institute of Fundraising. It will be kept updated.


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