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Four key attributes business leaders need in order to emerge stronger from the impact of power outages

(Image credit: Future)

UK businesses are highly reliant upon the availability of continuous power. Very few can operate effectively in the event of an outage or blackout, as was seen during the power outages that occurred on 9th August 2019, which caused national widespread disruption.

Initial reports showed that two power generators lowering their power to the grid, combined with a lightning strike, triggered the grid self-protection mechanism that turned off power to certain customers. The National Grid was quick to label this a “rare and unusual” event and it is right to suggest a single lightning strike having such a damaging impact again is incredibly unlikely.

In this instance, the National Grid gave the all clear to the Distribution Network Operators within fifteen minutes and the most affected areas saw power restored within an hour. This is fast, but it still meant the cancelling of hundreds of trains, suspending hospital procedures and businesses suffering disruption and financial losses. Investigations are underway to prevent a reoccurrence of the event happening on a similar scale but, regrettably, further power outages are inevitable.

All businesses operate in a world of risks and some manage those risks better than others. An increasing number of businesses effectively manage the risks associated with power outages by using workplace facilities. According to our most recent annual Disaster Landscape invocation statistics, power outages were the most common reason for companies to use external workplace facilities, up 77 per cent from the previous year. However, many businesses do not have such arrangements in place, which means that instead of experiencing a small operational disruption as staff relocate to the recovery facility where they can carry on as normal, they are potentially facing a crisis.

A crisis can be defined as an inherently abnormal, unstable and complex situation that represents a threat to the strategic objectives, reputation or existence of the organisation. Business leaders within an organisation need to pull together towards a common goal if they are to have any chance of minimising the impact of a crisis. It is also pivotal to have a leader to fulfil the symbolic need for direction and guidance.

Crisis leadership 101

During a crisis, leaders need to be decisive despite being unsure of the accuracy of some of the information they are receiving. They will also be facing fear from staff, customers and, sometimes, pressure from the media for a statement, so empathy and communications skills are important. Good crisis leaders are also able to quickly accept that something has happened that requires their immediate attention and get a grip on the situation and stabilise things as quickly as possible, whilst presenting a calm, authoritative and determined exterior. This shows that they are in control of the situation and have the capability to fix the problem, helping to defuse tensions, inspire confidence, focus on what needs to be done and reassure stakeholders.

The crisis leader also needs to be able to rapidly build an effective team, accord and facilitate collaboration. That includes managing the various stakeholders involved and setting clear roles to ensure that they are helping not hindering how the organisation responds. 

What does a crisis leader look like?

Confidence – not everyone is born with innate confidence, so the key is to practice. Continued practice will help leaders develop the presence associated with leaders. This presence is particularly important when the media is snapping at the heels of a business for a statement. It’s important to show credibility and pragmatism.

Problem solving – a crisis leader must, as quickly as possible, accept the new reality within which they are working and communicate that reality to all those that need to know. Only then can they forge the organisational cooperation that will be needed to solve problems and move towards a positive outcome.

Interpersonal skills – emotional intelligence is a vital soft skill for a crisis leader. Whilst levels of emotional intelligence vary hugely between different people, as with confidence it can be developed. Leaders should be provided with executive coaching, should be encouraged to listen to feedback and should think about how others might be feeling in a certain situation. This includes the ability to communicate effectively.

But perhaps one of the most important and difficult skills to learn is the ability to be adaptable. Leaders must feel empowered to be able to change their minds and the direction they are taking as the situation and new facts come to light.

Stakeholder management – importance vs power/influence can be one of the biggest challenges to manage in a crisis. Different stakeholders will have varying views on the best course of action, so managing both their expectations and that which is best for the business as a whole can be tricky. It’s important as well not to leave people behind. For example, if you have staff at an office in another country, they need to be informed of what’s going on, so they understand their role, of how their fellow employees are being affected. This is where working with the various management teams across an organisation is important to make sure no one gets left behind.

No business is immune to the impacts of a power outage. While the impact of this most recent power outage ion August proved for many to be a huge disruption rather than a full blown crisis, all organisations are liable to taking a financial hit and research has shown that that they can have a detrimental impact on business leader well-being. However, the silver lining is that it represents an opportunity for good leaders to step up and prove themselves and steer their organisation through the uncertainty. In many cases, companies can even emerge stronger than before a disruption – or even a crisis - occurred.

Chris Huggett, Senior Vice President, EMEA & India, Sungard AS