Senior leadership for crisis situations

8 Apr 20

Organisations across the public sector are currently engaged in a massive effort to maintain their functions and outputs as they respond to the COVID-19 challenge – and they can only do this with strong guidance from their senior leadership.

Key takeaways

  • Know where to ‘grip’ and where to be flexible
  • Amend your vision as necessary for the immediate and longer term
  • Make decisions about tactical prioritisation and resource management
  • Manage your information systems to keep an up-to-date picture


What should you focus on first and foremost?

The first priority must be the safety of staff and clients. Once you have established this, the next priority is securing the current operation. This means that you have to understand your financial situation and how it translates to deployable resources to maintain your outcomes. You must then put in place business continuity plans and ad hoc arrangements to maintain some level of operations.

In the 2008 recession, there was evidence that some corporate governance systems got in the way of speedy decision making and action. There is a balance here – you need to have ‘loose-tight’ systems that grip things that need to be held onto, no matter the situation, and allow more flexibility in other areas. The tricky bit is working out which things to hold fast.


Can you remain clear on your outcome purposes?

Your existing vision may be partially or completely out of date as a result of the changed situation. If it is outdated, it needs updating now – and all your people, staff and stakeholders, need to understand the change.

Look at the ‘business as usual’ vision and create a new version for the immediate future (up to a year). This needs to be realistic and clear on what you will look like in a year (or the other side of the immediate crisis), and what needs to be achieved sooner.

Once you have a vision, you must tirelessly promote it to your people. They must understand how essential it is to work together as a single body. At the same time, managers need to be given the maximum authority, within clear boundaries, to make local decisions (see below).

The rate of change may mean that the vision or outcomes will need to be adapted. Keep the situation under review and update the message as appropriate. Make sure people understand that things might change at short notice and that this is not a failure, but reflects the nature of the situation.

Can you strike the right balance between speed and control?

Empower your managers to make decisions about tactical prioritisation and resource management. Practically, this means things like setting clear boundaries and direction about the decisions that they must refer to their managers and ultimately to senior leadership. Resist micromanaging the situation.

There is a risk that individual managers can destabilise the whole entity if they exclusively focus on their own area. Despite the best of intentions, this can lead to competition for resources and building up local reserves that could be better used somewhere else.

For this reason, be clear that the aim is to optimise the effectiveness of the organisation as a whole, not its separate parts. Look at any systems that are preventing co-operation and cross communication, such as reporting requirements on managers, and remove them.


Can you be agile and learn to reconfigure?

Where operational effectiveness is about the immediate issues, this is about maintaining effectiveness for the future. There are two futures to consider:

  • the short term, to manage the entity through the current crisis
  • the long term, beyond the immediate situation.

In the short term, your main focus should be building up effective information systems so that you have an up to date picture. This is to enable entity-wide prioritisation and resource allocation/management decisions to be taken at the tempo required. Any imbalances need to be tackled and resources deployed to their most valuable use.

Strategies and structures may have to be rapidly reconfigured based on changes in the situation and new information from across the organisation. This may mean switching resources, including human resources, around in ways that will seem inefficient to some managers. What looks like downgrading performance of part of the system from a local perspective may be necessary to optimise the whole organisation. This is another reason that you need to have a clear message about how important it is to optimise the organisation’s effectiveness.

Longer term, you are unlikely to be able to return to all previous ‘business as usual’ practices. So you need a vision of the organisation once the immediate situation is resolved. It is essential to work on a vision that your whole organisation can relate to and that provides a picture of a brighter future, however uncertain things may seem at this point.


Questions for you
  • Have you reviewed your organisation’s vision and produced relevant communication for staff and stakeholders?
  • Have you reviewed accountabilities, decision rights and risk appetite statements?
  • Do you have effective ways of communicating your decisions to the right people in a timely manner and ensuring that appropriate action is taken?
  • Have you discussed what your operating environment is likely to look like and what your resource capacity and capabilities are likely to be?

Further information

Being a strong voice in uncertain times


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